The Great Strauss Tone Poems: A Composer’s Journey Through Young Manhood

STRAUSS, Richard conducting, 1890. German composer & conductor.



In Sep­tem­ber 1947, Richard Strauss climbed into an air­plane for the first time and flew to Lon­don, where Sir Thomas Beecham had arranged a fes­ti­val of Strauss’s music. As part of the cel­e­bra­tions, Strauss him­self was con­duct­ing the recently formed Phil­har­mo­nia Orches­tra in three of his works.

It was dur­ing a rehearsal for this con­cert that the eighty-three-year-old com­poser made a self-deprecating remark that has col­ored crit­i­cal assess­ment of his music ever since. As Nor­man Del Mar, Strauss’s future biog­ra­pher and a par­tic­i­pant in the fes­ti­val, tells the story: “Some­thing had not quite pleased him, and he was heard to say, ‘No, I know what I want, and I know what I meant when I wrote this. After all, I may not be a first-rate com­poser, but I am a first-class second-rate composer!’ ”

The remark is unfor­tu­nate, but typ­i­cal of Strauss, who shielded his inner thoughts and emo­tions from the pub­lic, and who was appar­ently con­tent to be per­ceived as a bour­geois, even vul­gar man of lit­tle intel­lec­tual curios­ity, some­times dubi­ous artis­tic sen­si­bil­ity, and con­cerned mainly with money, play­ing cards, and churn­ing out music to make more money. By the time of Strauss’s quip, much of the musi­cal crit­i­cal estab­lish­ment had writ­ten him off as a has-been, some­one who wrote a few promis­ing pieces in his youth but had not ful­filled his poten­tial because he turned his back on real music in favor of repeat­ing a few cheap tricks and pleas­ing the audience.

Yet any hon­est critic who exam­ines the work itself — rather than blam­ing the com­poser for what he did not write, or being sus­pi­cious of him for his early and almost con­stant suc­cess — might well acknowl­edge that Richard Strauss is one of the truly great com­posers in West­ern music, a man who cel­e­brated the human expe­ri­ence deeply and broadly, wrote bril­liantly in a remark­able vari­ety of forms, and who, once he found his voice, spent decades being true to it.

Strauss with his par­ents and his son.

Strauss is one of the very few triple-threat com­posers in his­tory, equally bril­liant at writ­ing songs, writ­ing instru­men­tal music, and writ­ing operas. His first brush with fame came with his songs. His remark­able Opus 10 songs, writ­ten in 1882 – 83 before he was twenty, include the always pop­u­lar “Zueig­nung,” “Die Nacht,” and “Allersee­len.” He was only twenty-five when the pre­mière of his tone poem Don Juan overnight made him the great hope of Ger­man music, the com­poser who would take up the man­tle of Wag­ner and Liszt, and who could write for the orches­tra with as much orig­i­nal­ity, skill, and élan as he could write for the voice. At the time, that com­bi­na­tion led to only one des­ti­na­tion — opera. And with his third opera, Salome, Strauss, then barely in his for­ties, achieved the Triple Crown, going on to write one of the most remark­able and diverse groups of operas in history.

Strauss com­posed songs through­out his life, almost 200 in all. But the great series of six tone poems on which so much of his rep­u­ta­tion as an orches­tral com­poser rests—Don Juan, Tod und Verk­lärung (Death and Trans­fig­u­ra­tion), Till Eulen­spiegel, Also sprach Zarathus­tra, Don Quixote, and Ein Helden­leben—were writ­ten in a ten-year period from 1888 to 1898. He was twenty-four to thirty-four years old at the time, and these tone poems are very much a young man’s music — not only in the viril­ity and con­fi­dence that bursts from almost every page of their scores, but also in their subjects.

Since the tone poems were not writ­ten on com­mis­sion, Strauss had totally free rein to write about any­thing he wanted to; and he chose to explore dif­fer­ent aspects of mas­culin­ity — doing so at the time of life when most young men are com­ing to grips with what it means to be a man in very con­crete ways. Strauss, too, was forg­ing a career, get­ting mar­ried, and start­ing a fam­ily. In three of these works he exam­ined three spe­cific mas­cu­line arche­types (Don Juan, Till Eulen­spiegel, and Don Quixote); in the other three, he explored more philo­soph­i­cal aspects of life (Death and Trans­fig­u­ra­tion, Also sprach Zarathus­tra, and Ein Helden­leben).

