Strauss, R.

Richard Strauss — Notturno, Opus 44, No.1


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.

Richard Strauss — Festmusik der Stadt Wien



Strauss fin­ished the score of the “Fes­tive Music for the City of Vien­na” on Jan­u­ary 14, 1943 at his Vien­nese home. It was writ­ten for the Vien­nese Corp of Trum­peters and scored for 10 trum­pets, 7 trom­bones (2 alto, 3 tenor,  2 bass), 2 tubas and tim­pani, divid­ed into two choirs.  The score is ded­i­cat­ed to the Vien­na Town Coun­cil, offi­cial­ly in grat­i­tude  for hav­ing been award­ed its Beethoven Prize the pre­vi­ous year (see note below for more on this).  Strauss him­self con­duct­ed the work’s pre­mier in the Fes­tive Hall of the Vien­na Rathaus on April 9, 1943. Ten days lat­er he made a much short­er ver­sion of the work known sim­ply as “Vien­na Fanfare.”


Every com­pos­er is faced with the neces­si­ty of writ­ing Occa­sion­al Music, that is music churned out (usu­al­ly) to please a patron or a group or in hon­or of a spe­cif­ic event. Whether it is a march to cel­e­brate a mil­i­tary vic­to­ry, or a can­ta­ta to inau­gu­rate the open­ing of a canal, com­posers usu­al­ly view the task more as a neces­si­ty than a joy,  a way to gar­ner favor from those in author­i­ty, or to put bread on their table — or both.

Dur­ing Strauss’s long life­time he com­posed his fair share of such pieces, a num­ber of them (usu­al­ly march­es)  writ­ten at the express wish of the Kaiser. Though the “Solemn Pro­ces­sion of the Knights of the Order of St. John’s Hos­pi­taller,” which Strauss wrote to please the Kaiser in 1909 for 12 trum­pets, 3 solo trum­pets, 4 horns, 4 trom­bones, 2 tubas and tim­pani, must have tak­en on a life of its own, since it quick­ly appeared in an aston­ish­ing num­ber of dif­fer­ent arrange­ments includ­ing one for salon orches­tra and anoth­er for piano and har­mo­ni­um.   Strauss’s view of this part of a composer’s life was prob­a­bly summed up in a let­ter he wrote to his libret­tist Ste­fan Zweig in Decem­ber 1934: “I kill the bore­dom of the Advent sea­son by com­pos­ing an Olympic hymn for the pro­le­tar­i­ans — I, of all peo­ple, who hate and despise sports. Well, Idle­ness Is the Root of All Evil.” [The caps are in Strauss’s original.] 

Despite the composer’s grum­bling, some Occa­sion­al Music was hon­est­ly writ­ten from the heart. One assumes the “Fan­fare for the Vien­na Phil­har­mon­ic” (1924) is an exam­ple, giv­en the close ties between the com­pos­er and that orches­tra which went back to 1906 and includ­ed count­less con­certs and record­ings, plus two South Amer­i­can tours (1920, 1925) Strauss made with the group.

Strauss on tour with the Vien­na Philharmonic

Cer­tain­ly the “Fest­musik der Stadt Wien” was writ­ten from a gen­uine sense of grat­i­tude on the part of the com­pos­er, and for far more than being award­ed the city’s Beethoven Prize.  By 1941 Strauss was per­sona non gra­ta with the Nazis, and he was becom­ing increas­ing­ly fear­ful about what might hap­pen to his Jew­ish daugh­ter-in-law, Alice (who had had her pass­port and driver’s license con­fis­cat­ed)  and his two grand­sons (who were con­sid­ered Jew­ish under Nazi law, and beat­en up more than once because of it).  In addi­tion to harass­ment by the Nazis, the com­pos­er was wor­ried about liv­ing in Garmish, so close to Munich, a tar­get of Allied bomb­ing raids. The answer was to leave Ger­many and move to his house in Vien­na (safe at the time from Allied air­craft) and where his fam­i­ly would be under the per­son­al pro­tec­tion of Bal­dur von Schirach, once head of the Hitler Youth but now Gauleit­er of Vien­na. Von Schirach was long­time admir­er of Strauss’s music, the son of a promi­nent the­ater Inten­dant, who want­ed to make Vien­na once again the cul­tur­al capi­tol of the world.  Von Schirach would keep Strauss’s fam­i­ly safe from the Gestapo and the elder­ly Strauss would be an active par­tic­i­pant in Vienna’s musi­cal life. (Strauss’s out­spo­ken wife, Pauline, once told von Schirach, “When the war has been lost, we will give you refuge in Garmisch, but as for the rest of the gang…”)

