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Although he had piano and violin lessons from an early age, Strauss never became an instrumental virtuoso—his true destiny lay as a conductor and, most especially, a composer. Aged just six, he was busy sketching simple piano pieces and songs, so that by the time he began formal lessons with Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer some five years later, he could already boast a bulging portfolio of 35 opera. Meyer was musically conservative by nature, so it was to the established classics of Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and (especially) Mozart that Strauss’s attention was initially directed rather than the cutting-edge ‘new music’ of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that one of Strauss’s first extended works, the Serenade for wind instruments of 1881, mirrors Mozart’s great K361 Serenade in its scoring for thirteen players—in Strauss’s case two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, one contrabassoon and four horns. Nor that it was dedicated in sincere appreciation to his childhood mentor, Friedrich Meyer. Cast in one movement with a gently flowing introduction, the Serenade radiates Mozartian bonhomie and is for the most part on its Classical best behaviour. Careful listening, however, reveals tiny details—an internal passing note here, a dash of harmonic-melodic luxuriance there—that provide tantalizing glimpses of the composer to come. Strauss’s exquisite chamber scoring also reminds us that behind the testosterone-fuelled opening of Don Juan (incredibly, just a mere six years away) lay a master of the intimate musical gesture.
By his late teens, Strauss was well established as Germany’s leading young composer, while appointments at Meiningen, Munich and Weimar saw him hone his conducting skills. He made the minimum of gestures when conducting—such was his podium presence that a mere flick of the wrist was enough to inspire the most hair-raising of fortissimos. As for the left hand, Strauss considered its rightful place in ‘the waistcoat pocket from which it should only emerge to restrain or to make some minor gesture for which in any case a scarcely perceptible glance should suffice.’ His ten ‘golden rules’ for budding young conductors contain such gems as ‘never look at the trombones—it only encourages them … if you can hear them at all, they are too loud’ and ‘when you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace!’.
Between the early Serenade and the two works from his 1940s ‘Indian summer’ which also feature on this recording, Strauss (like his great contemporary, Gustav Mahler, of whom he was a fervent admirer) sustained twin careers as an internationally acclaimed conductor and composer. He leapt to the attention of concert-goers during the 1880s with the first in a series of swashbuckling tone poems that took corporate orchestral virtuosity to previously unimagined levels of instrumental delirium. Starting out with Aus Italien (1887), Don Juan (1889), Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’,1890) and Macbeth (1890), this remarkable run continued with Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (‘Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks’, 1895), Also sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, 1896), Don Quixote and the the semi-autobiographical Ein Heldenleben (‘A Hero’s Life’, both 1898), the blatantly autobiographical Symphonia domestica (1903) and the genre’s crowning summit, the glorious Alpensinfonie (‘Alpine Symphony’) of 1915.
No less all-embracing was Strauss’s love affair with the human voice, as is evidenced by his more than 200 radiant song settings (many of them composed at Schubertian speed) alongside some of the most ravishingly inspired operatic scores of the last century. These may never have been written had it not been for his marriage in 1894 to operatic soprano Pauline Maria de Ahna, the iron-willed daughter of a Wagner-loving general. Renowned for her ebullient personality and fiery temper (as well as her sumptuously beautiful voice), she became his emotional rock and inspiration for the remainder of his long life, passing away just eight months after him.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Strauss had begun sensing, almost as powerfully as his younger contemporary Arnold Schoenberg, that the days of the traditional tonal system of related keys might be numbered. In Elektra (1905) and Salome (1908) he took graphic realism to new levels, revelling in the former’s claustrophobic intensity and the latter’s salacious moments of human degradation. Standing at the edge of a tonal precipice, Strauss appears to have lost his nerve at the last minute and retreated instead into the tonal afterglow of his nostalgic operatic tribute to Habsburg Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier (‘The Knight of the Rose’, 1910). Aged 45, with the musical world at his feet, Strauss, alongside his trusty librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, set himself on a course that would see him focus his attention on a series of 10 elegantly sophisticated operas over the following 30 years, including Die Frau ohne Schatten (‘The Woman Without a Shadow’, 1918) and such iridescent gems as Intermezzo (1923), Arabella (1927), Daphne (1937) and Capriccio (1941).
Strauss stayed in Germany throughout the Second World War, his refusal at one point to give shelter to evacuees earning him a political black mark. He never joined the Nazi party and had as little to do with politics as possible—his one official position as president of Hitler’s Reichsmusikklammer (‘State Music Bureau’) was forced on him in 1933 by Goebbels without consultation. His main reason for clicking his heels on that occasion was to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law (whom at one point was placed under house arrest) and grandchildren from incarceration. Without his intervention they would almost certainly have been sent to concentration camps, a fate that even he could not prevent from befalling his Jewish daughter-in-law and her children, despite his travelling personally to Theresienstadt to secure their release. When a letter openly critical of official Nazi policy towards the Jews—‘I recognize only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none’—was intercepted by the Gestapo in 1935, Strauss was dismissed from his post.
