BLOG – Coming to Terms With Strauss – Part 1 of 3


Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

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I’ll be writing some on Strauss in the next few weeks.  This is the first of what I hope will be three posts.  If you’re in London, please think about coming to the South London Chamber Concerts September 28th, where I’ll be conducting Strauss’s Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat Major “The Happy Workshop.”  If you’re elsewhere, then I hope reading here can give you a bit of an impression of how I’ll be treating the music.

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To begin, I’ll admit that Richard Strauss has never been my favorite composer. His music has always seemed overwrought, plus program music irks me.  I find what Daniel Albrecht so eloquently calls “laborious and calculated simulations of extra-musical phenomena” mostly annoying (and borderline obnoxious), with a couple of exceptions. [1]  For example, I chuckle a bit when Berlioz’s head plunks down to descending pizzicati in the Symphonie Fantastique (listen for the the whack plus three plucks at about 6:36).  I mostly love Mahler 1 and Mahler 2, as contrived as their connections may be. [2]  However, I have no such feelings for any of Strauss’s programatic works, even if I have a soft spot for the opening of Don Juan.

In the last year or so I have had a few experiences with Strauss that have started to change my feelings of his aesthetic.  First, I attended a course where we workshopped the Oboe Concerto.  This is a very late work of Strauss’s composed at the behest of Philadelphia’s then principal oboist John de Lancie, who happened to be part of the Allied contingent who invited themselves into Strauss’s estate in Garmisch at the end of World War II.  The piece is almost anti-Straussian in its simplicity.  It is light and friendly—though not entirely so to the soloist—and owes, as does the Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat (more in a moment), a large debt to Mozart.

The performing forces are also atypical for Strauss. The piece’s full title is Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra.  Yes, small orchestra. This idea certainly contradicts the maestro’s own statement of just a few years earlier.

“I don’t compose for provincial stages with orchestras less than fifty players, or for traveling shows…I have never had the talent to write what can be performed easily.” [3]

My second Strauss experience happened last June when I heard a performance of Strauss’s Metamorphosen played by the London Symphony at St. Paul’s Cathedral.   The piece is decidedly Romantic, though intimate and contrapuntal, like a Brahms motet but for twenty-three solo strings. That is even fewer than play in the Oboe Concerto!  It was by no means the first time I heard the piece, but in St. Paul’s it took on a more lucid quality than on recording.  So much sound evaporated into the cathedral’s giant dome that each of the string parts was audible. What is usually a wash of counterpoint and string color became chiseled and clear.

Last, I have, for the past few months, been a guest in Strauss’s “Happy Workshop,” that is, his Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat, which I am conducting with the South London Chamber Concerts on September 28th.  I have come to really love the piece, which, at sixteen players, is smaller in forces than either the Oboe Concerto or Metamorphosen.  The Sonatina No. 2 is like Mozart eating steak: fat, happy, and somehow shamelessly elegant.  On top of that, the writing for the winds—and especially for the horns—is absolutely virtuosic.  Strauss, in his lighter style, relinquished none of the demands he places on musicians.  In fact, the demands are greater because the playing requires such delicacy.

While Sonatina No. 2 and the Oboe Concerto stylistically contrast Metamorphosen, all share one important aspect: there is no program in any of the three. Strauss does write “in memoriam” into the Metamorphosen score, underlining musical quotations from the funeral march in Beethoven 3, and the piece does act the part of an elegy.  But Strauss, according to Michael Kennedy, meant the title, “metamorphoses,” as the elderly Goethe did, as work’s progress. [4] It is pure music, with no extra-musical requirements of its listeners.

In preparation for September 28th I have been listening to a lot of Strauss’s music, and the three experiences above have helped me come to the music with fresh ears.  There is something about the non-programmatic, non-operatic Strauss that changes the way I hear his program music and his operas.  They become less gimmicky; I hear fewer “laborious and calculated simulations” and more of the reasons why Carl Dalhaus, in the end, placed Strauss’s music, even the tone poems, in the category of absolute music. [5]

The transparency of style and smaller performing forces elucidate all that came before, like these three works are the filter through which we should hear Strauss’s prior music. I can’t say that I have fully come to enjoy to the size of much of Strauss’s early orchestral works, though I am giving them a serious second chance.  They still sound overwrought and severely Romantic to me, but I am trying to put the surface aesthetic aside in order to listen to musical voice that created it.

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In my next post I’ll tackle the critique of Strauss’s aesthetic and technique that originated with Alban Berg and passed through Theodor Adorno.  It is a little bit thorny, but it’s revealing of twentieth century music and aesthetics.  We’ll see why Strauss, though he lived forty-nine years of it, never really participated in the twentieth century’s music.  In my third post I’ll show how Strauss’s reaction to the War (and all of the horrors that accompanied it) is made manifest in the trend toward Mozartian style, and in his “in memoriam.”  There I will also dig into the music of the Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat. Please leave a comment if you’d like to challenge any of my claims here, or if you’d like to admonish me for secretly not enjoying Strauss all this time.  

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[1] – Daniel Albrecht, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2000), 10.

[2] – Mahler’s first symphony is famously called ‘The Titan,’ in which the hero (Mahler himself, of course) dies at the end only to be resurrected in the Mahler’s second symphony, cleverly titled ‘The Resurrection’.

[3] – Quoted in Michael Kennedy, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1999), 301.

[4] – Ibid., 362.

[5] – Carl Dalhaus tr. Roger Lustig, The Idea of Absolute Music. Chicago: Chicago University Press (1989), 137-138.

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