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Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40
Richard Strauss was born in Munich, Germany on June 11, 1864 and died in the village of Garmisch in Germany’s Bavarian Alps on September 8, 1949. Ein Heldenleben was composed in 1898, and the première performance was given in Frankfurt in 1899. The piece runs approximately 40 minutes in performance and is scored for 4 flutes, piccolo, 4 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, tenor tuba, timpani, 2 harps, and orchestral strings.
On April 16, 1897, while employed as a conductor at the Munich Court Opera, Strauss noted in his diary, “Symphonic poem Held und Welt [Hero and World] begins to take shape; as a satyr play to accompany it – Don Quixote.” As it turned out, he took up Held und Welt in earnest only in 1898, after finishing Don Quixote. He drafted the whole work – now retitled Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life, or, more literally, A Heroic Life) – during his summer break, and completed the orchestration on December 1, a month after taking up a new conducting post at the Berlin Court Opera. He led the première in Frankfurt, on March 3, 1899, and introduced the new work to Berlin three weeks later.
With his three last and largest tone poems – Ein Heldenleben, the Sinfonia Domestica (1903) and Eine Alpensinfonie (1915) – Strauss faced mounting criticism, charges of excess, megalomania, superficiality, bad taste. Norman Del Mar, in his influential three-volume biography, put Ein Heldenleben at the head of a chapter entitled “The Decline of the Tone Poems”, and all three late tone poems have remained controversial, misunderstood, and underrated works. With Ein Heldenleben, critics were quick to pounce because its nominal Hero, the object of Strauss’s considerable powers of musical characterization, was the composer himself, who was not shy about admitting it: as he once told the French writer Romain Rolland, “I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.”
Still, the critics were wrong to infer from Ein Heldenleben that the composer fancied himself some sort of mythic hero. Strauss neither had nor imagined that he had a hero’s temperament, and in fact resembled more a banker than a Teutonic knight. He lived in black-and-white; he only composed in Technicolor. Ein Heldenleben is really an allegorical work anyways: Strauss was using the vocabulary of heroism to depict an artist’s life – an artist’s personality, ideas, creative output, domestic life, and career. Heard this way, the work offers an honest, rather than self-aggrandizing, portrait of its composer, exploring the struggles within him (self-doubt, disgust, resignation) as well as his relations with the rest of the world (including his critics). As his biographer Michael Kennedy recently put it, the work “reflects Strauss’s preoccupation at this period of his life with the Nietzschean ideology of an individual’s right to self-determination in the face of a hostile world.”
Many critics over the past century have heard in Strauss’s music a reflection of the military ambitins of the regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia, for which purpose Ein Heldenleben served as Exhibit A. But as so often in the Strauss tone poems, the music is much more psychologically complex than its showy and grandiose surface at first suggests, and though it is vivid and pictorial iti s principally concerned with exploring the inner world of personality, emotion, and psychology. Moreover, there are layers of irony and parody in this music that undercut any notion of self-aggrandizement, and only recently has this been widely appreciated. Just as Don Quixote turned out to be more serious than a mere “satyr play,” so Ein Heldenleben, for all its philosophical ambitions and militaristic rhetoric, turned out to be a cheekily self-aware work. It is heroic but it is also fun, for Strauss never put on heroic airs in public without planting his tongue very firmly in his cheek.
Asked why he wrote Ein Heldenleben, he once replied, disarmingly, that “Beethoven’s Eroica [Symphony] is so little beloved of our conductors” that he decided to write his own heroic piece, in the same key (E-flat major), as compensation. In reality, the work grew out of more personal impulses. Indeed, the music was unusual for Strauss in that it was not based on some existing literary source, but followed a narrative of his own devising. The work divides into six parts, and in a variety of published and unpublished sources Strauss clarified his programmatic intentions in each part, though he declined to give them titles in the published score (like Mahler, he was always ambivalent when it came to program music).
Part 1, “The Hero” (approximately 4 minutes): Beginning with a confident, wide-spaced theme vaulting upward from the bass, Strauss offers a vigorous, nuanced portrait of his Hero, the many sides of his character captured in a plethora of themes and motifs. Here, as throughout, Strauss’s virtuosity is breathtaking: listen to the dense counterpoint, the ingenious development of themes, the powerful rhythmic momentum, and the highly original orchestration, which calls for enormous forces – quadruple woodwinds, eight horns, five trumpets, and so on. A mighty cadence to E-flat major is prepared, but interrupted by –
Part 2, “The Hero’s Adversaries” (4 minutes): For Strauss, this meant the critics, toward whom he felt great bitterness despite considerable professional success. Rarely has an artist taken such savagely witty revenge in public upon his critics: “rasping” staccato figures set in chattery counterpoint in the woodwinds portray his critics as petty, spiteful, insignificant philistines, while ecclesiastical perfect fifths in the tubas depict them as pompous and pedantic, too. As Strauss draws them, the critics were not his equals – they lacked his nobility of soul – yet, the music that follows implies that he was still hurt, dejected, and set to brooding by their slights.