The Vien­nese Corps of Trum­peters  was made up of mem­bers of the Vien­na Phil­har­mon­ic, the Vien­nese Sym­pho­ny, the Vien­na Volk­sop­er orches­tra, and usu­al­ly con­fig­ured as 12 trum­pets, 8 trom­bones, 2 tubas, tim­pani and per­cus­sion. In all like­li­hood, the slight­ly reduced orches­tra­tion for the “Fest­musik der Stadt Wien” reflects wartime changes in the group.  Strauss once blithe­ly dis­missed his late instru­men­tal works as being mere­ly “wrist exer­cis­es,” but his Meta­mor­pho­sen, the Oboe Con­cer­to, and the Sec­ond Horn Con­cer­to are far, far more that. They are won­der­ful addi­tions to the reper­toire and gems to be great­ly admired.  If “Fest­musik der Stadt Wien” is not yet as well known as some of Strauss’s oth­er late instru­men­tal works, that is more because of its unusu­al instru­men­tal make up, rather than any lack of skill or com­mit­ment on Strauss’s part. Indeed, while many com­posers would be con­tent, under the cir­cum­stances, with dash­ing off lit­tle more than a noisy vol­ley of fan­fares, Strauss com­posed an emo­tion­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing piece of gen­uine music.

In the Pref­ace to Vol­ume 26 of the com­plete works of Richard Strauss, Wal­ter Wer­beck writes:  “Strauss focus­es his music after the rous­ing intro­duc­tion on two large expans­es of lyric cantabile, of which the sec­ond ulti­mate­ly returns in a sort of reca­pit­u­la­tion. Nor are we deprived of a vir­tu­oso devel­op­ment sec­tion sus­tained by antiphonal writ­ing for two brass choirs, or a prop­er finale. Yet short­ly before the finale gets under­way the music bursts its fes­tive shack­les. And chro­mat­ic pas­sages grad­u­al­ly con­geal into a cry of hor­ror. Bru­tal­ly sweep­ing aside the beau­ti­ful mirage that had pre­ced­ed them. But this moment soon pass­es: the time for funer­al music had not yet arrived.” (Eng­lish trans­la­tion: J. Brad­ford Robinson)

 This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with permission.




Die Ägyp­tis­che Hele­naThe Egypt­ian Helen—is the poor, neglect­ed step­sis­ter of the operas writ­ten by Richard Strauss and his favorite libret­tist Hugo von Hof­mannsthal. Despite the pop­u­lar­i­ty of their oth­er operas—Elek­tra, Der Rosenkava­lier, Ari­adne auf Nax­os, Die Frau ohne Schat­ten, and Ara­bel­laEgypt­ian Helen remains vir­tu­al­ly unknown except for the most die-hard Strauss fans.

Before this new pro­duc­tion opened at the Met on March 15, 2007, the com­pa­ny had only giv­en sev­en per­for­mances of the work, dur­ing Novem­ber and Decem­ber, 1928. This pro­duc­tion orig­i­nat­ed at the Gars­ing­ton Fes­ti­val, out­side Oxford, Eng­land, where its per­for­mance in 1997 was the first time the opera had ever been staged in the U.K. The Egypt­ian Helen did not even get a com­mer­cial record­ing until 1979, over half a cen­tu­ry after its première.

The Met’s 1928 per­for­mances of Egypt­ian Helen fol­lowed its world pre­mière in Dres­den by five months, and starred the glam­orous sopra­no Maria Jer­itza for whom the opera had been writ­ten.  That sump­tu­ous pro­duc­tion was by Joseph Urban, who, two years ear­li­er, had designed the first Turan­dot at the Met (and in the U.S.), which also starred Jer­itza. Her blonde beau­ty, riv­et­ing act­ing, and soar­ing voice were famil­iar to Strauss. She had cre­at­ed lead­ing roles in the world pre­mieres of Ari­adne (both 1912 and 1916 ver­sions), and Die Frau ohne Schat­ten, and had also intro­duced Egypt­ian Helen to Vien­na with Strauss him­self con­duct­ing five days after its world pre­mière. So it is sur­pris­ing to read in the New York Times review of that first Met Helen that  “a page, and a par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult one” was cut out of Helen’s big aria that opens Act II, “Zweite Braut­nacht” (Sec­ond Bridal Night.)

Jer­itza and Strauss at the Vien­na première.

Two scores in the Met Music Library used in those 1928 per­for­mances con­firm exten­sive cuts were made, espe­cial­ly in the sec­ond act. But what is shock­ing is that Jer­itza did not sing almost half of her main aria! Out of ten pages, four and a half pages were cut from the mid­dle, and six mea­sures were delet­ed from the aria’s final eleven mea­sures, includ­ing the cli­mac­tic high C‑sharp. Which means that Deb­o­rah Voigt will be the first sopra­no in Met his­to­ry to sing Helen’s famous aria com­plete on stage dur­ing a per­for­mance. (Leon­tyne Price sang the aria dur­ing a Lewisohn Sta­di­um con­cert she and the Met orches­tra gave in July 1966.)

