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Founded by impresario and record producer Walter Legge in 1945 and quickly described as 'an elite whose virtuosity transformed British concert life', the Philharmonia Orchestra continues to stir passions with these riotous five-star performances of Richard Strauss.
Strauss’s early works unsurprisingly reflected these models. Song composing was particularly important, with his first Lieder performed at home by a musical aunt. And also befitting the Gemütlichkeit of Strauss’s youth was a series of chamber works, including cello and violin sonatas, two piano trios and a string quartet. In the light of later masterpieces, these are now often overlooked, as are Strauss’s early orchestral scores, which likewise followed a seemingly traditional path, as in the composition of two crucial symphonies from the early 1880s. Yet the presence of several concert overtures among the juvenilia shows a contrasting interest in programmatic music. At first, Strauss may have been able to convince his father that these reflected Mendelssohnian traits, though there can be no doubt that the young composer was increasingly interested in what became known as the New German School.
A heavily freighted term, it was coined by Franz Brendel, the pioneering editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal of Music), one of the period’s most important publications on music. It denoted the critics and, moreover, the composers who identified with the sense of progress imparted by the musical works and writings of Wagner, as well as Berlioz before him and, even more crucially, Liszt—Wagner’s father-in-law. The genre that was most readily associated with the New German School, and with Liszt in particular, was the symphonic poem, in part emerging from the concert overture of earlier in the century. Often suggesting a work of much greater length, the symphonic poem was, by nature of its poetics, a response to extramusical ideas, though formal developments were similarly paramount. As musical language itself changed over the course of the 19th century, so too did form. While these transformations were welcomed by a music-going public that was especially hungry for the pictorial, the New German School was also treated with great caution, even contempt. Close to home, Franz Strauss was chief among sceptics, though such revered critics as Eduard Hanslick, writing in the Wiener Musik-Zeitung (Viennese Journal of Music) and, eventually, the Neue Freie Presse (New Free Press) in the Austrian capital, provided witnesses for a prosecution that infinitely preferred to champion the music of Brahms.
What was so intriguing about the young Richard Strauss was that he admired Brahms as much as the New German School, not least when he became Hans von Bülow’s conducting assistant in Meiningen in 1885. A small courtly city in southern Thuringia, it had become the centre of what Strauss called ‘Brahmsschwärmerei’ (Brahms adoration), due to the composer’s coming to try out his most important late works with the orchestra in residence. For Strauss to come of age during the mid-1880s was therefore to witness an extraordinary network of influences, even if many contemporary commentators considered them mutually exclusive. And yet, in the toss-up between the four-movement symphonism of Brahms and the programmatic symphonic poem, Strauss was keen to find his own path.
A crisis of identity erupted after the composer began to establish his Symphony No 2 in F minor, Op 12, within the repertoire—an 1887 performance with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was a significant milestone. 'From the F minor Symphony onwards', Strauss explained, 'I have found myself in an ever-increasing contradiction between the musical-poetic content that I want to convey and the ternary sonata form that has come down to us from the Classical composers.' In short, symphonic structures had lost their appeal, becoming 'giant’s clothes made to fit a Hercules, in which a thin tailor is trying to comport himself elegantly'. Instead, Strauss was increasingly convinced that he needed to find a 'new form for every new subject'. It was onto such fertile soil that the composer, violinist and devout Roman Catholic Alexander Ritter planted significant seeds. The pair also met in Meiningen and Strauss would, in his memoirs, credit Ritter with his 'conversion' to Wagner and the New German School. The connection to the source was certainly as proximate as Strauss could have hoped. Through his wife (Wagner’s niece), Ritter was intimately connected to Bayreuth. He also fostered Strauss’s interest in the philosophy of Schopenhauer, which had provided such a Damascene moment for Wagner. Clearly, Ritter was hoping history would repeat itself.
Strauss was, however, inherently wary of the pseudo-religious manner in which Ritter adopted these values, but they nonetheless retained some force, as when Strauss composed Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration, 1890), a work with Schopenhauerian transfiguration (hence the title) as its goal. On manuscript paper, at least, the composer had become an avid disciple, explaining in his own fulsome programme note to the work how 'the soul leaves the body' at the end 'in order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things which could not be fulfilled here below'. But if Tod und Verklärung displayed the most patent adoption of the values of the New German School, it was not Strauss’s first foray into programmatic music on a symphonic scale. He had already made those ‘first hesitant steps’ with Aus Italien (From Italy) in 1886, followed two years later by the manifestly dramatic Macbeth and Don Juan, with Tod und Verklärung coming hot on their heels.
