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8.220358 - STRAUSS, R.: Symphony No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 12

Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Symphony in F Minor, Op. 12


Richard Strauss (1864–1949), the son of a distinguished horn-player, and a precocious composer as a child, was to become the leading successor to Liszt and Wagner in the Neo-german School of composition, with his symphonic poems, and from the early years of the present century a composer of operas that believe his own self-judgement, when in 1947 he modestly declared himself a first-class second-rate composer.

As an adolescent Strauss favoured, under his father’s encouragement, a more strictly classical approach to music. His father, indeed, was a musician strongly opposed to Wagner both as a man and as a composer. At the age of seventeen, however, Strauss was able to study a score of Tristan und Isolde, a revelation to him, Wagnerian influence extending into his own work through his friendship with Alexander Ritter, a musician in the Meiningen Court Orchestra, and more fully with his work as a repetiteur at Bayreuth in 1889.

As a schoolboy at the Ludwigsgymnasium in Munich, Strauss played the violin in his father’s orchestra, the Wilde Gung’l, a semi-professional group that performed his Festmarsch in 1881, a year in which the leader of the court orchestra Benno Walter played his String Quartet in A and Hermann Levi conducted the young composer’s Symphony in D minor.

These 1881 performances were at home, in Munich, where his father’s position might secure him a favourable hearing. The following year, however, brought a performance in Vienna of Strauss’s Violin Concerto played by Benno Walter, his father’s cousin, accompanied by the composer. The same year the Dresden Court Orchestra performed the Serenade in Berlin, von Bülow commissioning a similar work for his own orchestra, the Suite in B flat for 13 wind instruments.

The connection with Hans von Bülow was to prove fruitful in other ways. Married to Cosima, Liszt’s illegitimate daughter, before her elopement with Wagner, von Bülow had been a pupil of Schumann’s teacher and father-in-law Friedrich Wieck in Leipzig, and had later studied with Liszt in Weimar, coupling virtuoso ability as a pianist with his advocacy, as a conductor, of the music of future of Liszt and Wagner, and of the music of the young Brahms, who later assumed importance in his gallery of heroes. In 1880 von Bülow had been appointed conductor of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, and had made of it one of the most effective orchestras in Germany. In 1885 Strauss became Assistant Conductor, under von Bülow, whom he succeeded in October of the same year, remaining in Meiningen until April 1886.

The Symphony in F minor, Opus 12, was the ambitious conception of the later months of 1883, when Richard Strauss was in Berlin, hoping to impress more experienced musicians by his work, and to provide a more satisfactory and substantial work than his earlier, D minor Symphony. On 25 January he announced the completion of the new symphony, which was to receive its first performance in December 1884 by the New York Philharmonic Society Orchestra under Theodor Thomas.

The first performance in Germany of the new symphony took place early in 1885 in Cologne under Franz Wüllner, formerly principal Kapellmeister of the Munich Court Opera, recently appointed director of the Conservatory in Cologne. Strauss, attending the rehearsal, was impressed by his own achievement, the difficulty of the work, and its originality. “Papa wird Augen machen”, he wrote, “wie modern die Sinfonie klingt”. The work was played under the composer’s direction at his first concert with the Meiningen Orchestra in September 1885, an occasion on which Strauss performed Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto.

Brahms, whose Fourth Symphony was to be played by the orchestra at a concert ten days later, was present at the performance, and expressed modified approval—“ganz hübsch, junger Mann”, was his comment, adding that the work was too full of thematic irrelevances, there being no point in piling up themes that are only rhythmically contrasted on a single triad. It was, incidentally, as a direct result of Brahms’ tactlessness in anticipating the planned Frankfurt performance of his Fourth Symphony that Hans bon Bülow resigned from Meiningen in the following month.

The first movement of the Symphony in F minor is in the traditional first movement form, its thematic material less contrasted in treatment than might have been expected, although it is possible to understand the judgement Hans von Bülow, who proclaimed Richard Strauss the most striking personality since Brahms.

The Scherzo offers necessary lightness of touch, its Trio bringing an unexpected anticipation of the return of the first section. This is followed by the last of the movements to be completed, the Andante cantabile, with its passing reference to the first movement, music deeply felt.

The Finale brings references to what has gone before in a movement that is in many ways more derivative in technique and mood than the others, suggesting the influence of earlier models that the composer might well have had before him. It concludes a work that impressed contemporary critics and caused Strauss himself to remark that the whole symphony “klingt colossal”, an accurate comment on its attempted scale.

Keith Anderson

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