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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.