Strauss had been pleased when Hof­mannsthal sug­gest­ed Jer­itza would be per­fect for the lead­ing role of a libret­to he had been work­ing on based on the leg­endary fig­ure of Helen of Troy, the most beau­ti­ful woman in the world, “the face that launched a thou­sand ships,” and the cause of the Tro­jan war. Strauss had first seen Jer­itza in Offenbach’s La Belle Helene, and he was long­ing to com­pose a light opera with Hof­mannsthal. After their col­lab­o­ra­tion on the roman­tic Die Frau ohne Schat­ten (1919), Strauss decid­ed to use a mis­un­der­stand­ing in his own mar­riage as the basis for a com­ic opera. The fas­tid­i­ous Hof­mannsthal was aghast at the idea of an artist putting his pri­vate life on stage, and he refused to have any­thing to do with the project. Strauss wrote his own libret­to and the result was Inter­mez­zo, first giv­en in 1923.

But Strauss great­ly val­ued col­lab­o­rat­ing with Hof­mannsthal, and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work on anoth­er project based on Greek myth (as they had with Elek­tra and Ari­adne) was appeal­ing, espe­cial­ly since the libret­tist urged, “The style must be free-flow­ing, on occa­sion as near­ly as con­ver­sa­tion­al as the Pro­logue to Ari­adne. The more light heart­ed­ly you can han­dle this, the bet­ter it would be.”

The opera con­cerns the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of Helen and her hus­band, Menelaus, after he has sacked Troy and killed his arch ene­my, Paris, whose kid­nap­ping of Helen ten years before had set off the Tro­jan war. “What lay between that dread­ful night [when Menelaus res­cued his wife from Troy] and the com­plete rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that fol­lowed?” Hof­mannsthal wrote. “What can have helped rebuild this mar­riage as a true companionship?”

Hof­mannsthal based his libret­to on sev­er­al ancient Greek sources — Homer’s Odyssey, and works by Herodotus and Euripi­des, among oth­ers. And he chose a ver­sion of the tale that said the Helen who was car­ried off by Paris, and who lived with him for ten years, was a phan­tom Helen. The real, flesh and blood Helen had remained behind in her husband’s home in Egypt.

Strauss loved the libret­to of the first act, prais­ing it as high­ly as he had praised the first act of Rosenkava­lier about a decade before. Hof­mannsthal was delight­ed. “Tell your­self that you mean to han­dle it as if it were mere­ly to be an operetta,” he wrote. “It’s bound to be by Richard Strauss at the end.”

But Act II proved much more dif­fi­cult. Hof­mannsthal, as he was some­times inclined to do, began wax­ing ever more philo­soph­i­cal and psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic as the libret­to pro­gressed, and once again, the two men found they had very dif­fer­ent ideas on what their new opera was all about. Part way through Act II, Strauss com­plained, “I’ve been stuck for a long time at the entrance of Altair and can’t make any progress. It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult to find — for this entrance of the sons of the desert — the kind of music that still sounds suf­fi­cient­ly char­ac­ter­is­tic to the ears of 1925, with­out degen­er­at­ing into the so-called real­ism of Salome, or even the eccen­tric­i­ties of today’s mod­ernists who hear only with Amer­i­can ears.”

Their orig­i­nal plan, to use spo­ken dia­logue in between musi­cal num­bers (as in Mozart’s The Mag­ic Flute and Beethoven’s Fide­lio) was dropped, and the result was an almost unprece­dent­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty for musi­cal ensem­bles, which has led some crit­ics to refer to Egypt­ian Helen as the Strauss/Hofmannsthal bel can­to opera. It also has, in Menelaus, by far their longest and most devel­oped tenor role.

The 1928 score

Strauss fin­ished the score in Octo­ber, 1927, but a prob­lem arose over the first per­for­mance.  Jeritza’s fee was far too exor­bi­tant for the Dres­den opera which, in any case, was bound by the rules of the Deutsch­er Büh­nen­vere­in that pro­hib­it­ed pay­ing such a high fee. So Strauss sug­gest­ed Elis­a­beth Reth­berg for the pre­mière. Her voice was excep­tion­al­ly beau­ti­ful (Toscani­ni com­pared it to a fine­ly played Stradi­var­ius), and she was some­thing a local favorite, hav­ing been born near­by and start­ing her career with the Dres­den company.

She is now a great star in New York, next to Jer­itza, and is about to enter into a sim­i­lar rela­tion­ship to Dres­den as Jer­itza to Vien­na. Since I believe there is no chance now of get­ting Jer­itza I have def­i­nite­ly decid­ed for Reth­berg, whose some­what bour­geois appear­ance has ‘great­ly improved’ in Amer­i­ca,” Strauss told Hof­mannsthal, adding prag­mat­i­cal­ly, “she is not so tall as Mme Jer­itza, and will there­fore go bet­ter with the short [Curt] Tauch­er as Menelaus; she enjoys a great inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tion and is today gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered the best Ger­man singer with the most mag­nif­i­cent voice and an accom­plished singing tech­nique. She intends to call on me dur­ing the next few days so as to con­vince me per­son­al­ly of her ‘sophis­ti­cat­ed’ appear­ance — I don’t believe we’ll find any­thing bet­ter in the circumstances.

