Richard Strauss — Notturno, Opus 44, No.1

KEY ART, Licini

Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich, Bavaria on June 11, 1864 and died at his home in Garmisch on Sep­tem­ber 8, 1949. His orches­tral song Not­turno is the first of two songs that com­prise his Opus 44. The fact that the com­poser labeled these as Zwei grössere Gesänge für tief­ere Stimme mit Orch­ester­be­gleitung (“two larger songs for deep voice with orches­tral accom­pa­ni­ment”) is sig­nif­i­cant and dis­cussed below. Not­turno’s text is taken from a poem of the same name by the Ger­man poet Richard Dehmel (1863 – 1920). Strauss, who had only recently taken up his duties as chief con­duc­tor of the Berlin Royal Court Opera (where he served from 1898 to 1908), com­posed the song at his home in Char­lot­ten­burg on July 11, 1899 and scored it that Sep­tem­ber. It was pre­miered on Decem­ber 3, 1900, in Berlin, with the com­poser con­duct­ing the Berlin Phil­har­monic, and with bari­tone Bap­tist Hoff­mann (1864 – 1937), who was then at the begin­ning of his twenty-two years with the Berlin Opera. The work is scored for two flutes and pic­colo flute, two oboes and Eng­lish horn, two clar­inets and bass clar­inet, two bas­soons and con­tra­bas­soon, three trom­bones, and solo vio­lin in addi­tion to the usual com­ple­ment of strings (Strauss asks for them to be divided 12 – 12-8 – 7-6).


Richard Strauss spent his entire cre­ative life, almost eighty years, writ­ing songs — from his first effort, a Christ­mas carol com­posed when he was six, to the mag­i­cal Four Last Songs, the last of which was com­pleted only a year before he died (as was the recently dis­cov­ered Mal­ven). But of the more than 200 songs pub­lished in the com­plete edi­tion of his work, only fif­teen are orches­tral songs. Of those, only the Four Last Songs are at all well known to most music lovers.

Though the other orches­tral songs are mas­ter­pieces and deserve to be much bet­ter known, Not­turno is per­haps the most aston­ish­ing achieve­ment among the ear­lier orches­tral lieder. It is more a tone poem for voice and orches­tra than a song and, though it was writ­ten sev­eral years before Salome and Elek­tra shook the musi­cal world, its use of har­monic struc­ture and instru­men­ta­tion to con­vey emo­tion and drama clearly presage what the com­poser would accom­plish in those two operas. If one did not know that Not­turno was writ­ten in 1899, one would assume it had been writ­ten a decade later.

Most of the Strauss songs one encoun­ters at orches­tral con­certs, or on record­ings with an orches­tra, were orig­i­nally writ­ten with piano accom­pa­ni­ment and orches­trated later. Some of the best known of these were not even orches­trated by Strauss. Con­duc­tor Felix Mottl, for instance, is respon­si­ble for the orches­tra­tion of Ständ­chen. It was Robert Heger, the con­duc­tor of the famous 1933 record­ing of major excerpts from Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier, who was respon­si­ble for orches­trat­ing Traum durch die Däm­merung, Allersee­len, Heim­liche Auf­forderung, and the ubiq­ui­tous Zueig­nung. These arrange­ments were all done dur­ing the composer’s life­time, and he had to have at least tac­itly approve of them, even if he did not always care for the musi­cal results. In 1940 he finally got around to orches­trat­ing Zueig­nung (writ­ten in 1882 – 83) for the soprano Vior­ica Ursuleac, but Strauss’s far-superior ver­sion is sel­dom heard today because he changed the end­ing of the song to include a thank you for her appear­ance in the title role of Die ägyp­tis­che Helena.

Pauline and Richard Strauss

For­tu­nately, Strauss orches­trated a num­ber of his lieder so they could be per­formed dur­ing his numer­ous appear­ances as a con­duc­tor. Songs such as Cäcilie and Mor­gen, writ­ten orig­i­nally as a wed­ding present for his wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna, became part of the couple’s joint appear­ances — in the piano ver­sions dur­ing lieder recitals, and in their instru­men­tal ver­sions for orches­tral con­certs. Strauss also orches­trated his songs Wiegen­lied, Meinem Kind, and Mut­tertänd­leri for Pauline to sing as a sort of “Mut­ter­lieder” group. And we are indeed for­tu­nate that, from time to time, he revis­ited songs and orches­trated them: pop­u­lar songs such as Befreit, Fre­undliche Vision, and Ruhe, meine Seele, as well as more obscure songs such as Der Arbeits­man.

But these are all orches­trated songs, not orches­tral songs. Though this might at first seem like a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence, Strauss him­self dif­fer­en­ti­ated between the two, often using the term Gesänge rather than Lieder for his orches­tral songs.

