Two years before his death in 1949, RICHARD STRAUSS said of himself, “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer!” It’s a nice quote, but maybe not quite a fair assessment. It might be more fair to say that he was “first-class second-rate” before 1889, when he finished the tone poem Don Juan, and began to find a way truly his own; after that, he wrote a great deal of extraordinary music.
The two piano pieces for today, Festmarsch and Ständchen, were written in 1884 and 1881, respectively, and no matter whether one considers Strauss himself to have been a first- or second-rate composer, these works must be considered second-rate Strauss. Nonetheless, they are extraordinarily emblematic of the hausmusik sources of Viennese chamber music. Richard Strauss was raised in a musically ambitious but very conservative manner, and these pieces, which he wrote in his late teens, have as much to do with Mendelssohn as with Strauss’s own official works list (in which these are not included). They belong squarely in the reigning style which he, like Berg, Schoenberg, Mahler, and others, would stretch to breaking and further as Viennese musical composition burst into the 20th century.