An earthly libertine
Strauss may have been interested in the philosophy that attended the work of the New German School and its heirs, but he was, arguably, much more absorbed in what was present on Earth than anything suggesting the everlasting. We only need turn to Don Juan to find a truer sense of who Strauss was—and who he would, largely, remain. Here, the composer was following in Liszt’s footsteps, taking inspiration from the 1844 verse drama Don Juans Ende (Don Juan’s End) by one of the Hungarian composer’s favourite poets: Nikolaus Lenau. There would, however, be no slavish recreation of Lenau’s tale of the idealist lothario; instead, Strauss selected three passages from the fragmentary text for his ‘tone poem’—the presumably dated description of ‘symphonic’ now having been jettisoned:
The magic circle, immeasurably wide, of beautiful femininity with their multiple attractions, I want to traverse in a storm of pleasure and die upon a kiss upon the lips of the last woman. My friend, I want to fly through all places where a beautiful woman blooms, kneel before each one of them and conquer, if only for a few moments …
I shun satiety and the weariness of pleasure, and keep myself fresh in the service of the beautiful; hurting the individual woman, I adore the whole species. The breath of a woman, which is the fragrance of spring to me today, tomorrow may oppress men like the air of a dungeon. When I wander with my changing affections in the broad circle of beautiful women, my love for each one is different; I do not wish to build temples out of ruins. Indeed, passion is always and only the new passion; it cannot be carried from this one to that; it must die here and spring anew there; and, when it knows itself, then it knows nothing of repentance. As each beauty stands alone in the world, so stands the love which it prefers. Forth and away, then, to triumphs ever new, so long as youth’s fiery pulses race! …
It was a beautiful storm that urged me on; it has spent its rage, and silence now remains. A trance is upon every wish, every hope. Perhaps a thunderbolt from the heights which I contemned, struck fatally at my power of love, and suddenly my world became a desert and darkened. And perhaps not; the fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark.
Like Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni before him, Strauss’s Don Juan is a man of great flair, as told in the composer’s extraordinary 18-minute distillation of his character. The (wordless) dramma giocoso opens with a great charge, announcing both the protagonist and Strauss’s newfound confidence, before the ensuing sonata-cum-rondo structure features a central brace of love scenes—the first dominated by a solo violin, the second by an oboe—as well as a carnival masquerade. While all these elements can be traced back to the various literary iterations of the Don’s tale, including those that inspired Mozart and Da Ponte, none are present in Strauss’s programme, itself more a psychological treatment than a blow-by-blow account. Even his preparatory notes, following a sketch of the initial theme, indicate an elision of emotional character and musical ideas more than they do a cartoon strip:
… from then on wild and jovial the pleasure theme as C sharp major cantilena, interrupted by the violas when the first Don Juan theme suffers exhaustion, initially both sound together, with a bold leap he jolts the first theme to the dominant of C, then a frivolous theme ensues in a wild hustle and bustle, merry jubilation is interrupted by sighs of pain and pleasure, then development, always fortissimo and greatest intensification suddenly a sobering-up, desolate cor anglais, love and pleasure themes sound confusingly, interrupted by new spells of longing and pleasure, finally a new love motif ensues very enthusiastic and gentle, then suddenly another eruption of the first theme, grand (?) dashing coda, tempestuous conclusion.
The resulting work is, of course, rather different, but these dashed-off ideas underline that none of the events are there for their own sake. Instead, they are to reveal elements of the Don’s psychology through musical means, which, thanks to the unfolding form, are juxtaposed and developed in turn. And it is material that will be recalled in the work’s concise recapitulation, in which the Don, somewhat inevitably, suffers a deadly wound (a stab of trumpets) and collapses—a fitting fate for a man willing to hurt the individual but 'adore the whole species'. For Strauss, however, the supposed 'thin tailor' of the past has now become a Hercules in his own right, with Don Juan providing a calling card. The young composer had found his metier and quickly moved on to writing its successor’s tale of transfiguration, as well as peering into a future which had absolutely nothing to do with the promulgation of such pious beliefs.
Strauss, like the forms he created, was a mutable figure; to try and link him with the characters of his tone poems, as many commentators did, was a frustrating task. As with his later operas, Strauss’s subject matter was too broad for simple categorisation. Instead, he supplied his (growing) audiences with distinct doses of the ephemeral and the eternal, the trivial and the sublime, and sometimes simultaneously, as if one spurred the other into action.
Following the back-to-back compositional scheme of Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung, Strauss went on to create two more contrasting pairs—he called the comic pendants ‘satyr plays’, harking back to the Attic theatre of ancient Greece—with Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche dating from 1894/5 and Also sprach Zarathustra from 1896, followed by another comic-serious pairing: Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) in 1897/8. Within this clutch of works, however, Also sprach Zarathustra marked the significant new presence of Nietzsche and his power over Strauss’s worldview—and the consequent waning of Alexander Ritter’s influence. So while Wagnerian spirituality may have continued to inspire Strauss’s first opera Guntram, which had its premiere in Weimar on 10 May 1894, the composer was already distancing himself from its 'redemption ballyhoo' by the time the work reached the stage. Its unsuccessful premiere similarly marked a turning point, and, like the opera’s title character, who comes to renounce his spiritual order, Strauss had already embraced the new irreligious influence of Nietzsche.
The composer’s interest in Wagner’s one-time disciple turned detractor had started in 1892. Strauss was convalescing in Greece and Egypt after a period of overwork and read extensively while on his travels. He was particularly enthralled by Nietzsche’s 'polemic against Christianity', mirroring 'the antipathy which I had always felt against a religion which relieves the faithful of responsibility for their actions (by means of confession)'. The effects of this conversion were to be as marked as at the beginning of Strauss’s friendship with Ritter. Following his appearance as the conductor of an 1894 production of Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival, with his soon-to-be wife Pauline de Ahna singing the role of Elisabeth, Strauss effectively severed his links with the Wagner family and there were to be no further invitations to the Festspielhaus until 1934, when, in highly controversial circumstances, Strauss returned to conduct Parsifal.