Jer­itza, if she real­ly wants to, can then cre­ate the part in Vien­na in Sep­tem­ber and alter­nate with Reth­berg in New York.”

Hof­mannsthal hit the roof. “Hele­na with a grace­less Helen is sim­ply ruined. This opera, of that I am well aware, is not a dead cer­tain­ty; but it has very real chances of com­plete, gen­uine suc­cess on stage, pro­vid­ed the histri­on­ic ele­ments go hand in hand with the musi­cal ones. It is not the face of the actress that mat­ters; a very pret­ty doll might make a wretched Hele­na. Nor does it mat­ter whether Mms Reth­berg has now got a bet­ter dress­mak­er and looks ‘more sophis­ti­cat­ed’ (what goes for sophis­ti­cat­ed among the­atri­cal peo­ple in Ger­man is in any case some­thing awful),” sniffed the Vien­nese Hof­mannsthal. “But every­thing depends on the mag­ic of act­ing and move­ment, that means on a specif­i­cal­ly fem­i­nine tal­ent for the the­ater. Mme Reth­berg may sing like a nightin­gale, I under­stand noth­ing about that; what I do know is that she is worse than mediocre as an actress and this will ruin Helen, com­plete­ly ruin her.”

Strauss replied calm­ly to this out­burst — as he usu­al­ly did to his librettist’s bouts of hys­te­ria — by talk­ing dol­lars and cents, or, in this case Deutschmarks, final­ly declar­ing “We shall sim­ply have to do with­out Jer­itza! You only know her, just as I do, from the time before she went to Amer­i­ca.” He then added, “From what I have heard late­ly about Jer­itza, I’m not at all sure that, apart from appear­ance and stage tal­ent, she too would not leave a good many oth­er wish­es unfilled.”

There was talk of ask­ing Jer­itza if she would be will­ing to sing the pre­mière in Dres­den for noth­ing, thus get­ting around the Deutsch­er Büh­nen­vere­in rules. “But I doubt whether the pub­lic­i­ty will seem to her worth the sac­ri­fice,” Strauss sage­ly noted.

In the end, it was Elis­a­beth Reth­berg who cre­at­ed the role of Hele­na in Dres­den on June 6, 1928. Her reviews where glow­ing.  Five days lat­er, Jer­itza sang the role in Vien­na with Strauss conducting.

Reth­berg as Madama Butterly

In one of those twists of fate a writer of fic­tion would hard­ly dare come up with, on the night that Jer­itza cre­at­ed the role at the Met — Novem­ber 6, 1928 — the com­pa­ny was also pre­sent­ing Puccini’s Madama But­ter­fly in Brook­lyn. Reth­berg sang Cio-Cio-San that evening, and it’s impos­si­ble not to won­der what went through her mind. (Despite what Strauss pre­dict­ed to Hof­mannsthal, Reth­berg nev­er sang the role of Hele­na at the Met.)

Also in that first Met cast for Hele­na was Rudolf Lauben­thal as Menelaus (Wal­ter Kirch­hoff sang some of the oth­er per­for­mances), Editha Fleis­ch­er as Aithra, Clarence White­hill as Altair, and Mar­i­on Tel­va (known to record col­lec­tors for her Adal­gisa to Rosa Ponselle’s Nor­ma) as the Omni­scient Seashell. For some rea­son the small tenor role of Da-ud in Act II was assigned to the mez­zo Jane Car­roll (“late of the Fol­lies” not­ed one news­pa­per). Artur Bodanzky con­duct­ed. The crit­ics were sav­age, though they admit­ted Strauss’s skill in writ­ing for the orches­tra was unsurpassed.

But there is, in fact, much to admire in The Egypt­ian Helen in addi­tion to Helen’s just­ly famous Act II aria. Through­out the opera there is a con­stant out­pour­ing of lus­cious melody, sharply delin­eat­ed between char­ac­ters. In Act I Strauss’s musi­cal jux­ta­pos­ing of Aithra, Helen, Menelaus, and the mock­ing, sar­don­ic elves, is a con­stant delight. There are also sim­ply mag­i­cal moments, as at the begin­ning of the finale of Act I, when Strauss slow­ly builds the orches­tral sound to a triple forte as Aithra pulls back the cur­tain to show Menelaus the sleep­ing Helen, only to have him gaze at his wife as a French horn plays a soft haunt­ing melody over the gen­tle mur­mur­ings of the strings. It is Strauss at his most enchant­i­ng, once heard, nev­er to be forgotten.

Per­haps this new pro­duc­tion at the Met (which uses Strauss’s orig­i­nal score, not his 1933 revi­sion) will do for The Egypt­ian Helen what the Met’s 1966 pro­duc­tion of Die Frau ohne Schat­ten did — reveal that, in fact, we have anoth­er almost unknown opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hof­mannsthal to enjoy and, yes, even to love.

