The first ever performance took place on New Year’s Eve 1939, raising money for the Winterhilfswerk, an annual fundraising drive masterminded by the National Socialist Party to buy fuel for the needy in the coldest months of the year.
When the Strausses were alive, the Vienna Philharmonic was a little sniffy about their music. Why would such an advanced and adventurous orchestra want to play popular tunes?
They started taking it more seriously in the late 1920s – but the idea of a seasonal Strauss gala really gained traction when the Nazi party’s cultural commissars hit upon the idea of a unifying event that could be broadcast live across the Third Reich. The concert moved to New Year’s Day in 1941.
As it became obvious the war was not going to be over quickly, the Blue Danube Waltz and Fledermaus overture were seen as a helpful way of shoring up flagging morale.
When it emerged that Strauss had some Jewish ancestry, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself ensured the news was hushed up.
When the war ended, not a beat was missed – the concerts simply continued, their awkward history quietly forgotten.
Great! It’s a wonderful tradition, despite its origins; why should they cease doing it? 🙂