At the end of the 19th century, however, any separation from Wagner’s lingering shadow was potentially hazardous for a young conductor and composer working in Germany, yet it was a risk worth taking, as far as Strauss was concerned. It certainly afforded him much greater artistic freedoms, as heralded by the famous fanfare at the beginning of Also sprach Zarathustra—what Bartók called a 'bolt of lightning'—though it was the final nail in the coffin as far as Wagner’s widow Cosima was concerned. But another nail had already been hammered into the planks thanks to its predecessor, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, in which Strauss celebrated the life of a medieval practical joker in an almost direct snub to lingering religiosity. With the score dedicated to an avid Nietzschean, the writer and dramaturg Arthur Seidl, this was Strauss’s 'war against all apostles of moderation, against the old guild of the merely virtuous and comfortable, against all good middle-class folk and secure ‘schools of abstinence’'. If Strauss had ever truly embraced the metaphysical, he was certainly done with it now.
In the wake of Guntram, Strauss pondered the idea of creating an entirely different kind of stage work. It was to be what the composer termed a ‘Volksoper’, based on the figure of Till Eulenspiegel, a folk hero, who had appeared in cheaply produced pamphlets called chapbooks during the early 1500s. Then, and ever since, Till has been characterised by his farcical and, at times, rather grim sense of humour, as well as his ability to outwit even the brightest minds with his practical jokes.
Creating his own text, Strauss took a liberal approach to the 400-year-old source material and used the wily Till as a vehicle for railing against petty-minded conservatism, much as the composer would do when he eventually completed a second opera, with Feuersnot (Need for Fire), in 1901. And yet Strauss quickly realised that he did not have the practical skills to pull off such a project—at least not yet. 'I have already put together a very pretty scenario', he wrote to a friend, 'though the figure of Master Till Eulenspiegel does not quite appear before my eyes; the book of folk-tales only outlines a rogue with too superficial a dramatic personality—the developing of his character on more profound lines after his trait of contempt for humanity also presents considerable difficulties.' Another version of the libretto was then sketched for Strauss by an aristocratic colleague, but, again, the composer saw no immediate way to reconcile his misgivings about the subject and find a suitable operatic form. Furthermore, burned by his experience with Guntram, Strauss was fearful of any further forays into the theatre and so decided to begin a purely instrumental treatment of the subject.
The full title of the work that Strauss began in late 1894 and finished on 6 May 1895, before a first performance by the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne on 15 November that year, is Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche nach alter Schelmenweise in Rondeauform für grosses Orchester gesetzt (Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks, after the old rogue’s tale, set for large orchestra in rondo form). Once more, Strauss had found a character and, moreover, the capricious means to describe him, with Till’s subtlety and quick-wittedness perfectly captured by the principal horn theme, complete with unpredictable syncopation. A pithy calling card, it weaves, as Strauss explained, 'in and out of the whole texture in the most varied disguises and moods as the situations press on to the catastrophe in which Till is hanged after the motif has been pronounced over him'. The hanging, however, was Strauss’s invention, the original Till having died of plague.
But regardless of the ending, Till is clearly an even more ironic successor to Strauss’s Don Juan, another devil-may-care figure, whose heralding horn might be seen as a further rebuff of Wagnerian models, not least Siegfried, whose famous leitmotif was first played by Strauss’s horn playing father. Indeed, the whole work is characterised by an amazing lightness of touch, which Busoni, for one, likened to the music of Haydn. Throughout, Strauss’s legerdemain is mirrored in his less slavish tracking of programmatic source material, with the form itself rather than the narrative becoming its own vehicle. The woodwind-dominated orchestration, for instance, offers a purely musical character. And even the seemingly throwaway ‘once upon a time’ gesture from the start of the work is open to development, as in the immensely touching epilogue, though this is, in turn, thrown away with great abandon.
An idea in music
To follow Till’s ducking and diving woodwind, Strauss offered the brassy beginnings of Also sprach Zarathustra. Begun not long after the Cologne premiere of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, the new score was completed by August 1896 with Strauss himself conducting the first performance in Frankfurt on 27 November. As with its predecessor, Strauss had taken a particularly liberal approach to the source material:
I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray Nietzsche’s great work musically. I meant rather to convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche, which found its great exemplification in his book Also sprach Zarathustra.
Strauss employed eight of the subtitles from the various discourses that make up Nietzsche’s original text as headings for his sequence of interrelated movements. The work begins with a prologue of immense originality, even if subsequent ubiquity in various other contexts has dulled its ingeniousness. A low C sounds in the double basses, contrabassoon and organ, accompanied by the rumble of a bass drum. Clearly, this is primal music. Four trumpets then declaim a rising fifth and a rising fourth, thereby reaching an octave, as if spelling out the first notes of the harmonic series, before the fanfare is answered in similarly elemental terms by two full orchestral chords: one major, one minor. Finally, Strauss’s scheme is reversed and elaborated over that fundamental low C.
After such a bold beginning, 'Von den Hinterweltlern' ('Of the Backworldsmen') is contrastingly murky, juxtaposing the C core with the physically adjacent but harmonically distinct tonality of B minor, introduced by pizzicato cellos and basses. This is the work’s other tonal pole, representing the innately human, as opposed to the universality of C major. A quotation from the plainsong Creed leads to a balmy hymn but, having established the new key of A flat major, Strauss lurches back to B minor in 'Von der großen Sehnsucht' ('Of the great longing'). The ensuing 'Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften' ('Of joys and passions'), beginning in C minor, is equally insecure and, again, returns to humanity’s key of B minor.
