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8.572041 - STRAUSS, R.: Rosenkavalier (Der) Suite / Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten / Symphonic Fragment from Josephs Legende (Falletta)
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
No doubt about it, Richard Strauss enjoyed a long and charmed creative life. His first major work was Don Juan, scored in 1888 at the age of 24, a racy orchestral tone poem without peer (the first of many to come). At the far opposite end of his catalogue are the perpetual lilies of the Four Last Songs, an exquisite cycle that Strauss composed as his farewell in 1948–49. But from within those brackets we find a wealth of Romantic passion, including the famous symphonic poems which alternate between dark philosophy and comic relief, and some very heavy-duty operas such as Salome of 1905 and Elektra of 1908. Then, in 1910, for a lighter change of pace, the composer completed what he called ‘a comedy for music’, the touching and ever-charming Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose).
Based on a three-act libretto by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the opera is set in eighteenth-century Vienna during the time of Empress Maria Theresa, but the music of Der Rosenkavalier was inspired by the gaiety and grace of the Viennese waltz, a form which did not evolve until well over a hundred years after her illustrious court. No matter—we are out to have fun. Moreover, this is grand opera, which means that anything can happen and usually does, like the fact that both the male and female leading rôles are played by sopranos.
As the work evolved, a fascinating correspondence developed between the collaborators in the early months of 1909, including a letter from Hofmannsthal to the composer on 11 February: “I have spent three quiet afternoons here in making out a complete, quite fresh scenario for a Spieloper, gay, almost pantomimically transparent in its action, giving occasion for lyricism, jokes, humour, even a little ballet with two large rôles for a baritone and a graceful girl dressed as a man.”
On 12 May, Hofmannsthal added: “Your fear that the work might be too subtle does not cause me any anxiety. The course of the action is simple, and intelligible by even the naïvest audience: a fat, ageing and arrogant suitor (for Sophie, rival to the Marschallin), favoured by her father, is given his come-uppance by a young and handsome fellow (Octavian, the Rosenkavalier) who is played by a woman.”
A crisis develops when the Marschallin, who is now in her mature years, realizes that she must give up her young lover to a girl of his own generation. As for the cast, Strauss had very clear ideas, noted in his later memoirs titled Recollections and Reflections: “The Marschallin must be a young and beautiful woman of about thirty-two, who, when she is in a bad mood, occasionally feels ancient compared to her paramour, the seventeen-year old Octavian. Of course, Octavian is neither the first nor the last lover of the beautiful Marschallin, and she is not to play the end of the first act in a sentimental fashion, as a tragic farewell to life, but all the time with Viennese grace and lightness, half weeping, half smiling.”
After the opera’s enormous success, Strauss extracted some of the great tunes into an orchestral suite, from which followed a variety of derivations by various arrangers and conductors. All of the renditions are centered around the florid waltzes of Der Rosenkavalier. (By the way, Richard Strauss and the Waltz King, Johann Strauss, Jr., were not related.) And in every setting, the music resounds with lusty tunes, swaggering rhythms, gorgeous harmonies and a scintillating orchestration, all in tribute to the great Viennese tradition. Wunderbar…!
Well into his golden 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 The Woman without a Shadow, 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 prior 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, and their evolving sentiments, of Die Frau ohne Schatten, 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: Legend of Joseph. 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 The Legend of Joseph 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.
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