I have always been a great fan of ‘The Radetzky March’ but it is only now after reading a biography of the Marshal Joseph Radetzky that I can actually appreciate the full sense of what makes that piece so moving. Indeed, I believe I may have gained some sense of people listening to it for the first time would have thought.
For, what is this march? We are speaking of a celebratory march, much unlike most popular marches, and one to a far happier tune.
This was the situation: Just recently, in March 1848 the commander of the Italian armies of the Austrian Empire, Joseph Radetzky, had been forced to move out of the capital of Lombardy in Milan towards a series of forts. This was partly due to the general being outnumbered around four times by the incoming Piedmontese troops and also the general restless and hostile population of the city that numbered around 170,000 (to Radetzky’s 15,000). This retreat, however, was a potential disaster for the court in Vienna which if it lost the Italian territories, as now seemed inevitable, could face insurrections everywhere and quite probably a war on a number of fronts against revolutionary forces.
The soon-to-be-Marshal, however, regrouped at the forts he had moved to, the main one of which was Verona, and then attacked the oncoming Piedmontese troops who were led by their King Charles August. His troops were defeated decisively at Custoza in the end of July, and Radetzky moved back into Milan where he could consider to have concluded his campaign not a very long time after it started.
As a summary, the quick and decisive action by Joseph Radetzky quite probably saved Vienna and the Monarchy from great trouble and reinforced Austrian nationalism and army morale.
Johann Strauss (the Father) was the composer whose task it was to commemorate this event with a march, and I can quite imagine that the people who heard it first were entirely taken away by how in-theme this celebratory tone was to the events of the month, how apt the tone that describes the movements of the army under their octogenarian general, and how much Vienna itself owed to the good man for what position it was to retain for a while longer.
So, here I’ve attached firstly a quick paragraph from the book by Alan Sked which mentioned the march and also a version of the march from the well-deserved position of the last item to be played on Neujahrskonzert.
“It was on a splendid evening in August 1848 at a concert at the Wasserglacis in Vienna that Johann Strauss the elder concluded his Radetzky March for the very first time. There was a storm of celebration. The march was demanded time and time again and soon, in one historian’s singularly apt phrase, it became ‘a national anthem without words’.”