A some­what dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2007.

The image at the top of the page is of a Greek vase, ca: 450 – 40 B.C. depict­ing Helen and Menelaus.



It was a June 1940 revival of Die Ägyp­tis­che Hele­na in Munich that led Strauss to final­ly orches­trate one of his most pop­u­lar songs, “Zueig­nung.” The orches­tra­tion we almost always hear is by Robert Heger. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s rather clunky and heavy hand­ed. Giv­en the song’s pop­u­lar­i­ty it’s sur­pris­ing Strauss did not orches­trat­ed “Zueig­nung” as he did sev­er­al oth­er ear­ly songs so his wife, Pauline, could sing them in their joint concerts.

Strauss’s sel­dom-heard incan­des­cent orches­tra­tion was a gift for sopra­no Vior­i­ca Ursuleac who was the Hele­na in Munich. She had sung the title role in Ara­bel­la’s pre­mière in 1933, and went on to cre­ate sev­er­al Strauss roles: Maria in Frien­den­stag (1938), The Count­ess in Capric­cio (1942), and she was Danae in the pub­lic dress rehearsal of Die Liebe der Danae in Salzburg on August 16, 1944, after which, the offi­cial pre­mière was can­celled due to the procla­ma­tion of total war that closed all the­aters in the Third Reich. Ursuleac was also a famous Marschallin in Rosenkava­lier, Chrysothemis in Elek­tra, and Empress in Die Frau ohne Schat­ten.  On Strauss’s birth­day, June 11, 1935 she sang the part of Ari­adne in what must be one of the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing radio broad­casts of a com­plete Strauss opera (though the Pro­logue was not per­formed). Con­duct­ed by Clemens Krauss (who would lat­er become Ursuleac’s hus­band) the broad­cast orig­i­nat­ed in Berlin and includ­ed a rather ritzy cast: Helge Ros­vaenge (Bac­chus), Miliza Kor­jus (as Najad), and  Erna Berg­er (Zer­bi­net­ta), to men­tion only a few.

In the last line of “Zueig­nung” Strauss added the worlds “du wun­der­bare Hele­na” before the final “habe Dank!” And after the con­clud­ing chord he wrote in the score “Für Viorica.”

The first record­ing to use Strauss’s shim­mer­ing orches­tra­tion was made in 1977, when Montser­rat Cabal­lé and Leonard Bern­stein record­ed it for Deutsche Grammophon.

Strauss and Busch out­side the Dres­den State Opera, 1928

The con­duc­tor of the world pre­mière of Die Ägyp­tis­che Hele­na was Fritz Busch who talks quite frankly about Strauss in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Pages from a Musician’s Life. One day Busch was work­ing with the first clar­inet of the Staatskapelle Dres­den in his office at the Dres­den State Opera, going through Mozart’s clar­inet con­cer­to. The door sud­den­ly opened and in walked Strauss. “We talked for a long time after this rehearsal about the mar­velous Mozart,” Busch wrote. “Strauss declared that his g minor string quin­tet  [K. 516] was the sum­mit of all music.”

Busch also wrote: “In Garmisch Strauss played me his Ägyp­tis­che Hele­na which was to have its world pre­mière in Dres­den, and asked for my sin­cere opin­ion. I did not hes­i­tate to say, amongst oth­er things, that I thought Daud’s song in D flat major [Denn es ist recht] was cheap and that he ought to weigh such ‘inspi­ra­tions’ more care­ful­ly. He in no way dis­put­ed this crit­i­cism but actu­al­ly repeat­ed it with enjoy­ment to his wife, who had just come into the room, but then added with dis­dain­ful cyn­i­cism: ‘That’s what’s want­ed for the ser­vant girls. Believe me, dear Busch, the gen­er­al pub­lic would not go to Tannhäuser it if didn’t con­tain ‘Oh, Star of Eve’ or to the Walküre with­out ‘Win­ter Storms.’ Well, well, that’s what they want.’ ”

In Nor­man Del Mar’s three-vol­ume study of Strauss he quotes from the rem­i­nis­cences of coach and con­duc­tor Leo Wurmser who was on the staff of the Dres­den State Opera at the time Egypt­ian Helen had its pre­mière. “Strauss came to the final rehearsals, seemed on the whole more inter­est­ed in the pro­duc­tion than in the music and want­ed sev­er­al things altered. Pauline, who sat in the first row of the stalls, to everyone’s con­ster­na­tion, clam­ored for hors­es on the stage which had not been pro­vid­ed. At the end of Act I she cried, ‘There isn’t enough thun­der! We want more thun­der here.’ After a whis­pered con­sul­ta­tion with her, Strauss called to [the pro­duc­er] Erhardt, ‘All right, Dr. Erhardt, let’s have more thun­der,’ and added aside to the orches­tra, ‘The Wife is always for thun­der.’ At the first dress rehearsal he sat in the stalls fol­low­ing the score at a light­ed desk. I sat near­by tak­ing notes. He lis­tened patient­ly to the end of the first act and then went for­ward and talked with Busch. So we had a break and then Act I all over again with Strauss at the ros­trum. It was like a dif­fer­ent opera; one big line from begin­ning to end, the right tem­pi and rubatos, co-oper­a­tion with the singers and many of the 4/4 pas­sages beat­en in 2.”