The first of these orches­tral Gesänge are the four songs of Opus 33, which were writ­ten from July 1896 through Jan­u­ary 1897, fol­lowed shortly by Opus 44’s two songs. The tim­ing of both opuses is inter­est­ing and grows even more intrigu­ing when one looks at exactly when, dur­ing his life­time, Strauss turned to the com­po­si­tion of orches­tral lieder. With the excep­tion of the Four Last Songs, Strauss always wrote orches­tral Gesänge when he felt uneasy about his abil­ity to set words to orches­tral music. Opuses 33, 44, and 51 lead up to Salome and Elek­tra; Opus 71 comes from the trou­bled years between Die Frau ohne Schat­ten and Die ägyp­tis­che Helena.

Anton van Rooy

Strauss had found his own voice as a com­poser of songs very early, with his remark­able Opus 10, eight lieder writ­ten while he was still a teenager. Three of them—Zueig­nung, Die Nacht, and Allersee­len—con­tinue to be among his most pop­u­lar songs.  Only a few years later, his tone poem Don Juan served notice that he was just as skill­ful and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic when it came to writ­ing for an orches­tra. The great Hans von Bülow (who had con­ducted the world pre­mieres of Wagner’s Tris­tan und Isolde and Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg) announced that Strauss was Richard the Third (because after Richard Wag­ner there could be no Richard II). When Strauss fol­lowed up Don Juan with Death and Trans­fig­u­ra­tion and his Opus 10 lieder with dozens of other remark­able songs — to say noth­ing of his bur­geon­ing career as a con­duc­tor and occa­sion­ally as a piano soloist — it must have seemed there was noth­ing, musi­cally, he could not do — and do with easy, imme­di­ate success.

Obvi­ously, some­one who com­poses with equal facil­ity for voice and for orches­tra would seem to be born to write opera. Strauss thought so, too. His first opera, Gun­tram, was pre­miered in Weimar in 1894 when he was thirty. Its recep­tion was luke­warm. The fol­low­ing year, Gun­tram was given in Munich, where Strauss had just been appointed one of the con­duc­tors for the Munich Opera. In his home­town, Gun­tram was such a flop that all fur­ther per­for­mances were canceled.

It would be dif­fi­cult to over­es­ti­mate the effect this resound­ing and very pub­lic fail­ure had on the com­poser. Bryan Gilliam, in his won­der­ful biog­ra­phy of Strauss, calls Gun­tram’s fail­ure “the bit­ter­est and most impor­tant set­back of his life” and points out that “he never for­got it, not even in the final weeks of his life.” Cer­tainly Strauss never for­gave Munich, His sec­ond opera, Feuer­snot (which pre­miered in 1901), was a pub­lic exco­ri­at­ing of his home­town for (as he saw it) turn­ing its back on him. And despite the fact that Strauss set­tled just out­side Munich in Garmisch, his let­ters show that he remained unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cally thin-skinned where the Munich Opera was concerned.

Against that back­ground, the sud­den appear­ance of orches­tral songs in Strauss’s list of com­po­si­tions makes per­fect sense. One of the rea­sons Gun­tram failed was that it sounds, with the excep­tion of a pas­sage or two, like watered-down Wag­ner. For some rea­son (the loom­ing shadow of Richard Wag­ner?), when Strauss com­bined words and music to cre­ate an opera, the won­der­ful, sharply indi­vid­ual voice he had achieved so thor­oughly in writ­ing both lieder and tone poems sim­ply faded away. The orches­tra­tion is often muddy and the vocal lines seem to mean­der. Undoubt­edly, the Opus 33 Vier Gesänge für Singstimme mit Begleitung des Orch­esters (Four Songs for Voice with Accom­pa­ni­ment of the Orches­tra) was an attempt to sur­mount the prob­lems of writ­ing for a singer and an orches­tra with­out hav­ing to take on the bur­den of writ­ing an entire opera. This time, Strauss largely got it right, espe­cially in the first song Ver­führung (Seduc­tion), which dis­plays a superbly real­ized jux­ta­po­si­tion of sweep­ing melodic lines and surg­ing orches­tral waves with more inti­mate moments and tim­bres. Espe­cially when sung by a tenor who can do it jus­tice, Ver­führung brings to mind some of the great scenes Strauss would later write for the Emperor in his most ambi­tious opera, Die Frau ohne Schat­ten.

Bap­tist Hoffmann

Two years after fin­ish­ing the Opus 33 works, Strauss, hav­ing mean­while com­posed Don Quixote (1897) and Ein Helden­leben (1898), returned to the world of orches­tral lieder with his Opus 44: Not­turno and its com­pan­ion piece Nächtlicher Gang. In let­ters to his par­ents, Strauss referred to these songs as being for a bari­tone, though the score only refers to a “deep voice,” and the vocal line for Not­turno, rather sur­pris­ingly, is notated in the tre­ble clef, not what one would expect of a song writ­ten specif­i­cally for a bari­tone. Nächtlicher Gang is writ­ten in the bass clef, which is a bit ironic, because it has a much higher tes­si­tura than does Not­turo, which goes down to a low F-sharp and spends time in a range a bass, or bass-baritone, would find more com­fort­able. It would take a singer of unusual range to be equally at home in both songs, though they were pre­miered by the same singer, bari­tone Bap­tist Hoffmann.

