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Richard Strauss (1864-1949) - Symphonic Poem ‘Ein Heldenleben’

The horn player Franz Strauss continually disputed with his main employers, Hans von Bülow and Richard Wagner, and made no secret of his dislike of Wagner’s style. He got away with it because to them he was utterly indispensable - he was the Dennis Brain of his day. Franz even ensured that his son’s education, all thorough and proper, excluded this misguided, modern Liszt/Wagner nonsense. The thoroughly and properly educated son’s early compositions dutifully followed his father’s prescription. Unfortunately, the young Richard Strauss struggled to blossom in Schumann’s shadow. So, he did what youngsters always do - he rebelled. Transplanted by Alexander Ritter into the light of the very school that was verboten by Vater, he found the fertile field of freedom he needed for his embryonic idiom to flourish. 

His idiom was essentially ‘theatrical’. Threading his entire career was a succession of songs, in their relative intimacy like seeds from which sprouted the showman, the lover of bright lights and spectacle. Unusually, Strauss’s career fell into two almost completely distinct segments, separated by the turn of the century. 

From the mid-1880s he was the composer of magnificent symphonic poems. Still only 24 when his second effort, Don Juan, seriously seduced the ‘serious music’ scene, Strauss injected a new vigour, a vitality that scorched the pants off his illustrious seniors - and everyone else within earshot. Superbly scored with all the extravagance of the high Romantic, invested with sumptuous of tunes and occasionally - being hooked on complex counterpoint - gratuitously over-populated with notes, his symphonic poems provided unprecedentedly lush listening experiences. Yet, when the drama demanded, his music would sizzle with startling astringency or be pared down to translucent filigree. In the pursuit of graphic expression, Strauss considered all extremes fair game. Audiences were brought to their feet: some cheering, some booing. Broadly speaking, critics made the latter noises. 

Come 1900, he quite literally switched to opera. Up until then, he’d written only one, Guntram (1894), at around the time he married the soprano Pauline de Ahna. Subsequently he wrote no more symphonic poems - strictly, Symphonia Domestica (1902-3) and Eine Alpensymphonie (1911-5) fall outside the definition. The main cycle of seven symphonic poems ended with the controversial Ein Heldenleben (1899). Why ‘controversial’? 

Well, the ‘nay’ camp rail at the arrogance and vanity of the subject-matter: Strauss casting himself as a hero, vanquishing adversaries who are all too obviously - even without textual confirmation - his critics. Worse, those critics come across as a spineless, mealy-mouthed bunch. Worse still, he goes on, grandiloquently, to survey his ‘works of peace’ and finally to rest smugly on plushly-upholstered, self-awarded laurels. This is all, surely, a bit cocky for a mere thirty-something with only a handful of pieces to his credit? 

The ‘aye’ camp, starting from Strauss’s laconic, ‘I’m no hero’, argue that Heldenleben is a more profound response to Nietzsche's philosophy than his earlier Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), having something to do with reconciling our ‘outer and inner lives’, and the ‘essentiality of individual will-power and self-awareness’ to overcoming life’s little setbacks, realising personal potential, and fulfilling life-goals. Excuse me if I observe that this amounts to pretty much the same thing, only dressed up in a posher frock. The only real difference is that the ‘hero’ is not ‘I’, but ‘He’. 

We can infer a more mundane but likelier motive: Musician marries singer. Husband writes songs for wife. Wife, dominant partner, asks, ‘Richard, why waste your dramatic talents on orchestral works? Why not combine them with your lyric talents, and create operas? They’d make more money!’ Husband counters, ‘My love, I tried - with Guntram, remember? It flopped.’ Distaff clincher: ‘Yes, dear, but now you’re so much better at it!’ Husband, flattered, cogitates - and naturally sees sense. Husband decides on career change. However, also gets nice idea for one last symphonic poem, to ‘close the book’, neatly and tidily, on this phase of his life. 

Ein Heldenleben broke no new ground musically, but it did as the first work to ‘criticise’ critics, with the incidental bonus of making itself critic-proof! Strauss’s ironically humourous streak might even have been a major motivator. 

Strauss’s section titles, like many of Mahler’s, were not meant for public consumption, but concert promoters and programme note writers (including the unapologetic undersigned!) have stubbornly insisted on perpetuating them. Although, as usual, its superb structure satisfies listeners who choose to ignore programmatic prompts, to suggest - as some do - that the work operates within the constraints of sonata-form may be a bit much. Nonetheless, it nods in that direction, if you regard sections 1 - 3 as an exposition of three subjects, and 4 as a development concluding with a feeling of reprise, stretched by 5 into a ‘career recapitulation’. 

1. The Hero. We’re plunged straight into good, old-fashioned ‘knight on white charger, lance held on high’ territory. At first presented directly in a rich unison of strings and horns, Strauss’s Hero soon emerges as a complex character: alert, noble, aspiring, romantic, determined, unswervably committed to good causes (i.e. crusading), yet with a smile and whimsical twinkle in his eye. 

2. The Hero’s Adversaries. Suddenly, he’s surrounded by a right bunch of spiteful ingrates, all bar one spitting scorn over his good deeds. The ‘one’, like most ringleaders lurking peripherally, is an even more unsavoury specimen, a singularly surreptitious slime-ball. Ignoring them, he nonchalantly strolls on by. They worm their way back into his path, but he casually strides over them. However, his next encounter (fanfare-like figures) stops him dead in his tracks. 

3. The Hero's Companion. A vision of loveliness (solo violin) so dumbfounds him that, at first, he responds to her seductive posing and flirtatious caprice only with mumbling and shuffling of knightly shoes. With masterly musical magicianship, Strauss depicts his recovery of articulative ability and learning - ‘on the hoof’, as it were - the art of courtship. Gradually their demeanours converge, until they unite in an engulfing tide of passion . . . [The function of this ellipsis is exactly as in popular romantic fiction.] Later, not even the distant spiteful bickering disturbs their post-nuptial reverie. 

4. The Hero's Battlefield. They are disturbed by urgent calls to arms, sallying forth to meet the foe. Identified through thrumming snare-drum and raucous trumpet the ingrates, viciously spitting vile venom, have become a real threat. Urged by his Companion, he locks horns with the foe. The tumult is notable, not so much for the unholy racket as for the contrapuntal ingenuity with which Strauss opposes the thematic antagonists. The opposition buckles under the sheer weight, breadth, numbers and sound-pressure of the Hero’s motives. He rides triumphantly across the battlefield (‘reprise’), his hymn of victory crowned by the thrilling Don Juan horn theme! 

5. The Hero's Works of Peace. However, something slimy lurks peripherally, having (you may have noticed) kept well away from the open conflict. Our Hero treads on it, then settles down (harp) to write his C.V. This resumé is extraordinary: Rather than simply ‘parading’ his quotes, Strauss interweaves themes representative of the entire cycle of symphonic poems - themes which were never intended to blend. In its modest way, this is indeed a ‘heroic’ achievement. 

6. The Hero's Retirement from the World and Fulfilment. Strauss’s ‘working title’ is perhaps a bit misleading. For a start, something slimy has still not been eliminated. Much strenuous effort is necessary to do the job properly, finally clearing the air for a serene, optimistic string theme. As our Hero dreams of bigger and more daring deeds this theme expands, glowing with visionary light. Yet, at its apex it is corrupted by an acrid stench. The ‘hero’ is, after all, only human, worried that new, more powerful adversaries may confound him. His Companion’s solo violin soothes his ‘fear’, and restores his ‘hope’ for their future. The contented couple ride off, not so much into the sunset as into a new dawn. 

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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