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




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.


Richard Strauss – Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks


Till Eulenspiegel’s Mer­ry Pranks, After the Old Rogue’s Tale, Set in Ron­do Form for Large Orches­tra, Opus 28

Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich, Bavaria, on June 11, 1864, and died at his home in Garmisch, Ger­many, on Sep­tem­ber 8, 1949. His Opus 28 tone poem enjoys the full title Till Eulen­spiegels lustige Stre­iche, nach alter Schel­men­weise — in Ron­deau­form — für gross­es Orch­ester geset­zt (see above for trans­la­tion). It was com­posed dur­ing the win­ter of 1894 – 95, and the score’s final page car­ries the inscrip­tion “Munich, May 6, 1895.” It is ded­i­cat­ed to “My good friend Dr. Arthur Sei­dl,” an author and crit­ic. The work had its world pre­mière on Novem­ber 5, 1895, in Cologne, con­duct­ed by Franz Wüll­ner. The first per­for­mance in the Unit­ed States was con­duct­ed by Theodore Thomas with the Chica­go Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra on Novem­ber 15, 1895. Till Eulen­spiegel is, indeed, writ­ten for a large orches­tra: three flutes and pic­co­lo, three oboes and Eng­lish horn, clar­inet in D, two clar­inets in B‑flat, bass clar­inet in B‑flat, three bas­soons and con­tra­bas­soon, four horns in F, four horns in D, three trum­pets in F, three trum­pets in D, three trom­bones, bass tuba, tri­an­gle, cym­bals, bass drum, snare drum, large rat­tle, tim­pani, and strings. 

If Richard Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulen­spiegel were a food, it would be one of the most scrump­tious­ly per­fect souf­flés ever made — the tri­umphant mar­riage of culi­nary tech­nique brought to bear on exquis­ite ingre­di­ents, all at the peak of their savori­ness, result­ing in a dish that could delight both a child and the most jad­ed gour­mand. It is no sur­prise the work has become such an audi­ence favorite. It’s one of those mag­i­cal pieces of music where every­thing – form, con­tent, tech­nique, and col­or — seems to mesh perfectly

The fact this musi­cal-culi­nary mir­a­cle is lav­ished on the fig­ure of Till Eulen­spiegel, one of the great trick­ster fig­ures of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion, only adds anoth­er lay­er of enjoy­ment to the results. As Paul Oppen­heimer puts it in the fas­ci­nat­ing intro­duc­tion to his trans­la­tion of the 95 tales that make up Till Eulen­spiegel, His Adven­tures, (orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten, or com­piled by a fig­ure iden­ti­fied only as “N.”): “Strauss’ com­po­si­tion cap­tures accu­rate­ly, and even deli­cious­ly, the accents of Eulenspiegel’s fool­ish­ness, mis­chief, courage, and scorn. The composer’s choice of the ron­do form is also entire­ly appro­pri­ate to N.’s essen­tial­ly picaresque demi-nov­el, which con­tains many minor cli­max­es and many uncon­nect­ed episodes, but no main cli­max and no main plot. The scam­per­ing twists and turns of the music mim­ic well N.’s style, with its mix of infor­mal­i­ty, rough­ness, slang, light­ness, and, here and there, for­mal speech.”

Till Eulen­spiegel, the man, is some­thing of a mys­tery. Did he ever, in fact, live? The last of the tales says he died in 1350, and leg­end has attrib­uted his death to the plague. But some “prov­able” ref­er­ences through­out the tales remain impos­si­ble to ver­i­fy, and at this point, the scan­dalous, though often lov­able, char­ac­ter he has become in our West­ern col­lec­tive psy­che, would prob­a­bly bear lit­tle rela­tion­ship to any flesh and blood man who might have lived cen­turies ago.

In fact, his very name points us — as the hero of the tales often did — in var­i­ous direc­tions, all equal­ly plau­si­ble. “Eulen­spiegel” in mod­ern Ger­man means “owl glass,” “owl mir­ror,” or pos­si­bly “wise mir­ror.” From which it’s a short jump to “wise reflec­tion,” as would befit a col­lec­tion of tales meant to edi­fy the read­er. But in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry (when the tales were first col­lect­ed, or pos­si­ble even when they were written/created) the name had sin­is­ter mean­ings, as well. In the mid­dle ages, the owl was some­times regard­ed as the Devil’s bird, an apt sym­bol for a dia­bol­i­cal guy who seems intent on upend­ing and pok­ing fun at con­ven­tion­al moral­i­ty. Oppen­heimer gives yet anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty: an ear­ly form of the name was “Ulen­spiegel,” which can eas­i­ly be under­stood as “Ul’n speghel” (in hunter’s jar­gon of the time “a com­mand or invi­ta­tion to ‘wipe one’s arse.’ ”) Since many of the 95 tales are quite scat­o­log­i­cal, it would be fool­ish to rule out that deriva­tion of the name, espe­cial­ly in a book which often seems to invite mul­ti­ple lev­els of under­stand­ing, or that mir­rors life in a num­ber of ways at the same time.

