At the end of the First World War, Arnold Schoenberg founded the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances) with the intention of giving quality performances of modern works for an interested audience. The press was not allowed entrance, and members paid only what they could afford. Programs for individual performances were not announced ahead of time. The depressed, post-war economy made large-scale concerts impossible, so orchestral works were transcribed for piano or chamber ensemble. The Society existed from February 1919 to December 1921, during which time 154 works were performed in 117 concerts.
In May, 1921, Schoenberg asked Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton Webern (1882-1945) to make arrangements of Strauss waltzes for one of the Society's concerts. These were scored for string quartet, piano, and harmonium, similar to the small salon ensembles that played reductions of the waltzes during Strauss' lifetime. For the same concert Schoenberg arranged Strauss' Rosen aus dem Süden, Op. 388. Schoenberg's transcription of the "Kaiser-Walzer" is from 1925, and the harmonium is replaced by a flute and clarinet.
The music of Johann Strauss and that of the Second Viennese School seem to make strange bedfellows, but it is important to remember that Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were Viennese. Schoenberg made clear on numerous occasions that he genuinely admired Strauss' music, and once wrote that Strauss' feelings "actually coincide with those of the 'average man on the street.'" In a letter to Berg, Schoenberg declared, "Strauss, now there is a great master."
No doubt Schoenberg was attracted to Strauss' "Kaiser-Walzer," Op. 437, because of its combination of accessible melody and structural complexity. In the "Kaiser-Walzer," Strauss was thinking as much in terms of the concert hall as the dance hall. The work was published in Berlin in 1889 and soon became a staple work of popular music in Vienna and elsewhere.
Despite the small number of instruments, Schoenberg's timbral palette is just as colorful, if not more so, than Strauss' original. Schoenberg conveys the showy atmosphere of imperial Vienna and the martial air surrounding Kaiser Franz Joseph without the help of brass by making the most of the March characteristics of the section. The piano seems the obvious instrument to mark the plodding pulse at the beginning, and this is exactly what Schoenberg does, but a few measures later, other instruments take over and the piano part includes entire melodies and embellishments. For the first waltz pair, Schoenberg maintains the basic orchestration of the original, assigning the first melody to the violins and violas in their low register, the second to the violins in a more typical, higher range. Strauss' trumpet fanfare bridging the second and third waltzes becomes the property of the piano and flute in Schoenberg's setting, while the third waltz is colorfully re-orchestrated: the first melody of the pair is given to the violin the first time around (as in the original) but the flute on the repeat, and the second melody, originally for brass, appears in the high strings and winds. The strings are again replaced by the flute in the fourth waltz, while the first part of the fifth waltz and its repeat are shared among the violin and flute, as in the third waltz. Although the winds sound the pulse at the beginning of the coda in Strauss' setting, Schoenberg chose to give this to the violins--an effective, though not obvious, choice. Schoenberg maintains Strauss' patterns of repetition throughout the piece.