About this Recording
8.573460 - STRAUSS, R.: Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite (Le) / Ariadne auf Naxos Symphony-Suite (Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta)

Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Ariadne auf Naxos • Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme


In 1670, at the magnificent château known as Chambord, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman), was premièred for the Sun King, Louis XIV. The comedy-ballet was from the hand of the French satirist and playwright Jean-Baptiste Molière. As a co-conspirator, his compatriot Jean-Baptiste Lully got in the act by composing several ballet scenes for the event, and even performed one of the stage rôles. (As an aside, the famous story is true that Lully later succumbed to an infected wound in his foot—inflicted by his very own, floor-length conducting stick! Batons have been a lot shorter ever since. Molière, too, suffered an ironic demise, stricken while acting in his own satire titled The Imaginary Invalid.)

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is about the vanity of social climbing in the upper-middle class—the traditional Parisian bourgeoisie. The storyline in sum:

Monsieur Jourdain, a man of recent means, is determined to become a ‘gentleman of quality’ in high society. As the son of peasants he knows he must first refine his awkward manners, and begins to take lessons in the arts, philosophy and fencing. And of course, one cannot possibly be a ‘gentleman of quality’ without having a mistress, so he tries to woo the Marquise Dorimène, a widowed socialite who could add a certain chic to his reputation. All the while, his wife, Madame Jourdain, watches as he makes a bungling fool of himself at every turn. She finally saves the day by conspiring with their servants to teach Monsieur a much needed lesson.

One can imagine the opportunity here for unbridled comedy, especially from the pen of a piquant wit like Molière.

In 1912, exactly 242 years later after the Chambord première, Richard Strauss composed new incidental music for a revival of the play at the Stuttgart opera house in Germany. On this he was also encouraged by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who was Strauss’ long-time collaborator and librettist. The latter also suggested that a reduced score for chamber orchestra would be ideal.

Everything went as planned except for a real-life comedy at the first performance, where stage actors, musicians, producer, conductor and theatre managers squabbled over trivial details in a farce of their own. As a consequence, the production was only modestly successful. The marvellous new music might have been forgotten were it not for Strauss himself who assembled the various musical episodes into the current suite, which was performed under his baton in Vienna on New Year’s Day of 1920. The composer remained especially fond of the score, and even selected it for a ceremony given in honour of his 84th birthday in Munich in 1948.

Strauss borrowed liberally from Lully, and based three of the movements directly on samples from the French master, with fragments from other composers, including himself. Colourful and translucent throughout, the neo-classic sound of this opus is unexpectedly lean for Strauss, especially when considered against the macro-decibels of his more familiar work.

For reference, the Overture is subtitled Jourdain the Bourgeois; the Minuet is a parody of the blundering dancing lesson; The Fencing Master reveals that Monsieur can barely keep from wounding himself; the Entrance and Dance of the Tailors finds Jourdain outfitted in extravagant pomp; the Minuet is a graceful moment for real dancers; the courtly Courante conjures blithe moments from the ball scene; Entrance of Cléonte represents Jourdain’s future son-in-law, who will help resolve the dilemma; Intermezzo serves to open the curtain on Act II; The Dinner offers different musical flavours for each dish: e.g. Rhine salmon with a snippet from Das Rheingold, a plate of mutton recalls the ‘bleating sheep’ from Strauss’ own Don Quixote, etc.—a smorgasbord of borrowed whimsy. Delightful.

Completed in 1911, Strauss’ luxuriant Der Rosenkavalier became the spiritual muse for Ariadne auf Naxos, which followed just a year later. For each opera, Strauss collaborated with his librettist Hugo Von Hofmannsthal. Although based on Greco-Roman mythology, Ariadne emerged with the lyrical levity of the worldly Rosenkavalier, and included a droll ballet intended as a prologue in the Italianate manner of the commedia dell’arte. Moreover, the double motif is framed in part as a take-off on Molière’s delightful theatre farce, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme of 1670.

Strauss and Hofmannsthal ultimately came up with a second version of Ariadne in 1916, and source music from both versions are represented in the current Symphony-Suite. The storyline calls for an ‘opera-within-opera’, written by a character known as The Composer—a male rôle sung by a travesti mezzo-soprano (in trousers), just as Strauss had employed for Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

The libretto in brief: at the extravagant mansion of a Viennese dilettante, it is decided that—to save time—both the commedia ballet and the serious opera would be performed simultaneously. The Composer is distraught, but calmed by the flirtatious servant, Zerbinetta. For her part, Ariadne is already weeping for lost love, waiting for death. Zerbinetta segues from the commedia to advise her that the only antidote is another lover. Voilà: just in time—the worldly Bacchus arrives on the scene. After exchanging arias, he and Ariadne walk joyfully into the ever-after sunrise.

We should note: Mozart also used a travesti soprano for the role of Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro; and, in Ariadne, Zerbinetta is a replica of the savvy maid, Despina, in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, whose principal aria presages the harmonies of Strauss, who knew well how to borrow.

The current setting by D. Wilson Ochoa was scored in 2010 for Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony. Except for the Interlude from Version 1, the movements are all derived from Version 2. About the work, Ochoa notes:

“My aim in extracting and arranging music from Ariadne was to create an orchestral suite that could act as a kind of symphony in the presentation and development of the main themes from the opera. I maintained Strauss’ original instrumentation throughout, with the exception of having the second oboe double on English horn, an ideal instrument for some of the vocal quotes. The original keys remain, with added orchestration of lines originally cast for voice. Following Strauss’ original setting, I attempted to create seamless, logical transitions between the excerpts.

“The Symphony-Suite is divided into seven continuous sections: the Prologue [10] introduces us to the major musical themes from the opera, developed one at a time in the subsequent parts. The tender and lyrical Duet [11] is between the characters of Zerbinetta and The Composer (Ein Augenblick ist wenig ein Blick ist viel—A glance is greater than a moment) as she flirts with him for her own designs.

“The Waltz (Eine Störrische zu trösten—Discard such worries) [12], originally a virtuoso coloratura aria, is sung by Zerbinetta and three of her male admirers. The Overture [13] is the slow, beautiful music that introduces the ‘opera-within-opera’ and eventually forms Ariadne’s aria (Ein Schönes war—There was such beauty). Serving as the slow middle movement in the suite, it begins as a string sextet before expanding into the full chamber orchestra.

“Ariadne’s lovely aria (Es gibt ein Reich—There is a realm) [14] is her belief that death would bring liberation from her sorrows. The Interlude [15] is an absolutely charming episode which leads to the sumptuous Finale [16], where the same theme is elongated to become Gibt es kein Hinüber? (Where is the passage?), revealing Ariadne’s transformation by a new love. As a fitting close, the Finale smartly recalls several themes from earlier in the opera.”

Edward Yadzinski

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