This tonal tug-of-war lingers in 'Das Grablied' ('The song of the grave'), which slowly ekes its way to C major, before a sense of clarity is further confused by 'Von der Wissenschaft' ('Of science'), in which a fugal subject employs all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Even 'Der Genesende' ('The convalescent'), ending with another blast of C major, flips back to B minor, before the major-key 'Tanzlied' ('The dance song') throws an ironic light on proceedings.
The tussle will continue right up to the final cadence, where B major sounds in the upper strings (the logical conclusion to the journey undertaken in the 'Nachtwandlerlied' ('Song of the night wanderer') section), while the cellos and double basses play the original C–G–C motif. Doubtless, there is a profound philosophical truth at the core of this ending, but, pranking as ever, Strauss decided to explain it to his friend Max von Schillings in much larkier terms. According to the composer, the music merely represented Man (in B major) asking 'When? When?', while Nature (in C major) answers from the depths: 'Never, never, never will the weather improve'.
Strauss was putting a Till Eulenspiegel face on more serious concerns. After all, he had clearly understood the intent of the final part of Also sprach Zarathustra, where Nietzsche repeats the text of the ‘Midnight Roundelay’, famously set to music by Mahler in his third symphony—another work from 1896. But where, for Mahler, Nietzsche’s poem is part of a journey to salvation, a text therefore to be renounced on the path to the noumenal, Strauss, doggedly rooted in the phenomenal, concurred that irreconciliation is, in fact, the status quo. So while the score has since become the go-to soundtrack for ‘the beyond’, it speaks more readily of the fundamentals of here and now.
'Just as a cow gives milk'
Mahler and Strauss were very different beings. They respected and, certainly, encouraged each other in their careers, but their outlooks were unalike. Where Mahler was a man of the theatre by means of his baton, he was seemingly not interested in writing opera. Instead, the symphony and the song, albeit in highly theatrical guises and developed far beyond the genres’ earlier Romantic models, continued to fascinate him.
But it was in their philosophies that the two composers differed most. Throughout his much shorter life, Mahler remained something of an idealist, clinging to the hem of organised religion and its wider cultural import. Born a Jew, he had converted to Catholicism in order to secure the post of music director at the Court Opera House in Vienna in 1897. Even if he did not adhere to either religion, and was far from orthodox in his views, he would have seemed orthodox enough to the atheistical, earthly Strauss. Indeed, coming to an understanding of the differences between them provided the catalyst for a new work that Strauss began not long after Mahler died in 1911. 'Mahler’s death has affected me greatly', he wrote, indignantly, 'now you’ll see even in Vienna he’ll be a great man', pointing to the imperial capital’s constant denigration of Mahler’s achievements during his lifetime, often with an antisemitic note. Strauss’s tribute, however, had much older roots.
Around the time he completed Ein Heldenleben, in 1898, Strauss struck on an idea for another symphonic poem: Eine Künsterlertragödie (Der Sonnenaufgang). This ‘artist’s tragedy’, subtitled ‘sunrise’, was intended to depict a figure who, while relishing creation, nonetheless suffers from crippling doubt. Only his lover can offer comfort and the necessary spur to new work, though their toxic interdependence will eventually lead to ruin. The evocative location for this new programmatic tone poem was the Alps, recalling earlier Romantic texts such as Byron’s Manfred, itself already set to music by Schumann and inspiring a symphony by Tchaikovsky.
Shortly after forming the idea, Strauss then abandoned it in favour of writing his second opera, Feuersnot, as well as the mundane (if touching) Symphonia domestica (1903), in which the composer himself, as well as his wife and his child, provide a programmatic backdrop. And then along came Salome (1905). Indeed, it was the opera house rather than the orchestra that became his prime concern, especially thanks to a fruitful collaboration with the Viennese poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, resulting in an operatic adaption of Hofmannsthal’s version of Sophocles’s Elektra in 1909, followed by the riotously successful comedy Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose) (1911) and Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos) (1912).
These box office hits would doubtless have continued had the First World War not intervened, when Hofmannsthal was called up. The hostilities certainly curtailed work on his and Strauss’s latest project, Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow), as well as, eventually, a second version of Ariadne auf Naxos. In such circumstances, left unchallenged and without texts to set, the composer quickly became fidgety and demanding. So instead of waiting for Hofmannsthal, Strauss returned to the tone poem after nearly a decade, specifically to his tragic story of an artist that opens with a sunrise. By February 1915, when the critic Julius Korngold and his young composer son Erich Wolfgang came to visit Strauss at home in Garmisch, the autograph manuscript of Eine Alpensinfonie was complete, though the composer quickly dismissed it as a 'trifle'.