The order in which the works were writ­ten is fas­ci­nat­ing. The first, Don Juan, is a cel­e­bra­tion of exu­ber­ant mas­cu­line sex­u­al­ity, an appro­pri­ate sub­ject for a twenty-four-year-old com­poser. The sub­ti­tle of the piece, “after Niko­laus Lenau,” refers to a well-known poem of the time, part of which was printed in the score. It is a hymn to the Dionysian ideal: “I shun sati­ety and weari­ness of plea­sure, and keep myself fresh, in the ser­vice of the beau­ti­ful; hurt­ing the indi­vid­ual woman, I adore the whole species.… Just as every beauty is unique in the world, so also is the love to which it gives plea­sure. Out, then, and away after the ever-new vic­to­ries as long as the fiery ardors of youth still soar!”

And soar Strauss’s music does. It’s the very embod­i­ment of ram­pant mas­culin­ity delight­ing in itself. But the tone poem, like the lit­er­ary poem, rec­og­nizes that this aspect of life does not last for­ever, and the last two pages of the score are faith­ful to Lenau’s end­ing: “…the fuel is con­sumed and the hearth has become cold and dark.” But those are two pages out of ninety, and what took the world by storm in 1889, and has held audi­ences in thrall ever since, is the unin­hib­ited joy Strauss’s music seems to take in the life-force itself.

That makes the sub­ject of his next tone poem, Tod und Verk­lärung (Death and Trans­fig­u­ra­tion), writ­ten the fol­low­ing year, all the more sur­pris­ing. Again the score con­tains a poem that inspired the com­poser: a man lies dying on his cot, strug­gling with his ill­ness. He remem­bers the dif­fer­ent stages of life and the ideal that gave it mean­ing. “To take every­thing that ever seems trans­fig­ured and to mold it into an even more trans­fig­ured shape: this alone is the noble impulse that accom­pa­nies him through life.” But it is only after death that one finds “world-redemption, world-transfiguration,” cap­tured in the over­whelm­ing spir­i­tual exal­ta­tion of the work’s climax.

Sir Thomas Beecham, Strauss con­duc­tor extraordinaire

From this pro­found wrestling with the mean­ing of life and death, Strauss, for his next tone poem, leaped to a cel­e­bra­tion of the trick­ster—Till Eulen­spiegels lustige Stre­iche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks). At first Strauss planned to use the leg­end of the medieval scamp as the basis for an opera, but he real­ized that “the book of fairy­tales only out­lines a rogue with too super­fi­cial a dra­matic per­son­al­ity” to sup­port an opera. On the other hand, the episodic nature of the story would be per­fect for an instru­men­tal piece writ­ten in rondo form, in which one part, or theme — the theme of Till him­self — peri­od­i­cally recurs. Strauss believed that the sub­ject of a tone poem should dic­tate the form the music took, rather than the form impos­ing itself on the sub­ject; in Till Eulen­spiegel the mar­riage between sub­ject and form is perfect.

Also per­fect is the sense of Till-like glee with which Strauss manip­u­lates his enor­mous orches­tra. Never before had a com­poser exploited the poten­tial of indi­vid­ual instru­ments so com­pletely. Yet every bit of Strauss’s daz­zling tech­ni­cal mas­tery is at the ser­vice of his sub­ject, the humor of Till’s adven­tures and the chaos they caused. In his own score Strauss jot­ted down a few spe­cific actions at dif­fer­ent places in the music, but he resisted attempts to cod­ify what spe­cific sec­tions “meant.” When a con­duc­tor asked him to pro­vide a pro­gram the audi­ence could fol­low, Strauss refused, sug­gest­ing, “Let us, this time, leave it to the audi­ence to crack the nuts which the rogue has pre­pared for them.” Ulti­mately Till Eulen­spiegel is one of the fun­ni­est and most delight­ful fif­teen min­utes in all of music — even if the lis­tener has no idea what the actual “sub­ject” of the piece is.

In his next tone poem, Strauss grav­i­tated to an idea about as far from the imp­ish humor of Till as he could get — Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathus­tra. Strauss’s tone poem is “freely based on” Nietzsche’s work, wrote the com­poser on the title page; and though var­i­ous titles are given to sec­tions of the music (“Of Joys and Pas­sions,” for instance, or “The Con­va­les­cent”), he was not try­ing to set Nietzsche’s phi­los­o­phy to music but, as he later wrote, “to pay homage to the genius of Niet­zsche, which found its great­est exem­pli­fi­ca­tion in his book, Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra.”