Part 3, “The Hero’s Companion” (12 minutes): In a long cadenza for the concertmaster, Strauss offers a compelling portrait of his own wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, to whom he was devoted for more than fifty years. By all accounts she was a formidable, mercurial, complex woman, “every minutes different from what she was the minute before,” as Strauss put it. His verbal comments in the solo-violin part reveal the range of moods he sought to depict: “hypocritically languishing,” merry, frivolous, sentimental, high-spirited, sharp, playful, amiable, angry, magging, and finally sweet and full of love. This portrait completed, the music swells up passionately in what Strauss called a “love scene,” as he reveals the depth of his feelings for Pauline and the profound satisfaction he received from his secure (albeit stormy) domestic life. But this bliss is soon interrupted by –
Part 4, “The Hero’s Deeds of War” (8 minutes): From a distance, the critics are heard again, along with war-like trumpet fanfares, and with some reluctance the Hero rouses himself to do battle with his adversaries. This part, a development of motifs from the previous three parts, features some of the most ferociously cacophonous battle music ever written – bitingly dissonant and noisy to a degree unprecedented in late-Romantic music. It earned Strauss a good deal of criticism, notoriety, and mockery (one critic called it an “atrocity”), though it is entirely apt dramatically. At the climax, Strauss recalls several themes from previous works, including a famous heroic theme from Don Juan (in the horns): as Del Mar writes, “In his exultance the Hero presents to the whole world excerpts from his mightiest conceptions.” And yet, the critics are not wholly silenced.
Part 5, “The Hero’s Works of Peace” (6 minutes): The battle behind him (for now), the Hero returns to his creative work, and this Strauss symbolizes with pointed references to his own output. In a dreamy episode, a masterpiece of contrapuntal technique, he weaves together more than thirty quotations from his own previous operas, tone poems, and songs (Del Mar handily catalogued them all in his biography), and significantly he quotes mostly love themes, thus forging a connection between creative productivity and domestic harmony. But still the critics reappear, rousing the Hero, briefly, to anger and self-doubt.
Part 6, “The Hero’s Flight from the World and the Fulfillment of his Life” (12 minutes): In the last dozen pages of the score, Strauss, who lived a frantically busy and very public life in both Munich and Berlin, crafts a vision of a quiet, creatively fulfilling retirement. A gently rocking pastoral melody in the English horn (mimicking a shepherd’s pipe) tells us that Strauss longed to leave the city for the countryside. In the closing pages, there is a touching cantilena for solo violin, and as it comes to an end the trumpets recall the famous opening motto from Also sprach Zarathustra (i.e. the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey). In this extraordinarily revealing moment, the contentedly bourgeois Strauss seems to imply that for him the solution to the cosmic mysteries of life was to be found at home, in his work, and with his beloved companion at his side.
Significantly, the critics are not absent even in Part 6, for the Hero’s final retirement is preceded by one more (brief) surge of battle music. And so the ending of Ein Heldenleben is ambivalent. The Hero never really vanquishes or silences his enemies; he chooses to ignore them. Tired of the struggle, he simply walks away. Strauss was not suggesting that heroic quests were foolish or pointless, only that they were not for him. “I am not a hero,” he told Romain Rolland. “I haven’t the necessary strength. I am not cut out for battle; I prefer to withdraw, to be quiet, to have peace.” In his original score, incidentally the work ended quietly, as it should; the great brass-and-woodwind chord with which the published score ends was a late revision based on advice from a friend, and he soon regretted it.
Strauss dedicated Ein Heldenleben to the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which Mengelberg led for fifty years and which Strauss had admired on a visit to Amsterdam in 1898. Mengelberg recorded the work with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 19341, though his 1928 recording with the new York Philharmonic remains one of the gloesi of the early days or recording. Strauss himself played extracts from the score in two piano rolls (1905 and ca. 1914), and conducted the whole work in recordings with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra (1926), the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra (1941), and the Vienna Philharmonic (1944).
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