What he had written was, of course, far from frivolous. Eine Alpensinfonie was a brilliant return to the landscape of Mahler’s symphonism, with its rallying horns and cowbells and all the other yodelling paraphernalia of Alpine life. It was in such a setting, far from the criticism of Vienna, that Mahler was inspired to write his own works and had been able to imagine a lasting sense of haven, tenuous though it can often seem. Thankfully, it is not so fragile in Strauss’s symphony, in which he was able to draw together several evocative tropes, which came to him 'just as a cow gives milk', in the manifestly sincere tribute he had already outlined in his journal in 1911:
The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist [is] a grave loss … Mahler, the Jew, could achieve elevation in Christianity. As an old man the hero Wagner returned to it under the influence of Schopenhauer. It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity … I shall call my alpine symphony Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.
No mere 'trifle' could reconcile these thoughts, with Strauss even alluding to Nietzsche’s 1895 essay Der Antichrist (The Antichrist), in which the philosopher derides a Christianity that 'multiplies misery and conserves all that is miserable, and is thus a prime instrument of the advancement of decadence: pity persuades men to nothingness!' These were clearly Strauss’s thoughts too, having long lamented any continued adherence to transcendent spiritualism. And even if they were not Mahler’s philosophies, they provided the intellectual engine room for Strauss’s tribute. It takes the form of a musical journey up and down a mountain—Mahler was a keen hiker—over the course of an hour-long, one-movement work with the following subsections: Night, Sunrise, The Ascent, Entry into the Forest, Wandering by the Brook, At the Waterfall, Apparition, On Flowering Meadows, On the Alpine Pasture, Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path, On the Glacier, Dangerous Moments, On the Summit, Vision, Mists Rise, The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured, Elegy, Calm Before the Storm, Thunder and Tempest, Descent, Sunset, Quiet Settles and, finally, Night again.
Ultimately, it is the literal rather than the metaphorical (or metaphysical) that wins through in Eine Alpensinfonie and its climb to the meadows of Mahler’s most reverential moments. While Strauss finds a home there too, providing all the visions any hiker would expect to encounter, even today, his pastures and cowbells are pictorial. This is not to deny Strauss’s intent, but, instead, to draw a distinction between the springboard for Eine Alpensinfonie and the resulting 'worship of eternal, magnificent nature', including the 2,962 metre Zugspitze Strauss could see from his desk at the villa in Garmisch.
Witnessing the premiere, one critic called it 'cinema music'. Doubtless derogatory, the assessment nonetheless revealed much about the actuality of the work’s 22 tableaux. There is orchestral dazzlement to rival even the best of Till’s leaps and tumbles, as well as ravishment at the summit, which Strauss would later recall in his Four Last Songs via a parallel allusion to Tod und Verklärung. But, like many trips to the cinema, Eine Alpensinfonie should be experienced as directly as possible: in the phenomenal present, rather than in the noumenal thereafter of Mahler’s ‘wie aus weiter Ferne’ (‘as if from a far distance‘). It is, after all, a symphony that communicates Strauss’s fundamental belief that the creation of art is a social act and not a spiritual one.
Strauss and the orchestra in later life
With Eine Alpensinfonie completed, its premiere following in Berlin on 28 October 1915, Strauss more or less abandoned writing for the orchestra alone. There were, instead, new pressures, new interests, including running the State Opera in Vienna after the First World War and the founding of the Salzburg Festival with Hofmannsthal, Max Reinhardt and others. New concert works therefore tended to revolve around suites, waltz sequences and other derivatives from the opera scores. As exceptions to prove that rule, there were also a couple of commissions from the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, the brother of the famous philosopher, who had lost his right arm during the war, and a collection of queasy marches and other works penned once the Nazis came to power. But, otherwise, Strauss’s interests were almost entirely focussed on the opera house, even if Die Frau ohne Schatten, first staged in Vienna in 1919, followed by Intermezzo (1924), Die ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helena) (1928) and Arabella (1933), could not quite replicate the composer’s pre-war successes.
Significantly, however, the power of the orchestra as a means of communication remained. Within the four operatic works of the 1920s and early 1930s, as well as Strauss’s post-Hofmannsthal collaborations, including Daphne (1938), Capriccio (1942) and Die Liebe der Danae (The Love of Danae) (1944), the composer often turned to his instrumental forces as a means by which to express more profound truths. Sometimes, this may well have reflected an underlying frustration with later librettist colleagues, not least Joseph Gregor. But, at others, Strauss’s ‘songs without words’ were able to communicate much clearer than any setting of a text.
The famous ‘staircase motif’ in Arabella, for instance, provides a marked contrast within an otherwise garrulous score, while the eponymous Daphne’s transformation is, by nature, entirely wordless. Even in Capriccio, described as 'a conversation piece for music' about whether words or music come first in the creation of an opera, Strauss opens with a string sextet and closes with a glorious orchestral peroration—'isn’t this D flat major the best summation of my life’s theatrical work?' he asked. But there was more to come from that rich well, as during the final act of Die Liebe der Danae, when a wonderfully humane interlude, signifying what Strauss called 'Jupiter’s Renunciation', surpasses almost any other moment in the composer’s output. Collectively, these passages from the operas underline a skill that Strauss had honed long before the theatre claimed him for its own. And it was a nonverbal eloquence that would emerge again, of course—in yet more searing terms—when he wrote his final tone poem (subtitled a ‘study’), the 1945 Metamorphosen, four years before his death.
