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8.571220 - STRAUSS, R.: Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten / Serenade / Symphonic Fragment from Josephs Legende (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
In his later years, Richard Strauss decided to do some creative housekeeping. To be sure, the elder statesman of the Romantic Age had no doubt that his brazen tone poems and lusty operas would remain in the repertoire. But he was concerned that a few of his favourite scores had been eclipsed by the popularity of his signature works such as Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel and Der Rosenkavalier. So in 1946 and 1947, the composer set out to give renewed life to a small handful of his lesser-known scores such as the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) and his ballet score Josephs-Legende (Legend of Joseph). In each case Strauss reverted to his mastery of the orchestral tone poem and created a symphonic memoir of the works, preserving the storyline and tuneful highlights in each case.
With regard to the original score of Die Frau ohne Schatten, one can hardly imagine how difficult it must have been, in 1919, to produce a new opera in Vienna in the aftermath of WWI, ‘the Great War’. Nevertheless, the German-speaking world was keen to welcome any diversion from the angst of the present, especially from a composer such as Richard Strauss, whose Der Rosenkavalier of just eight years before was now a sensation. The new offering from Strauss, however, was cut from a different cloth. While Der Rosenkavalier was light and urbane, based on an every-day, amorous digression, Die Frau ohne Schatten was a deep morality play with scenarios worthy of Wagner.
Set in three acts in a time long past, the libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal tells of a mythological Empress on a tropical island who is unable to bear the Emperor an heir. Moreover, the Empress is humiliated because her figure casts no shadow (it was believed that a woman’s shadow was the mark of fertility). But the servant Nurse (a sorceress) knows how to barter with the gods and purchase fertility from a common woman. If the latter is willing to sacrifice her own future motherhood, she will be rewarded by a lifetime of earthly comfort and wealth. The tall request is offered to the bored and nagging wife of Barak, a town worker who adores his wife, but who constantly indulges her complaints about their ordinary life. But when the offer is made to Barak’s wife, all kinds of strange events begin, with depictions of unborn children singing from the flames of the hearth, the fateful designs of a mystic Falcon, the warnings of a lost Talisman and a phantom lover. As for the Emperor, he begins to transform into stone, a symbol of his unfruitful heritage.
Finally, at the dénouement, the Empress herself must decide whether to win supernatural happiness at the expense of a common man and woman. But as a true heroine, she declines the offer. Suddenly, a bright light radiates from the firmament and reveals a vibrant shadow behind her figure—it had been a test from the Supernal Realms. The curtain closes as we hear the happy voices of children to be, from the Emperor and Empress, and from the good Barak and his now-contented wife.
In order to portray the characters of Die Frau ohne Schatten and their evolving sentiments, Strauss follows Wagner’s lead of crafting variable leitmotifs along the way. Included among the many highlights in the Symphonic Fantasy is the well-known orchestral Interlude from Act II, in which the Emperor’s poignant mood is rendered by a solo cello over plaintive, intriguing harmonies.
In 1947, barely a year after setting his ‘Shadow Fantasy’, Strauss took up his pen once again and produced another tonal-poetic summary, Symphonic Fragment from the Ballet Josephs-Legende. Originally completed in 1914 to fill a commission for the Ballets Russes under Sergey Dyagilev, who had earlier commissioned Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petrouchka and Rite of Spring, Strauss’s Josephs-Legende is a one-act ballet based on a libretto by Count Harry Kessler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Derived from the biblical accounts in the Old Testament of the Egyptian episode in the House of Potiphar (Genesis 37 and 39), the ballet-drama is set in Venice in about 1530 during the time of Paolo Veronese. (The painter’s lavish canvases of allegorical and biblical themes had great appeal to Strauss, whose own command of the ‘orchestral oils’ was unsurpassed.)
The storyline of Strauss’s ballet portrays Joseph as a simple and virtuous shepherd who rejects the seductive advances of Potiphar’s wife. But when Joseph declines, Potiphar’s wife becomes vengeful and has him chained and sentenced to death. Just in time, an Archangel appears, as Potiphar’s wife hangs herself with her own jewels and Joseph rises to a firmament of light and justice.
Strauss’s evocative pen paints a variety of alluring stage scenes and dances, including the grandeur of a pillared hall in Palladian style at the opening. In turn follow dances of slaves bearing jewels and carpets, and several character settings, including the seductive Sulamith’s dance, a Boxer’s round dance and emotive scenes of Joseph’s innocence, Potiphar’s seduction, the Archangel breaking Joseph’s chains, the death of Potiphar and the final apotheosis of Joseph and the Archangel.
The full ballet is just over an hour in length, which Strauss distilled down to about a third for his Symphonic Fragment. With meticulous care, the composer provides several direct quotations from the original, including the opening and closing sections, but has also rephrased and rescored many of the orchestral highlights along the way. Everywhere apparent is Strauss’s gift for soaring themes and splendid orchestral effects.
Richard Strauss wrote his Serenade in E flat for 13 Wind Instruments, Op 7, either in 1881 or 1882. In the latter year, having left school, he had enrolled at Munich University, attending lectures, at his father’s behest, in philosophy, aesthetics and literature, but generally preferring to follow his own interests, reading widely. Through his father, a distinguished horn player, he already had some understanding of writing for wind instruments. The Serenade is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns in E flat, horns in B flat and bassoons, with either double bassoon, nowadays the usual choice, or bass tuba. The score includes, in the last two bars, a note for an otherwise silent double bass, a seemingly youthful extravagance, generally to be omitted in performance. A sonata-form movement, the Serenade entrusts the first subject initially to an oboe, while a clarinet introduces the second subject, with a short rising motif that has a significant part to play in what follows. There is a relatively brief development section before the return of the original thematic material in recapitulation.
The Serenade was first performed in Dresden by the Dresden Tonkünstlerverein, conducted by the Wagnerian Franz Wüllner. It seems to have been variously repeated in the following months, and in 1883 drew the attention of the composer, pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, whose practical support for Strauss was to prove of some importance in the earlier years of the latter’s career, leading to the commission of a Suite, scored for the same wind ensemble, and Strauss’s appointment as assistant conductor in Meiningen in 1885.
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