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8.550250 - STRAUSS, R.: Don Juan / Till Eulenspiegel / Death and Transfiguration

Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949)

Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung) Opus 24
Tone-poem for large orchestra (Tondichtung für grosses Orchester)
Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks Opus 28 (Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche)
Don Juan Opus 20

The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss represents a remarkable extension of the work of Liszt and Wagner in the symphonic poems of his early career and in his operas shows an equally remarkable use of late romantic orchestral idiom often within an almost Mozartian framework. Born in Munich, the son of a distinguished horn-player and his second wife, a member of a rich brewing family, he had a sound general education at the Ludwigsgymnasium in Munich, while undertaking musical studies under teachers of some distinction. Before he left school in 1882 he had already enjoyed some success as a composer, continued during his brief period at Munich University, with the composition of a Violin Concerto, a Horn Concerto and a Cello Sonata. By the age of 21 he had been appointed assistant conductor to the weIl known orchestra at Meiningen under Hans von Bülow, whom he succeeded in the same year.

In 1886 Strauss resigned from Meiningen and began the series of tone-poems that seemed to extend to the utmost limit the extra-musical content of the form. Aus Italien was followed by Macbeth, Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung, and, after a gap of a few years, Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben. Meanwhile Strauss was establishing himself as a conductor of high reputation, directing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for a season and taking appointments at Munich and then at the opera in Berlin, where he later was conductor of the Court Orchestra.

The new century brought a renewed attention to the composition of opera, a medium in which he had not initially been particularly successful. The first performance of Salome in Dresden in 1905 was followed in 1909 by Elektra in the same city, with a libretto by the writer with whom he was to enjoy a fruitful collaboration, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. Der Rosenkavalier, a romantic opera in the world of Mozart, was staged at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1911, followed by ten further operas, ending only with Capriccio, staged at the Staatsoper in Munich in 1942.

It was unfortunate that Strauss, in common with certain other musicians of the greatest distinction, was compromised by association with the National Socialist Government that came to power in Germany in 1933. His acquiescence, when given the position of president of the German Reichsmusikkammer and his ingenuous willingness to take the place of Bruno Walter at a Berlin concert, when Walter had been obliged to withdraw after threats of officially inspired disorder, and of Toscanini, who had withdrawn from projected performances in Bayreuth in voluntary protest at anti-Semitic National Socialist policies in Germany, were remembered. The fact that his daughter-in-law was Jewish and that she and her grandchildren had to be protected may have influenced the course of apparent complaisance that he chose to take, a course that brought its own difficulties in 1945, when he withdrew for a time to Switzerland, to return to his house at Garmisch only in May 1949, four months before his death. There were at the time many who put a much less charitable interpretation on his behaviour, Klemperer claiming that Strauss remained in Germany, instead of choosing American exile like Thomas Mann, because in Germany there were 56 opera-houses and in America only two.

The tone-poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) was completed in 1889 and first performed at a music festival in Eisenach under the composer's direction. The work, a remarkable evocation of a deathbed scene, is in three sections, a slow introduction leading to a central section in sonata-form, followed by a conclusion. It exemplifies remarkably enough the practice of thematic transformation advocated by Liszt, the original theme built, for the most part, on the descending notes of the scale. It is this theme which is used to introduce the dying memories of the protagonist, his childhood, his youth, his maturity and his struggle against death and final transfiguration. Strauss was to use this transformed theme again in his autobiographical symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben, ten years later, and in the last of his four Last Songs, at the end of his own life, where he employed the same melody in setting the poignant words of Eichendorff: “Wie sind wir wandermüde/Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (How tired we are! Can this, then, be Death?)

The symphonic poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks) is based on some of the adventures of the legendary anti-authoritarian Eulenspiegel-Owlglass or Howleglass in the sixteenth century English version of the German publication of 1519. Eulenspiegel, a peasant born allegedly in 1300, here uses an assumed simplicity to deflate authority of every kind, an activity for which he receives a just reward. The orchestral work by Strauss was completed in 1895.

The first episode in the symphonic poem, itself in something of the form of a rondo, is Eulenspiegel’s mad ride through the market, the second Eulenspiegel theme appearing loudly in the strings as the market-women scatter. The opening figure of the theme shows him escaping in seven-league boots and, after a pause, hiding in a mouse-hole. He appears in the guise of a priest, but is seized by foreboding at his own sacrilegious temerity, a solo violin glissando leading him into flirtation. When he is jilted, he reacts in a characteristically impudent way, and then poses impossible problems to a group of pedants, represented here by four bassoons and a bass clarinet, revealing himself and his motives to their discomfiture. There is a street-song, as Till goes on his way, but reflection leads to more outrageous behaviour and to a sentence of death. Till is hanged, with dramatic musical realism, the composer closing the tale with an epilogue that matches the brief introduction with which the story had begun.

The symphonic poem Don Juan takes for its hero not so much the figure dramatised by Tirso de Molina in the seventeenth century or of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte in the eighteenth as Lenau's hero, a man of very different character, an introspective lover of beauty, who avoids satiety and boredom, the blunting of his taste, by constant change. This first important essay by Strauss in the form of the symphonic poem was written in 1888.

Lenau's Don Juan, published posthumously in 1851, is incomplete, but records the amorous exploits of its hero and his final disillusionment, after which he allows himself to be killed by the son of the man he has murdered, father of a woman he had wronged, the Commendatore of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. The theme that represents Don Juan himself, a motif that is to recur, is easily identifiable. Attempts to suggest precise episodes in the hero's amatory career with the secondary themes is possibly beyond the composer's original intentions, which seem to have been of a more general kind. The work is, in fact, no native piece of programme music, although three of the Don's conquests seem to make their appearance, to be recalled after a carnival scene. The final death of the protagonist takes place at night in a churchyard, a moment for him of final resignation.

Zdenék Kosler
The Czech conductor Zdenék Kosler studied under Karel Ancerl at the Prague Academy of Arts, and distinguished himself early in his career at the Besançon Conductors' Competition and in the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition in New York. The first prize in the second of these enabled him to work as assistant-conductor with Leonard Bernstein for one year.

In Czechoslovakia Kosler began as conductor of the Prague opera ensemble, before becoming chief conductor and music director of the opera in Olomouc and Ostrava. He spent a short time as permanent conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, before moving to Berlin, where he was appointed Music Director of the Komische Oper in 1965. In 1971 he became chief conductor of the Slovak National Theatre Opera, undertaking engagements at this same time with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, and conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague, in addition to guest appearances with major orchestras abroad, in Europe, Canada and the Far East.

As permanent conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Zdenék Kosler has travelled widely. From 1980 until 1985 he was chief conductor and artistic director of the Prague National Theatre Opera to which he will return as chief conductor in 1990. He has received the highest national honour, the title National Artist, from the Czechoslovakian government, while winning awards abroad for his recordings.

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