Yet we do not need to go to the end of Strauss’s life to find him at his most insightful. We could also turn back nearly 40 years, to 1909, the year that Elektra came along and confirmed that Salome had been no theatrical fluke, and find the influential critic Rudolf Louis brilliantly summarising Strauss’s skill:
No musician before now has ever advanced nearly so far in the art of letting the listener see, as it were, with his ears. This is the source of Strauss’s unique and personal strength, that he has developed the ideal, elevated gestures of the tonal language of Liszt into a gestural language of great specificity that undertakes quite seriously not only to interpret the events of an external plot in tone (by revealing the music that is latent in them) but to draw them until they are recognisable to the inner eye.
Strauss had, perhaps, always been destined to find a home in the opera house, though the flair he displayed with the orchestral tone poem during his early maturity, as he moved away from the clutches of Wagner and other forces besides, would stand him in significant stead for the rest of his composing life. Rooted in a nigh-peerless grasp of orchestral technique and the ability to summon character through the pithiest of motifs, Strauss’s orchestral works are as vividly eloquent as anything he wrote for the stage. Summoning vistas, philosophies and personalities of extraordinary breadth and variety, they reveal an enduring love of musical illustration that, for Strauss, often transcended the visual and the verbal. Indeed, shortly before the end of his life, Strauss insisted that a 'poetic programme may well suggest new forms, but whenever music is not developed logically from within, it becomes Literaturmusik'. When we listen to Don Juan, his breakthrough as a tone poet, or the very last works he composed, it is clear that Strauss always ensured his scores were anything but.
Gavin Plumley © 2023
The Philharmonia’s first encounter with Strauss’s music was in an August 1946 recording of Don Juan, conducted by the Italian Alceo Galliera, who Legge used for his abilities as an orchestral trainer rather than for any great interpretative flair. The original release on two Columbia 78s has never been reissued. Galliera conducted two important Strauss recordings in 1947: the Horn Concerto No 1, with the incomparable Dennis Brain as soloist; and the newly composed Oboe Concerto, played by another great artist, Léon Goossens. But apart from a solitary Don Juan under Galliera there were no live Strauss performances at all, until the Orchestra achieved its greatest coup yet: a concert conducted by the composer himself on 19 October 1947, during a visit to London whose primary aim was the collection of performing royalties withheld during the war. Strauss’s programme began with the familiar Don Juan, which needed little rehearsal, and then the 83-year-old composer taught the Orchestra two rarely heard works, the Burleske, with an old collaborator, Alfred Blumen, as pianist, and the Symphonia domestica. It was a historic and triumphant occasion in a packed Royal Albert Hall, and proved to be the last complete concert that Strauss ever conducted.
In 1948 Legge began a diplomatic balancing act to retain the services of two great rival conductors, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. The hugely ambitious Karajan created an enormous impression at his Philharmonia debut in April of that year, which began with a fiery Don Juan. By then Furtwängler had just made his first Philharmonia recordings, with the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. In a letter to Flagstad, written not long before his death in September 1949, Strauss indicated that he wanted her to give the premiere of his Four Last Songs. The publishers were Boosey and Hawkes in London, and so a Royal Albert Hall first performance with Flagstad, Furtwängler and the Philharmonia on 22 May 1950 was a logical outcome. Flagstad did not sing the complete cycle again: the demands of 'Frühling' ('Spring') were too extreme for her voice.
At that time, Strauss’s longer works were largely avoided through lack of popularity, but in the summer of 1954 Legge took a considerable risk and recorded the opera Ariadne auf Naxos, with Karajan conducting and a stellar cast including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Rudolf Schock, Rita Streich and Irmgard Seefried. It was an artistic triumph and was followed by excerpts from Arabella, with Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda and Lovro von Matačić as conductor. At the end of 1956 the new stereo technique was used to record Der Rosenkavalier, with Karajan, Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Otto Edelmann and Eberhard Wächter. This much admired performance has been reissued several times.
Karajan was now very much in the ascendant after Furtwängler’s death in November 1954 and succeeded him as director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He now had a sizeable list of EMI recordings to his name, but Legge realised that he would soon lose him both as a recording artist and as a concert conductor. He now focused on the elderly Otto Klemperer for Austro-German repertoire, with the much younger Carlo Maria Giulini taking care of Italian and other repertoire. Klemperer recorded the more popular Strauss tone poems, but little else, since he had a selective interest in the composer, and Giulini had almost no interest. Wolfgang Sawallisch emerged to direct an outstanding recording of Capriccio, with Schwarzkopf, Gedda, Wächter and Fischer-Dieskau, and he conducted Dennis Brain’s unsurpassed recordings of the two Horn Concertos. The youthful Lorin Maazel performed a then rarity, Also sprach Zarathustra, in June 1962.
As the 1960s progressed Legge found that concert promoting conditions in London were no longer conducive to his authoritarian approach, and recording opportunities were dwindling, so he abruptly decided to shut the Orchestra down in April 1964. The players were having none of this and with support from Klemperer (elected chief conductor) and Giulini they continued under the name of 'New Philharmonia'. Self-government and survival proved difficult and such works of Strauss that were risked usually comprised Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche and the Rosenkavalier suite. There were no more Strauss recordings until Sir John Barbirolli’s version of Metamorphosen in August 1967.
