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 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.
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.
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.
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.