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8.554417 - STRAUSS, R.: Heldenleben (Ein) / Macbeth

Richard Strauss {1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben; Macbeth

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 au 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 studying music under teachers of obvious 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 concertos for violin and for French horn and a sonata for cello and piano. By the age of twenty-one he had been appointed assistant conductor to the well-known orchestra at Meiningen under Hans von Bülow, whom he succeeded in the following 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. The first of these works, Aus Italien (‘From Italy’), was followed by Macbeth, Dan Juan, Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’) and, after a gap of a few years, Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus spoke Zarathustra’), Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben (‘A Hero's Life’). Meanwhile Strauss was establishing his reputation as a conductor, directing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for a season and taking appointments in Munich and then at the opera in Berlin, where he later became Court Composer.

The new century brought a renewed attention to opera, a medium in which he had initially enjoyed no great success. Salome, performed in Dresden in 1905, was followed in 1909 by Elektra, with a libretto by the writer with whom he was to collaborate over the next twenty years, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. Der Rosen-kavalier (‘The Knight of the Rose’), a romantic opera set in the Vienna of Mozart, was staged at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1911, followed by ten further operas, ending only with Capriccio, mounted at the Staatsoper in Munich in 1942.

It was unfortunate that, in the eyes of many, Strauss was compromised by his seeming acquiescence under the National Socialist Government that came to power in 1933, taking over from conductors threatened by the régime or from those, like Toscanini, who refused engagements under the prevailing circumstances. In particular his acceptance in 1933 of the position of President of the new Reichsmusikkammer established by Joseph Goebbels, with Fürtwängler as Vice-­President, brought later criticism and hostility, although his actions may be seen as defending his Jewish daughter-in-law and his own grandchildren from the obvious dangers that the Third Reich presented. After 1945 he withdrew for a time to Switzerland, returning to his own house at Garmisch only four months before his death in 1949.

Strauss completed his tone-poem for large orchestra, Ein Heldenleben, in 1898 and conducted the first performance on 3rd March 1899 at a Museum Concert in Frankfurt. The work, which was dedicated to Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, had a varied reception as it was introduced to audiences. Critics in Berlin took matters personally and Hanslick in Vienna, who had never had anything good to say about symphonic poems, found pleasing respite from musical battle only in the singing of the composer's wife, Pauline de Ahna, clearly his better half. The daughter of General de Ahna, she had married Strauss in 1894 and something of her character is reflected in the new tone-poem. Ein Heldenleben, however unheroically Strauss may have regarded himself, is autobiographical. Its six movements, intricately interwoven, provide what is essentially a single symphonic movement, incorporating a slow movement and a scherzo. The titles, later omitted by the composer, start with the introduction of the hero, whose strong theme starts the work. A love-theme is introduced, with a theme of hope and courage, leading to a third element, a stirring, martial theme, a first subject group. These are developed, with the final return of the principal theme. There follows a caricature of the hero's enemies, with the cackling scherzo-like passage of wind instruments. The hero's theme returns, now down-hearted, in a minor key and lacking its earlier exuberance, until a theme of victory quells the critical intervention. This transition leads to the second subject depicting the hero's companion. This is introduced by a solo violin, capricious and varied in what it has to offer, before joining the hero in a song of love, with critics now defeated and disappearing into the distance. Off-stage trumpets call the hero to battle in the equivalent of a development, and in the tumult the hero and love triumph over the enemies, their theme heard from the trumpet, to be banished in heroic victory. The hero's works of peace are heard in references to Strauss's earlier compositions, including themes from Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, Tod und Verklärung, Don Quixote, the opera Guntram whose failure had brought him enemies, Macbeth and the song Traum durch die Dämmerung (‘Dream in the twilight’), a comprehensive recapitulation. The last section, a final coda, depicts the hero's withdrawal from the world and fulfillment, with battles over, not in the pastoral simplicity that Don Quixote had attempted, as the cor anglais suggests, but now comforted by the love of his wife.

Strauss completed the first version of his symphonic poem Macbeth in 1888, revising it in the following years, to give its first performance with the Weimar Hofkapelle in October 1890, after the first performances of Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung. He himself later preferred the title Ton-Dichtung (tone-poem) for compositions of this kind, although they remain fundamentally symphonic. Macbeth is in the form of a symphonic movement and opens with a fanfare-like motif of kingship, followed by the theme representing Macbeth himself, soaring in its ambition and combined with a secondary element heard from the horns and bass trumpet. A further motif is introduced in the lower wind and string registers, suggesting Macbeth's mounting ambition. The theme for Lady Macbeth carries the words in the score:

Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue,
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown'd withal.

It is introduced by flutes and clarinets, over a sustained horn note, but is followed by a further motif that suggests her inner turmoil.

The principal material now introduced, there is an episode in which Macbeth and his wife converse in dialogue that rises in intensity, as she attempts to screw his courage to the sticking-place. The music mounts to a climax and the kingly motif is heard three times. King Duncan, whose murder the Macbeths have now planned, draws near, to their agitation, as the strings provide a scurrying introduction to a second episode, based on material associated with Lady Macbeth. Now Duncan is heard, in royal procession, announced by the kingly motif and greeted by Lady Macbeth. In the development earlier themes return, with the Macbeth theme first heard. It is in this section that Duncan is murdered and that the guilty pair hear knocking at the castle gate. Macbeth is even now haunted by his conscience:

Wake Duncan with thy knocking,
I would thou could' st.

The fairly short recapitulation follows the final self-destruction of Lady Macbeth, whose music becomes fragmented. Macbeth himself faces defeat, as the distant drums and fanfares of the approach of Malcolm and Macduff are heard.

Keith Anderson

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