Klemperer agreed to record Don Quixote with the brilliant young cellist Jacqueline du Pré, in April 1968, but walked out after day one of the sessions. Sir Adrian Boult took over and used the last session time to conduct a single take in preparation for a following Royal Festival Hall concert, and the tapes were then shelved. In 1995 the recording producer Andrew Keener examined all the material and found that an acceptable performance could be assembled from the Boult take, with patches from the Klemperer session. Thus an important addition was made posthumously to du Pré’s precious recording legacy.
By 1970 Klemperer’s poor health and increasingly idiosyncratic ways were affecting the Orchestra, and Maazel was drafted in as associate chief conductor. The self-governing body could now record for any label, and Maazel made a version of Tod und Verklärung for Decca in 1971. Klemperer retired, but Maazel wanted too much personal control as his potential successor, and in 1973 Riccardo Muti began a ten-year spell as chief conductor. He performed no Strauss during his tenure, but a prominent Philharmonia advocate at that time was the composer’s biographer Norman Del Mar.
In 1977 the orchestra negotiated the right to use its original name. Strauss was then comparatively neglected, with just occasional performances and no important recordings. Tours of France and Japan in which Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted Ein Heldenleben and Don Juan were an exception. But then Giuseppe Sinopoli arrived as chief conductor in 1984 and he certainly was a Straussian. He was active on the concert platform, and directed 29 performances of Tod und Verklärung between 1987 and 1991, almost all of these on tours to Europe, USA and Japan. Fortunately, perhaps, he also conducted other Strauss, including two 1990 concert performances of Salome (with Janis Martin, Eva Randová and Josef Protschka), Also sprach Zarathustra in 1986 and Metamorphosen in 1994. The longer works now became more popular with audiences, and so for instance Sawallisch was heard in Ein Heldenleben (1985), Bernard Haitink in Eine Alpensinfonie (1988) and Mark Elder in Don Quixote (1993), while the Four Last Songs steadily gained in popularity.
In 1993 the Philharmonia began a regular residency at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, and of the nine operatic productions mounted between then and 2005, four were of Strauss operas, firstly Der Rosenkavalier under Armin Jordan in 1993, with Felicity Lott, Kurt Rydl and Randi Stene, then three rarely performed works, Die Frau ohne Schatten (1994), with Luanna DeVol, Thomas Moser and Jean-Philippe Lafont; Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman, 2001), with Sten Byriel, Natalie Dessay and Jill Grove; and Arabella (2002, revived in 2005), with Karita Mattila, Barbara Bonney and Thomas Hampson, all conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi. Dohnányi had become principal conductor in 1997 and conducted Strauss quite frequently in the concert hall.
In December 2007 the Philharmonia made its first complete studio recording of a Strauss opera since 1957—a version of Salome sung in English as part of Chandos’s Opera in English series, sponsored by the Peter Moores Foundation. Sir Charles Mackerras conducted a cast which included Susan Bullock, John Wegner and Sally Burgess.
The Philharmonia began a productive partnership with Signum Records in 2009. One of its early CD releases contained live recordings of Ein Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, taken from Royal Festival Hall performances conducted by Dohnányi.
It was not until the latter part of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 13-year reign, starting in 2008, that he focused on Strauss, but in February 2017 he directed four performances of Also sprach Zarathustra in Basingstoke, Cardiff, London and Madrid, and Don Juan on four occasions during a tour of Japan.
In 2017 the Philharmonia began a residency at the annual Garsington Opera festival held at Wormsley Park in Buckinghamshire. In 2021 the festival had to be held under Covid restrictions and it was a reduced and socially distanced ensemble that played in nine performances of Der Rosenkavalier. The principal singers were Miah Persson, Hanna Hipp and Derrick Ballard with Jordan de Souza as conductor.
A much-praised Decca recording made in October 2018 featured the soprano Lise Davidsen, then a rapidly rising star. She sang Elisabeth’s arias from Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Strauss—his Four Last Songs, Ariadne’s Aria from Ariadne auf Naxos and Vier Lieder, Op 27, with Salonen conducting.
Salonen’s reign as Principal Conductor came to an end in 2021, and his place was taken by a fellow Finn, Santtu-Matias Rouvali. The Covid pandemic hardly provided Rouvali with ideal starting conditions for his first major conducting appointment, but he soon made his mark with both the Orchestra and audiences.
Musical mountaineers—Strauss and Santtu in the 21st century
Richard Strauss’s music epitomises late-Romantic lushness and fin de siècle poignancy in a language rooted in tonality: an aching harmonic undertow pulling at surging waves of sound in a way that mirrors the end-of-an-era tussle between 19th-century opulence and 20th-century realism. That tussle, though, contributes to our enduring fascination with Strauss, and to his continued relevance as a composer of music that is intoxicatingly beautiful, in a way that continually renews and refreshes its position in the repertoire.
Strauss lived during an era of dramatic upheaval, and while his ethics were not above reproach—he accepted the position of Principal Conductor of the Bayreuth Festival after Toscanini resigned in protest against the Nazis—his pragmatism has a distinctly modern feel. Strauss was criticised as venal, vulgar, bourgeois; Mahler was baffled by the contrast between Strauss’s earth-bound personality and heavenly music. Today, aspects of Strauss’s commercially astute attitude would not feel out of place. He also had a strong sense of irony and a tendency to conceal his feelings beneath defensive layers of humour—but he could ‘be his own cheerleader’ when his confidence bubbled over.