Strauss ded­i­cated the two songs of Opus 44 to two dif­fer­ent singers, which per­haps tells us a bit of how he thought of the songs, vocally. Not­turno is ded­i­cated to the great Dutch bari­tone Anton van Rooy “in grate­ful respect” (in dankbarer Verehrung). Van Rooy had just cre­ated a sen­sa­tion at Bayreuth, where he debuted as Wotan in 1897. He became asso­ci­ated with lead­ing Wag­ner bari­tone parts and par­tic­i­pated in the first Par­si­fal at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in 1903. One New York critic praised his por­trayal of the suf­fer­ing Amfor­tas for its “noble, heart-rending pathos, deeply mov­ing in its utter­ance of the agony of the soul which he bears” and the “poignancy of the pain under which he suf­fers” — per­fect attrib­utes for per­form­ing Strauss’s Not­turno, which abounds in exactly those emo­tions. Nächtlicher Gang is ded­i­cated to Karl Schei­de­man­tel, a famous Wol­fram in Tannhäuser and Hans Sachs in Meis­tersinger, who would later cre­ate the role of Fan­i­nal in Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier.

Not­turno is of mon­u­men­tal pro­por­tions for a song — more than dou­ble the length of any of Strauss’s other orches­tral songs. The orches­tra­tion is unusual in its absence of horns, trum­pets, or per­cus­sion, which gives a ghostly tim­bre to the instru­men­tal sound. Strauss bril­liantly cap­tured the emo­tional inten­sity and night­mar­ish qual­ity of Richard Dehmel’s poem, that tells of a dream in which death appears in the guise of a friend who wan­ders through the night play­ing his vio­lin while the moon appears, high in the night sky. (Arnold Schoenberg’s Trans­fig­ured Night was also inspired by Dehmel’s poetry.)

Richard Dehmel

Dehmel, inci­den­tally, thought the music of Not­turno excel­lent, but he took issue with the fact the com­poser omit­ted the poem’s open­ing and clos­ing — where all is revealed as a dream. Strauss felt the piece would have greater impact if audi­ences were not quite sure if the events were really hap­pen­ing or were a hal­lu­ci­na­tion. “The hal­lu­ci­na­tory effect is, of course, intended,” Dehmel wrote, “but only in the mid­dle move­ment, and the patho­log­i­cal dis­so­nance is artis­ti­cally resolved by the begin­ning and the end of the poem, which were unfor­tu­nately left out by Strauss. By leav­ing them out, the poetic motif has been destroyed com­pletely, and the sit­u­a­tion has become nearly incom­pre­hen­si­ble. But, nev­er­the­less, I am grate­ful to Strauss for the com­po­si­tion, not only because of the very fine music, but because it was through his mis­un­der­stand­ing that he made me straighten out the text through­out, aim­ing to make it eas­ier to understand.”

The two pianis­simo chords that open the work imme­di­ately plunge lis­ten­ers into the night­mar­ish world of the song. The first chord, F-sharp and C-sharp, is played by the clar­inets, bass clar­inet, bas­soons, con­tra­bas­soon, trom­bones and basses, most of them play­ing in the bot­tom of their reg­is­ters, and the music feels dark and men­ac­ing. The first chord is imme­di­ately fol­lowed by the flutes, oboes, and Eng­lish horn play­ing C-natural and G. The first two chords together are the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of Edvard Munch’s paint­ing The Scream, ren­dered all the more sin­is­ter by being played so quietly.

Not­turno slith­ers between the tonal­i­ties of F-sharp minor and G minor, cre­at­ing (most appro­pri­ately) a sense of unease in the lis­tener, a sense of being lost in a con­stantly shift­ing land­scape. Though Strauss uses the solo vio­lin to rep­re­sent the fid­dling of the fig­ure in the poem, his genius as an orches­trater goes far beyond such lit­eral depic­tions  and is found in his abil­ity to con­vey the hor­ror and anguish — and yet the empa­thy — the pro­tag­o­nist feels. Strauss’s music is as filled with moments of sweet­ness, com­fort, warmth, and poignancy as it is pain and loss.

In Not­turno, Strauss plays with lis­ten­ers as a cat plays with a mouse, build­ing up har­monic ten­sion, then releas­ing it just before the break­ing point, only to fol­low the period of relief with yet another patch of poly­tonal har­monies — before the song dies away, with a feel­ing of rest­ful­ness and final peace, as the dead friend’s “plead­ing song…waned and departed.”

What must the audi­ence of 1900 have thought of such a vivid musi­cal por­trayal of Dehmel’s poem? And why do audi­ences today so sel­dom have the chance to revel in this masterpiece?

A very slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with permission.

The image at the top of the post is Osvaldo Licini’s “Angelo ribelle su fondo blu (not­turno),” 1954.