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8.574217 - STRAUSS, R.: Tanzsuite nach Klavierstücken von François Couperin / Divertimento (after F. Couperin) (New Zealand Symphony, Märkl)
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Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Dance Suite from Piano Pieces by François Couperin • Divertimento, Op. 86

 

Born in 1864 in Munich, Richard Strauss was the son of a distinguished horn-player, Franz Joseph Strauss, for 50 years a member of the Munich Court Orchestra, and of Josephine Pschorr, member of a well-to-do brewing family and 17 years her husband’s junior. Richard Strauss had a sound general education and was able to study music under leading musicians in Munich. Even as a schoolboy he had enjoyed some success as a composer, and by the age of 21 he had embarked on a career as assistant conductor of the well-known orchestra at Meiningen under Liszt’s former son-in-law, Hans von Bülow, whom Strauss soon succeeded.

In 1886, now 22, Strauss resigned from Meiningen, undertaking various conducting engagements and beginning his series of tone poems that were to stretch the extra-musical content of a form that Liszt had pioneered some 40 years earlier. The first of these works, Aus Italien (‘From Italy’), was followed by Macbeth, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’), their terms of reference always expanding. In 1894 he married the temperamental singer Pauline de Ahna, daughter of a general, and continued his tone poems with the witty depiction of the medieval prankster of the title in Till Eulenspiegel, and his musical interpretation of Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus spake Zarathustra’), Don Quixote based on the novel by Cervantes, and the self-referential Ein Heldenleben (‘A Hero’s Life’). The Symphonia Domestica, in 1903, reflected something of the turbulent life of the Strauss household, and Eine Alpensinfonie was finally completed in 1915, ascending to new heights. Over these years Strauss was establishing his reputation as a conductor, directing the Berliner Philharmoniker for a season and taking appointments in Munich and then at the opera in Berlin, where he later became court composer.

In the new century Strauss turned his attention to opera. His first attempts, Guntram and Feuersnot, had enjoyed no great success, but Salome, staged first in Dresden and based on the play by Oscar Wilde, aroused scandal, problems with censorship, and, in the end, won triumph. The music for the Dance of the Seven Veils has enjoyed an additional existence outside the opera house. Elektra, in 1909, marked the first occasion on which Strauss worked with the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a fruitful partnership that was to last for 20 years. Based on the play by Euripides, telling of the vengeance exacted by Electra for the murder of her father Agamemnon by her mother and her lover, this was followed by the gloriously autumnal Der Rosenkavalier (‘The Knight of the Rose’), a romantic opera set in the Vienna of Mozart, a world evoked in music of great poignancy and beauty, with Strauss, like Brahms, able to encompass moods of autumnal sadness, epitomised in the love and self-sacrifice of the 32-year-old Marschallin for the 17-year-old Octavian. The work is scored for a large orchestra and waltz sequences from the second and third act of the opera are popular in the concert hall.

Work with Hofmannsthal continued in Ariadne auf Naxos (‘Ariadne on Naxos’) in which a rich and unsophisticated patron requires the simultaneous performance of two troupes, the serious singers of the classical Ariadne, courted by the god Bacchus on the island of Naxos, and a group of commedia dell’arte players, who, in the original version of the opera, have the last word. Further operas followed, with the final collaboration in Arabella, during the composition of which Hofmannsthal died.

This was not the end of Strauss’s career as a composer of opera, but there were difficulties in securing a librettist with whom he could work. His next opera, Die schweigsame Frau (‘The Silent Woman’), based on a comedy by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, involved the writer Stefan Zweig, but by now other matters were interrupting the course of Strauss’s life and career. In 1933 the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, had come to power in Germany. The policies of the new government involved changes in the organisation and control of the arts, under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Goebbels established a Reich Chamber of Culture, with the Music Chamber to have as its president the most distinguished German composer of the time, Richard Strauss, now 69, with the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as vice-president. Both men, in their own ways, saw some possibilities for German music. While Furtwängler, more of a realist, sought to preserve what he could, in spite of the new regime, with its rejection of ‘degenerate art’ (‘Entartete Kunst’) , he soon found life impossible, matters coming to a head when attempts were made to prevent the staging of Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler. Furtwängler had pleaded for the independence of music from political interference, and was compelled to resign his positions as conductor and in the Reichsmusikkammer. Strauss, as always concentrating on matters musical, thought he saw opportunities for reform under the new government, including an extension of copyright laws that would help composers.

As time went on, however, Strauss found himself in an impossible position. Nazi policies had an increasing impact on cultural affairs when Jewish musicians and artists were dismissed, later to become the object of open persecution, as the Nazis tightened their control over Germany. Strauss had problems in his own family. His son Franz, in 1924, had married a Jewish wife, Alice, in Vienna, and their children were, therefore, half-Jewish, endangered by the increasingly vicious policies of the Third Reich. Hofmannsthal had been of partly Jewish descent, and Strauss’s new librettist, Stefan Zweig, was Jewish and was eventually forced to take refuge abroad, where, in 1942, he and his wife committed suicide, but Zweig, while he could, tried to help Strauss by supervising texts provided by less able and congenial writers. Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, was staged in Munich in 1942. In 1943 the Munich National Theatre was bombed, and in 1944 all theatres were closed. In February and March 1945 the opera houses of Dresden and Vienna were destroyed, and it must have seemed that Strauss’s world was coming to an end. Now, at the age of 81, Strauss moved to Switzerland, only returning to his home at Garmisch in 1949, dying there four months later.

Born in the heyday of Liszt and Wagner, Richard Strauss had survived the perils of two wars and a period of persecution, enriching the world of music not only with operas that continued and developed earlier dramatic traditions, but also with tone poems that sought to express everything in music. His many songs start with those he wrote as a schoolboy. They end with his Four Last Songs, and, in his preferred order, the final words of his Eichendorff setting: ‘Wie sind wir wandermüde/ist dies etwa der Tod?’ (‘How tired we are of wandering/Is this then death?’).

Strauss’s Tanzsuite (‘Dance Suite’), arrangements of keyboard pieces by the great French composer François Couperin, was at first intended as a series of instrumental pieces. In 1919 he had been appointed co-director of the Vienna State Opera and the refurbishment of the historic Redoutensaal in the Vienna Hofburg made an admirable setting for a new ballet. Scored for a small orchestra, including instruments apt for the current century, the work was staged in Vienna at carnival in February 1923 with choreography by Heinrich Kröller. The eight dances that constitute the Tanzsuite start with a Pavane, continuing with a Courante, Carillon, Sarabande, Gavotte, Wirbeltanz (‘Whirling Dance’), Allemande and March. It was left to others to identify the sources.

The Divertimento of 1940–41 was devised at the suggestion of the conductor Clemens Krauss, who conducted the first performance at the Bavarian State Opera Munich National Theatre in April 1941. Most of the source material of the Divertimento was written to complement the Tanzsuite to form the work Verklungene Feste, Tanzvisionen aus zwei Jahrhunderten. Choreographie nach historischen Vorlagen von Pia und Pino Mlakar. Musik nach François Couperin (‘Bygone Festivals, Dance Visions from Two Centuries. Choreography after Historical Examples by Pia and Pino Mlakar. Music after François Couperin’). This piece—for which Strauss rearranged six movements of the Tanzsuite—drew on dances devised by Raoul-Auger Feuillet, the notation for some of whose dances survives from the time of Couperin. Strauss subsequently added two more movements (III and VIII) and the work was labelled Op. 86 and duly published as an orchestral suite. The orchestration, characteristic of Strauss, also finds a place for celesta, harp, harpsichord and organ, variously deployed.

Keith Anderson


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