These contradictions, from boisterous over-confidence to vulnerable insecurity, are audible in Strauss’s music as it ranges between the bombastic and the tenderly sublime. His proclivities are familiar: a love of nature but an enjoyment of physical pleasures; an unorthodox sense of spirituality rooted in secularism. Strauss was flawed but in a way to which many people today can relate; his complex humanity continues to speak to us, and his career is peppered with that combination of sincerity and flippancy that makes him such an interesting figure.
Richard Strauss was born in Munich. His father, Franz, was a horn player in the Bavarian Court Orchestra, and tried unsuccessfully to discourage his son’s interest in Wagner. Franz joined the Bayreuth orchestra in 1876, and the Strauss family took the opportunity to holiday in the Italian Alps. As Richard’s sister, Johanna, wrote: 'He had a great love for everything, mountains and forests, meadows and flowers, for all animals …'
Strauss’s orchestral output embraced nature, but also extended to philosophy, storytelling and even self-promotion. By his mid-30s he had composed the tone poems Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Streiche, Also sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben, which was inspired by Strauss’s love for his wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna—for whom he composed numerous glorious songs—and by the Nietzschean tussle between his inner and outer worlds. Strauss’s friend Romain Rolland wrote of sniffing 'Neroism in the air'. Strauss responded: 'I am not a hero—I prefer to withdraw, to be quiet, to have peace. I haven’t enough genius. I lack the strength of health and willpower. I don’t want to overstrain myself. At the moment I need to create gentle, happy music. No more heroic things.'
Even so, Strauss went on to write the self-referential Symphonia domestica—but the new century also saw him turn his attention to opera, producing extraordinary scores including Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. The intersection between Strauss’s humility and self-aggrandisement, between domesticity and depth, seems to have been his sense of humour, which allowed him to pivot between postures, often with a twinkle in his eye. Even in the post-war gravity of his later compositions, such as the exquisite Metamorphosen or the Four Last Songs, one senses quiet strength rather than frailty. In his heyday, his bracing, outdoorsy vigour and energy were frequently to the fore and are perhaps the most pertinent connecting characteristics between Strauss and the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali—who, for his first concert in the role on 30 September 2021, chose an all-Strauss programme of Also sprach Zarathustra and Eine Alpensinfonie.
Santtu’s affinity with nature and his sense of fun make him a breath of fresh air in his approach to conducting the Philharmonia. Like Strauss, he likes to immerse himself in the natural world, saying of his home life in Finland: 'I live in the countryside, and have 14 hectares of forest. I shoot birds, deer, rabbits, geese, wild pigeons, hare.' There are few conductors who can bring such personal experience to interpreting the hunting party of Eine Alpensinfonie.
When discussing the Finnish and British temperaments, Santtu could have been describing Strauss: 'There’s a dry sense of humour, and I think the tendency both have to be a little arrogant sometimes, but also to keep something hidden.'
Of working with the Philharmonia, Santtu emphasises 'how much fun we have on stage together' and his infectious joie de vivre feels distinctly Straussian; this was a composer who revelled in life, nature, pleasure—happiness. Although he never exhibits the hints of malice underlying some of Till Eulenspiegel’s 'merry pranks', there is something excitingly unpredictable about Santtu in a way that echoes Strauss’s playful side. As Kira Doherty, President and Second Horn, explains: 'The idea of adding in an extra bass drum roll at the end of a Tchaikovsky symphony, or a bells-up fortissimo edit to the horn part in another, may be seen by some as musical sacrilege, but for Santtu, it is an act of creative engagement with the work'. She adds that 'Santtu will only give the skeleton of his interpretation ahead of time, allowing for many of the finer points to be determined by musical intuition and presence during the performance itself.'
As with Strauss himself, there is a serious intellect behind any surface levity. Santtu’s insights into conducting Strauss give us a sense of his deep understanding of a score’s strata—and of the spontaneity to which Kira referred: 'There are so many layers in the music. Sometimes it’s hard to choose which is the primary layer in the music and which is the secondary, and that makes Strauss’s music interesting to me, because you can actually pick it up by feeling in the now, on the stage, in the concert; you suddenly bring out a little bit more of the second voice or even the third voice. It changes how the music sounds, but it still sounds so good; it never ruins the melody.' Santtu, with his background as a percussionist, also speaks of Strauss’s rhythms, saying: 'I’m not a mathematician, but I want to play a game with these complex rhythms inside the music. Still it sounds beautiful; but nobody thinks about the rhythms in Strauss’s music.'
This focus on an aspect of Strauss’s music not often discussed reveals a conductor who, even as he 'plays a game' with those rhythms, is taking this music, and the Philharmonia itself, into a new era—combining a very personal vision of the music with unusual emphases and almost improvisatory nuances brought out in real time. Santtu draws an analogy between performing Eine Alpensinfonie and embarking on his relationship with the Philharmonia: 'It is a mountain—we start now, here with the Philharmonia and we go up, but I hope we stay up there and don’t come down!'
When, in 1947, Strauss conducted the Philharmonia, he said quietly before going on stage: 'So the old horse ambles out of the stables once more.' Today, with Santtu-Matias Rouvali, the Philharmonia continues to celebrate and explore Strauss’s rich legacy: the horse does not amble, but gallops into the future with renewed exhilaration.
Philhamonia Records © 2023