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8.571215 - STRAUSS, R.: Also sprach Zarathustra / Intermezzo: 4 Symphonic Interludes (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op 30 • Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo, Op 72


The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss represents a remarkable extension of the work of Liszt and Wagner, of the former in the symphonic poems of his earlier career and of the latter in his operas, where he uses an orchestra of Wagnerian proportions in a framework that owes more to Mozart. Born in Munich, the son of a distinguished horn-player and his second wife, a member of a rich brewing family, Strauss enjoyed a good general education at the Ludwigsgymnasium in Munich, while pursuing musical studies with the help of distinguished colleagues of his father. Before he left school in 1882 he had already enjoyed some success as a composer, continuing 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 well 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 Strauss 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 fifty-six opera-houses and in America only two.

Also sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus spoke Zarathustra’), a tone poem after Friedrich Nietzsche, was written in 1896, during the period Strauss spent as conductor at the opera in his native city of Munich. It is based on the rhapsodic expression of Nietzsche’s highly personal philosophy, finally published in 1892, in which Christian virtues are rejected in favour of the power of the Superman (Übermensch), a concept that with his notions of die blonde Bestie, Herrenmoral and Christian Sklavenmoral, proved useful to later political extremists.

Zarathustra, a mouthpiece for Nietzsche, took himself to the mountains, staying there for ten years in solitude. Then, one morning, he arose and addressed the Sun, seeking his blessing, as he proposes to descend once more among men to impart to them his wisdom, setting as the Sun sets and pouring out to mankind his accumulated understanding.

Strauss makes use of an unusually large orchestra, deployed in the most varied way, while there is a tonal ambiguity that remains to the final bars. The work opens with the rising of the sun and emergent nature, over a note sustained by double basses, organ and double bassoon. The climax of the rising sun is followed by Von den Hinterweltlern (‘Of the Dwellers in the World Beyond’), a mysterious theme, leading to the sound of the Credo and song of faith, scored for strings and organ. The great longing brings together a theme of yearning, briefly touched on before, and the nature theme, the Credo, and now, from the organ, the Magnificat. This material, with a stormier element, leads to a passage Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (‘Of Joys and Passions’). Das Grablied (‘Funeral Song’), employs two of the preceding motifs and leads, in the section Von den Wissenschaft (‘Of Science’), to a fugue, its development interrupted by the appearance of another, triumphant theme, and resuming with a motif representing satiety. These motifs and the fugue combine in Der Genesende (‘The Convalescent’). The dance-song brings together the earlier motifs, dwindling to the night-song, a preparation for the song of the night-wanderer. The final epilogue leaves unresolved the conflict of tonality and the conflict of nature and spirit.

The complex process of the tone poem takes Zarathustra from the splendour of sunrise through a rejection of those who look to the past, to longing, joys and passions. He turns from satiety and despair, in the funeral song, and finds no comfort in science. Falling as one dead, he is revived with finds joy in the dance of laughter, in which all human aspirations may be combined. Night comes with the song of the watcher, as midnight renews its eternal enigma.

For his opera Intermezzo Strauss finally wrote his own libretto, based on an incident in his own life. His wife, the singer Pauline de Ahna, very much a prima donna in her private life, had, in his absence on the Isle of Wight during a concert-tour, opened a letter addressed to him by a woman asking for the opera tickets promised her. Immediately jealous, she began to start divorce proceedings, drawing a quantity of money from the bank. In fact the woman asking for tickets had made a mistake in the name and address of the conductor of her acquaintance. In Intermezzo the conductor and composer Robert Storch is placed in a similar situation, after his completely unreasonable wife Christine, for the moment amusing herself with the attentions of the impecunious young Baron Lummer, opens a similar letter, really intended for Kapellmeister Stroh, and reacts as Pauline de Ahna had. Matters are eventually put right, with Robert justified, but Christine still claiming that she had behaved correctly. Written intermittently between 1918 and 1923, the first performance was given in Dresden in 1924. Frau Hofkapellmeister Strauss was not amused.

From the opera Strauss took four symphonic interludes to make a concert suite. The first of these, Reisefieber und Walzerszene (‘Travel Fever and Waltz Scene’), starts with the opening of the opera, as Christine calls for her maid Anna, busily preparing for her husband’s departure. This leads directly to her excited preparation for tobogganing, during which she collides with the young Baron Lummer, whose title impresses her. She joins him in a dance at the Grundlsee Inn. The interlude offers a graphic description of the toboggan slide and a characteristically charming waltz scene.

The second interlude, Träumerei am Kamin (‘Dreaming by the Fireside’), finds Christine alone, after dismissing the Baron, who has not found a chance to ask for money, the purpose of his attentions. Themes associated with her liking for the young man are used, with motifs suggesting her self-pity and loneliness, as well as her husband’s qualities. The following scene reveals the Baron’s true character, as he writes a begging letter to Christine, who, in the following scene, is appalled by his effrontery, her anger interrupted by the fatal letter to her husband from Mieze Maier, who addresses him in familiar terms. She must leave him at once, taking her reluctant young son with her.

The third interlude, Am Spieltisch (‘At the Card-Table’), takes the opening of the second act. The composer’s friends, a financier, a lawyer, a singer and Kapellmeister Stroh, whose name is the cause of the confusion, are playing his favourite cardgame, skat, and discussing the difficult character of Robert Storch’s wife. He joins them, but the game is interrupted by a peremptory telegram from Christine, demanding divorce. The interlude continues with the music that follows his departure.

A scene follows in which Christine consults her lawyer, with a third scene in the Prater, in which Robert insists that Stroh, who has admitted knowing Mieze Maier, put matters right. Christine, meanwhile, has dispatched the Baron to see the girl in Vienna and still prepares to leave. She is induced, however, to read a telegram from Robert announcing his impending return with evidence of his innocence. At this point Kapellmeister Stroh is announced. The final interlude follows, Fröhlicher Beschluss (‘Happy Ending’), making cheerful and exuberant use of many of the motifs that have been heard in the opera. This makes an effective conclusion to the orchestral suite, although the opera finds room for further disagreement between Robert and his wife.

Keith Anderson

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