How ironic that Strauss, so often accused by his detrac­tors of intel­lec­tual sloth — indeed, of being just this side of illit­er­ate — wrote so mag­nif­i­cent a piece of music inspired by a book of Niet­zsche. In fact, dur­ing the time he was writ­ing his six great tone poems, not only did he devour Niet­zsche, he delved deeply into the phi­los­o­phy of Schopen­hauer, and wres­tled with its impli­ca­tions for his life (some­thing we know from his let­ters to close friends). Strauss read widely through­out his life, tra­vers­ing the com­plete works of Goethe three times. Read­ing his let­ters to his libret­tists, it is obvi­ous his knowl­edge of drama goes far beyond the Ger­man world, and that he has an almost instinc­tive grasp of what makes a char­ac­ter, or a plot, work.

Karl Böhm with Richard Strauss

The great con­duc­tor Karl Böhm, who knew Strauss well and led the world pre­mieres of two of his operas, said, “Some­times it was quite impos­si­ble to fol­low Strauss in every topic of his con­ver­sa­tion: one had to be as well up in lit­er­a­ture as in music to be able to hold one’s own with him. He was at home in Ger­man lit­er­a­ture as no other musi­cian, and he was equally famil­iar with Russ­ian literature.”

It was in Span­ish lit­er­a­ture — specif­i­cally Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote—that Strauss found inspi­ra­tion for his next tone poem, writ­ing a set of “Fan­tas­tic Vari­a­tions on a Theme of Knightly Char­ac­ter” (to quote the title page of the score). It has been sug­gested that Strauss’s one-act operas Salome and Elek­tra are really tone poems with voices, and there’s a great deal of truth in that. It is per­haps also true than Strauss’s six great tone poems can be seen as mini-operas for the orches­tra, and nowhere more so than in Don Quixote, with its vir­tu­oso part for solo cello (Don Quixote) and solo viola (San­cho Panza). Strauss also uses solo vio­lin (Don Quixote) and tenor tuba and bass clar­inet (San­cho Panza) in depict­ing his char­ac­ters. And depict them he does — in a vari­ety of set­tings, moods, and inter­ac­tions with other characters.

By the end of the piece we feel we actu­ally know, and love, Don Quixote. Cer­tainly Strauss’s affec­tion for the char­ac­ter — foibles and all — is in every mea­sure of the com­plex score. His death scene is as touch­ing as it is funny. Any other com­poser would prob­a­bly have end­ing the piece about 12 mea­sures into what Strauss labeled “Finale.” But Strauss’s Don Quixote is like an old actor, a ham to the end, almost expir­ing, only to get up again and recite a few more favorite lines, until finally his strength totally gives out and, with a grace­ful octave glis­sando on the cello, he dies. It’s a musi­cal char­ac­ter study that can only be com­pared to Verdi’s Falstaff.

A mag­i­cal com­bi­na­tion: Kempe, Dres­den and Strauss

It is appro­pri­ate that the last of the six great tone poems was Ein Helden­leben, which, in a sense, sums up every­thing that had gone before. All the var­i­ous aspects of mas­culin­ity Strauss has explored have matured into a heroic life. Though the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Ein Helden­leben is usu­ally “A Hero’s Life,” “A Heroic Life” would be more accu­rate. Strauss has often been crit­i­cized for allegedly writ­ing a lengthy work about him­self (he quotes from his own com­po­si­tions in the sec­tion labeled “The Hero’s Works of Peace”) — yet no one seems to find it rep­re­hen­si­ble that Rem­brandt (to men­tion only one artist) painted por­traits of him­self, or that the world of lit­er­a­ture is strewn with autobiographies.

But Strauss was not writ­ing a musi­cal auto­bi­og­ra­phy. (He would do that sev­eral years after Helden­leben in his Sym­pho­nia domes­tica, which would itself be fol­lowed a decade later by one more inven­tive, inge­nious tone poem, An Alpine Sym­phony.) He was still just thirty-four. Ahead of him were thir­teen aston­ish­ing operas, begin­ning with Salome. If the tone poems explored the world of mas­culin­ity, Strauss’s operas would explore the fem­i­nine. More than any other opera com­poser, he devoted him­self to the female voice, even writ­ing two of his most charm­ing young male char­ac­ters (Octa­vian in Der Rosenkava­lier and the Com­poser in Ari­adne auf Naxos) to be sung by women. His last great com­po­si­tion would be the Four Last Songs — the per­fect summing-up, in music for the voice and for the orches­tra, of a life devoted to cel­e­brat­ing life itself. But already with Ein Helden­leben he was depict­ing in music a heroic life, in the sense of a life lived con­sciously, through adver­sity as well as plea­sure, a life that ulti­mately results in true ful­fill­ment and peace — a fit­ting con­clu­sion to the remark­able jour­ney begun ten years ear­lier with Don Juan.


A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of this arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Jan­u­ary 2008 pro­gram book­let of the Boston Symphony.