Obvi­ous­ly Till Eulen­spiegel is more than a charm­ing rogue, and his 95 tales are more than an enter­tain­ing col­lec­tion of pranks. Though there’s almost no overt mor­al­iz­ing in the book (unusu­al in a book of its nature at the time), the fact that time after time Till Eulen­spiegel takes peo­ple at their word, and acts on what they actu­al­ly say, rather than what they mean, points up the absur­di­ty of much of con­ven­tion­al life. As Goethe famous­ly said, “Eulen­spiegel: All the chief jests of the book depend on this: that every­body speaks fig­u­ra­tive­ly and Eulen­spiegel takes it lit­er­al­ly.” Or, as Oppen­heimer says of the orig­i­nal author, “He cer­tain­ly seems bent on suf­fus­ing his work with a mis­chie­vous genius of indi­vid­u­al­ism and independence.”

All of which is exact­ly why Richard Strauss was so drawn to him.

Strauss already had a grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a com­pos­er of songs when his first major tone poem, Don Juan, estab­lished him as an enor­mous­ly impor­tant com­pos­er for the orches­tra at the age of 24. This was con­firmed by the appear­ance of Tod und Verk­lärung (Death and Trans­fig­u­ra­tion) the next year. Add to that his grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion as one of the top con­duc­tors of the time, and it seemed Richard Strauss had it all, musi­cal­ly any­way. So when his first opera, Gun­tram, was a giant flop in his home­town of Munich, it was a rejec­tion that stung for the rest of his life. And the idea of writ­ing an opera on Till Eulen­spiegel — a wily inde­pen­dent rogue who fol­lows his own paths, tells unpalat­able truths, takes jabs at con­ven­tion­al soci­ety and makes fools of pompous  author­i­ty fig­ures, all while indulging in scat­o­log­i­cal humor — well, it seemed the per­fect sub­ject to Strauss at the time.

Wood­cut by Hans Bal­dung Grien for a 1515 edi­tion of the tales.

Even­tu­al­ly Strauss real­ized that the episod­ic nature of his hero did not lend itself to the oper­at­ic form. In a let­ter he explained, “The book of fairy­tales only out­lines a rogue with too super­fi­cial a dra­mat­ic per­son­al­i­ty — the devel­op­ing of his char­ac­ter on more pro­found lines after his trait of con­tempt for human­i­ty also presents con­sid­er­able difficulty.”

But if Till Eulenspiegel’s char­ac­ter didn’t lend itself to the oper­at­ic stage, it was per­fect for an instru­men­tal work. And as a tone poem, using the ron­do form, the episod­ic nature that wouldn’t work on stage, was per­fect for the con­cert hall. The result was Till Eulen­spiegels lustige Stre­iche nach alter Schel­men­weise in Ron­deau­form für gross­es Orch­ester geset­zt—Till Eulenspiegel’s mer­ry pranks, after the old rogue’s tale, set for large orches­tra in ron­do form.

When Strauss was an old man, his some­time libret­tist Josef Gre­gor asked him if he’d been aware that in Till he had reached meta­phys­i­cal bounds of great humor. Strauss snapped, “Oh no. I just want­ed to give the peo­ple in the con­cert hall a good laugh for once.” Per­haps that’s true.  But Strauss, like Till, was good at hid­ing his true motives and thoughts, and using the out­er sur­face of a sub­ject to deflect what was actu­al­ly going on in the depths. For instance, he spent most of his life play­ing the pub­lic role of a rather indo­lent, super­fi­cial man who just hap­pened to be a musi­cian, rather than a banker, and who was most­ly con­cerned with mon­ey and play­ing cards. In fact, he was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly well read. As a young man he wres­tled deeply with Schopenhauer’s work and he was enor­mous­ly influ­enced by Nietzsche’s thought, as well. But, Till-like, he was adept at using a quip to deflect ques­tions he would rather not answer, and the pub­lic bought the decep­tion as the truth.

Till even got his own postage stamp.

