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8.573563 - STRAUSS, R.: Heldenleben (Ein) / MAGNARD, A.: Chant funèbre (Lille National Orchestra, J.-C. Casadesus)
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Richard Strauss (1864–1949): Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40, TrV 190
Albéric Magnard (1865–1914): Chant funèbre, Op. 9

 

Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

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 main sections, 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 downhearted, 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 closing section, a 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, with a final note of resignation.

Albéric Magnard: Chant funèbre, Op. 9

Born in Paris in 1865, Albéric Magnard was the son of a distinguished journalist, Francis Magnard, who, by his own efforts, rose to become editor-in-chief of Le Figaro. Magnard’s mother died, apparently by her own hand, when her son was four, and his father remarried. After completing his Baccalauréat he carried out his obligatory military service, promoted to the rank of sergeant and finally, in 1888, to the rank of second lieutenant. His first university studies were of law, but at the same time he broadened his early musical interests through his friendship with Henri Duparc and Vincent d’Indy and through a visit to Bayreuth, where he saw Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In Paris he enrolled in the Conservatoire harmony class of Théodore Dubois and as an auditeur libre in Massenet’s composition class, forming a lasting friendship with Guy Ropartz. Dissatisfied with the rigid systems of the Conservatoire, he went on to study for four years with Vincent d’Indy and to teach classes at d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum. Appalled by the Dreyfus affair, he tried to resign his army commission, but his request was rejected.

Magnard had not always been on the best of terms with his father, but the latter’s position allowed him to publish music criticism, which won him some enemies. The death of his father in 1894, the occasion of the Chant funèbre, written in 1895 in his memory, deprived him of the means to publish his articles. Always something of an individualist, Magnard led a disciplined life, which underwent some change when, in 1896, he married. He was able to arrange for performances of his compositions, which eventually included four symphonies, while his opera Yolande was first staged in Brussels in 1892, Bérénice at the Théâtre de l’Opéra in Paris in 1911 and Guercoeur only posthumously, after the lost original orchestrations had been reconstructed.

Guercoeur, with other works, had been destroyed in the final moments of Magnard’s life. In 1904 he and his wife had decided to move out of Paris and bought a modest country-house, the Manoir de Fontaines, at Baron-sur-Oise. At the outbreak of war in 1914 Magnard, rejected on the grounds of age for military service, had sent his wife and two daughters away, remaining in the house accompanied by his stepson, René. On the morning of 2 September, while René was out fishing, the property was attacked by German soldiers, one of whom was shot by Magnard, who perished when the house was set on fire by the soldiers, destroying books, paintings and manuscripts, the last including the first and third acts of Guercoeur.

Magnard’s Chant funèbre, written in the earlier months of 1895, was first performed, together with Magnard’s Ouverture, Op. 10, and Symphony No. 3, Op. 11, at a concert given on 14 May 1899 at the Paris Nouveau Théâtre. With something of Mahler in its initial feeling, the work starts with a sad theme that is to retain importance, leading to a funeral march, its steady beat variously orchestrated. A subsidiary theme suggests a change of mood and the work ends in a mood of relative optimism.

Keith Anderson


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