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8.571218 - STRAUSS, R.: Heldenleben (Ein) / Capriccio: Sextet (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Ein Heldenleben • Sextet from Capriccio


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. His operas show 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, Strauss 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, Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’) and, after a gap of a few years, Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus Spake 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 Rosenkavalier (‘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 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 Furtwängler as Vice-President, brought later criticism and hostility, although Strauss’s 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 3 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 opens 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 fulfilment, 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’s Capriccio, described as Konversationsstück für Musik (Conversation Piece for Music), has a libretto by the composer and Clemens Krauss and is on a subject suggested by Stefan Zweig, now an exile from Germany. In London, Zweig had seen a copy of Casti’s libretto for Salieri’s opera of 1786, Prima la musica poi le parole (First the Music and Then the Words), the idea behind the Strauss opera. Capriccio was first performed in Munich in 1942, the year of its completion. In a château near Paris, about the year 1775, the birthday of Countess Madeleine is being celebrated. Her interests tend towards music, but her brother, the Count, favours poetry and the actress Clairon. The entertainment to be given includes music by Flamand, a play by the poet Olivier and a theatrical piece by the whole company. Alone with the Countess, Olivier declares his love, while Flamand, returning with a setting of a sonnet translated from Ronsard by Olivier, in turn declares his own love for the Countess. It is the enthusiasm of the theatre director La Roche for the grandiose and spectacular in opera that leads Olivier and Flamand to collaborate on an opera, while the Countess herself is left at the end of the work still unable to decide between the poet and the composer, words or music. Capriccio opens with a string sextet, a sonatina. The exposition is built from a series of short phrases of similar character. After a definite close on the dominant, the development starts with tremolo strings and thematic elements for the first violin and first viola. This part of the movement gently unwinds, until the return of the material of the exposition. Before the performance of the opera in October 1942, the Sextet was given a private performance at the house of the Gauleiter of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, who had been of material assistance in helping Strauss and his family to retain possession of the house in Vienna they had been able, in happier times, to have built for them.

Keith Anderson

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