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Ein Heldenleben, Op 40

composer
1898

 
Just how much Strauss was donning Till’s character and cocking his own snook at the critical naysayers and the philistine bourgeois he so greatly detested, most notably after the failure of Guntram is perhaps moot, but this was not to be the last time he might appear as a protagonist in his own compositions. The Symphonia Domestica Op 53, in particular, has the composer depicting the minutest details of his home life, wife and family. More controversially, Ein Heldenleben Op 40, first performed in Frankfurt am Main on March 3, contains long episodes depicting or reflecting upon the composer’s personal life. The tone poem received a barrage of criticism when it appeared, portraying Strauss as a monstrous egotist, a shameless self-promoter, portraying himself as the hero of the piece. Such critics may well have been also smarting at the outrageous caricature of their kind as being shrill, spiteful and complacent, in the second movement. The Nobel Prize-winning French dramatist, Romain Rolland quotes Strauss thus, ’I do not see why I should not compose a symphony about myself; I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.’ Perhaps this is tongue-in-cheek or perhaps there is a hint of the serious in here, too. He further mentioned to Rolland that, ‘I am not a hero. I haven't got the necessary strength; I am not cut out for battle; I prefer to withdraw, to be quiet, to have peace.’ Strauss could be pompous, but he certainly also had a sense of humour; the truth may well lie somewhere between these two qualities. The work is cast in six sections and although he ultimately refrained from including explicit programs in his published work, numerous sources agree on the naming of the movements:

1. Der Held (The Hero)
2. Des Helden Widersacher (The Hero’s Adversaries)
3. Des Helden Gefährtin (The Hero’s Companion)
4. Des Helden Walstatt (The Hero at Battle)
5. Des Helden Friedenswerke (The Hero’s Works of Peace)
6. Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung (The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Consummation)

No formal information is forthcoming from the composer’s score, but, in the most general fashion, Ein Heldenleben might be thought of as an extended and expanded version of a symphonic first movement. Der Held 2 is all about our hero—a character study. He strides forth, horns and cellos soaring, the orchestra, thrusting and surging, yet noble and dignified. The ignoble critics are up for a bashing in Des Helden Widersacher 3 (beg). Caviling clarinets, squawking oboes, petty flutes and grumbling low brass make for a rather personal attack on Strauss’s perceived enemies. The hero rises above all of this clamour, eventually silencing their spiteful attacks. Des Helden Gefährtin 3 (end) & 4 is a portrait of Strauss’s wife, the singer Pauline de Ahna, represented by the solo violin in a series of long cadenzas. When challenged about some of the less than flattering sounding moments of the portrait Strauss commented, ‘It’s my wife I wanted to show. She is very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish … at every minute different from how she had been the moment before.’ Nonetheless, it is soon clear that the hero is smitten by her. The hero is soon bidden by offstage trumpets to leave his love-bed and prepare for battle. Des Helden Walstatt 5 opens with brutal, militaristic drums and a trumpet emerges as the harbinger of the fight to come. The battle scene is an extended development section where the hero repels attack after attack until his theme emerges triumphant. Des Helden Friedenswerke 6 enters peacefully via a pair of lugubrious tubas but soon broadens out into a calm reverie where the hero looks back on his good works. Strauss is considering his own achievements here by interweaving quotations from all of his previous tone poems (except Aus Italien) throughout the symphonic texture. Notable here is his generous use of material from his beloved Guntram. Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung 7 is effectively the coda to the piece, where previous works appear again in the counterpoint and battles past recalled with a return of the critics opening motif. The calming influence of the solo violin re-appears to sooth these nightmares and return the world to rights. A solemn last variant of the opening hero theme in the full brass builds a final fanfare to a life fulfilled.

from notes by M Ross © 2008

Recordings

Strauss (R): Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche & Ein Heldenleben
SIGCD148Download only

Details

Movement 1: Der Held
Movement 2: Des Helden Widersacher
Movement 3: Des Helden Gefährtin
Movement 4: Des Helden Walstatt
Movement 5: Des Helden Friedenswerke
Movement 6: Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung

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