Strauss meanwhile delighted in being a musical thorn in the regime. Although it had been officially banned, he continued to conduct the music of Debussy, Mahler, Mendelssohn and others of ‘questionable’ racial background. In 1935 he premiered his latest opera Die schweigsame Frau (‘The Silent Woman’) to great acclaim, but the Nazis had it banned after only three performances as the librettist Stefan Zweig (a close friend of Strauss) was of Jewish extraction. The timing of his next opera Friedenstag (‘Peace Day’), a Fidelio-like prayer for justice and peace set during the Thirty Years War, appeared just as the Nazis were preparing to annex Austria. Its timing could hardly have been more inappropriate and it too was banned.
With much of Germany’s unique cultural heritage reduced to smouldering rubble, and the opera houses of Berlin, Dresden and Munich, which had been home to some of his greatest triumphs, lying in ruins, Strauss felt both personally and artistically dislocated from the post-war era. Yet just as it seemed as though his creative flame might be extinguished, his musical floodgates reopened, resulting in a handful of poignantly nostalgic masterworks, including the Symphony for wind instruments, Oboe Concerto, the Vier Letzte Lieder (‘Four Last Songs’) and Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings (ten violins, five violas, five cellos and three double basses).
Composed in response to a commission from Paul Sacher, who conducted the Zurich premiere on 25 January 1946, Strauss poured out some of his most heartfelt inspiration in a 25-minute string masterpiece written as an elegy in the wake of Germany’s destruction—he tellingly signed the score ‘In Memoriam’. It seems that the work’s distinctive title not only evokes the profound political and social changes that had occurred during the previous decade, but also Strauss’s passion for reading the works of Goethe, most especially his poems The Metamorphosis of Plants and The Metamorphosis of Animals. Interestingly, Strauss chose not to cast his various ideas in the form of an organic series of interrelated motifs (as the title might have suggested), but employs tried and tested sonata procedures in which contrasted ideas ultimately achieve a sense of unity.
Cast as a tripartite Adagio—Agitato—Adagio, the music’s subtext is made clear not only by Strauss’s stylistic homages to Wagner’s apocalyptic Götterdämmerung and enraptured Siegfried Idyll, but also when towards the end the double basses hint at the Funeral March from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony as an ominous counterpoint to the main theme. As a footnote to this profoundly moving score, Strauss confided to his diary: ‘At last the most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2,000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.’
The end was in sight, yet Strauss’s creative urge continued to inspire unexpected delights, including a pair of sonatinas for wind instruments, the first of which he subtitled ‘From an Invalid’s Workshop’ as much of it was composed during a particularly nasty bout of influenza. At first it appeared this delightful score would be his swansong to a section of the orchestra he had long cherished—nowhere more memorably than in his spiky portrayal of carping critics in Ein Heldenleben. Yet despite insisting that much of his late music should be kept from the public’s gaze until after his death, during the early summer of 1945 he returned to work on a second sonatina, greatly expanding its scale and as a humorous reference to its predecessor referred to it as ‘The Happy Workshop’. The title ‘symphony’ was added especially for the work’s first publication following the composer’s death.
The earliest music in the ‘symphony’ dates back to January 1944 when Strauss completed what was originally intended as a stand-alone movement entitled Introduction and Allegro, carrying the memorable dedication to Den Mannen des gottlichen Mozart am Ende eines dankfüllten Lebens (‘The spirit of the Divine Mozart at the end of a life full of thanks’). This became the symphony’s finale, while another movement that emerged two months later became the first. It was during June 1945 that Strauss added the two central movements, including the delightful minuet. The enhanced scope of the work is reflected in its expanded scoring for 16 instruments, which adds a third clarinet, basset horn and bass clarinet to the Serenade’s line-up.
In his later years, with a lifetime’s achievements behind him, Strauss became humorously self-deprecating about his position in music’s hall of fame. During a rehearsal in London’s Royal Albert Hall, the young conductor Norman del Mar overheard him calling out in mid-rehearsal: ‘No! I know what I want, and I know what I meant when I wrote this! After all, I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer!’ The autobiographical nature of much of Strauss’s music attained a special poignancy right at the end of his life when during early September 1949, as he lay peacefully in bed, he remarked that ‘dying is just as I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.’
Julian Haylock © 2017