Before the pre­mière of Till Eulen­spiegel in Cologne in 1895, the con­duc­tor, Franz Wüll­ner, wrote to Strauss ask­ing about a writ­ten pro­gram, like the poem print­ed in the score of Don Juan. This was a long time before “movie music” of course, but Strauss was leery of encour­ag­ing a lit­er­al­is­tic view of his tone poem, even though it was pro­gram­mat­ic music. He replied: “It is impos­si­ble for me to give a pro­gram to ‘Eulen­spiegel’: what I had in mind when writ­ing the var­i­ous sec­tions, if put into words, would often seem pecu­liar, and would pos­si­bly even give offence.  So let us, this time, leave it to the audi­ence to crack the nuts which the rogue has pre­pared for them. All that is nec­es­sary to the under­stand­ing of the work is to indi­cate the two Eulen­spiegel themes which are run right through the work in all man­ner of dis­guis­es, moods and sit­u­a­tions until the cat­a­stro­phe, when Till is strung up after sen­tence has been passed on him. Apart from that let the gay Cologn­ers guess what the rogue has done to them by way of musi­cal tricks.”

The “two Eulen­spiegel themes” are clear­ly stat­ed in the begin­ning mea­sures of the piece: the first is the open­ing melody in the vio­lins (the first 13 notes); the sec­ond is the famous horn call that fol­lows imme­di­ate­ly. In this open­ing the two themes are vast­ly dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter, but lat­er on Strauss some­times alters their char­ac­ter tremen­dous­ly. The open­ing five mea­sures are about as gemütlich as you can get. It’s almost impos­si­ble to hear it with­out think­ing along the lines of “Once upon a time…” It’s almost too cozy, which is exact­ly the point. It’s an emo­tion­al sit­u­a­tion just beg­ging for the horn call that fol­lows — the trick­ster peek­ing around the door, ready to unset­tle the group of well-behaved chil­dren who are lis­ten­ing to a story.

That horn call, which every French horn play­er in the world seems to be unable to resist play­ing while warm­ing up for a con­cert, is the per­fect depic­tion of Till. It ranges wide­ly (almost four octaves), its jaun­ty rhythms lend them­selves to all sorts of dif­fer­ent syn­co­pa­tions, the melody is equal­ly infec­tious and can be cheeky (as in this open­ing) or roman­ti­cal­ly sweet (as it is lat­er in the piece). When we first hear it, it’s marked to be played soft­ly. The sec­ond time it’s a bit loud­er (Till is get­ting more con­fi­dent) and then, like one mis­chief-mak­er infect­ing a group of well-behaved chil­dren, it spreads to the oboes, then the clar­inets.  The bas­soons, con­tra­bas­soons, vio­las and cel­los get into the act, and sud­den­ly Till has the whole orches­tra in his grip.

After sev­er­al mea­sures of quick for­tis­si­mo eighth note chords for most of the orches­tra, Strauss brings this open­ing to a close by hav­ing Till metaphor­i­cal­ly stick out his tongue at us: while the rest of the orches­tra is silent, the solo D clar­inet has a saucy sev­en-note phrase (Strauss marked it to be played “lustig” or “mer­ri­ly.”) The last note of the phrase is played at the same time the oboes and Eng­lish horn hit a sforzan­do chord they hold for two mea­sures, then the rest of the orches­tra punc­tu­ates things with anoth­er for­tis­si­mo chord — and we’re off, watch­ing Till race away on his adven­tures. But Strauss, like the gourmet chef, has already served notice that there’s more going on here than is appar­ent at first glance. The chord played by the oboes and Eng­lish horn punc­tu­at­ing the D clarinet’s musi­cal rasp­ber­ry is, in fact, the icon­ic “Tris­tan” chord — from Wagner’s mon­u­men­tal music dra­ma Tris­tan und Isol­de, and about as close to “sacred” for some Ger­man musi­cians of the day as it was pos­si­ble to get. Using it as Strauss does here is, well, about as Till-esque as you can get. It’s both an inside joke for the con­nois­seur, but at the same time, it’s also a mar­velous­ly piquant sound even the most casu­al lis­ten­er will enjoy.

Young Strauss the conductor.

In Strauss’s own score, under­neath the open­ing four mea­sures when the vio­lins play the first theme, Strauss hand­wrote “Once upon a time there was a rougish jester…” And under­neath the first horn call he wrote, “…whose name was Till Eulen­spiegel.” Under­neath the D clarinet’s musi­cal rasp­ber­ry he penned the words “That was a ras­cal­ly scamp!” He added sev­er­al oth­er com­ments at var­i­ous places in the score — as did his wife Pauline. Unlike her husband’s, Pauline’s com­ments tend­ed toward the caus­tic: words like “awful” and “mad.”

Pauline was wrong of course, and maybe she was jok­ing. (In any case, Strauss didn’t erase her addi­tions to his score.) With Till Eulen­spiegel Strauss broke new ground musi­cal­ly. Nev­er before had a com­pos­er cre­at­ed with such a vast instru­men­tal palette or used it with an insou­ciance that was as breath­tak­ing as it was appro­pri­ate to its sub­ject (and tech­ni­cal­ly well-neigh per­fect­ly). The sense of glee at Strauss’ audac­i­ty, and skill, runs through­out every mea­sure of the piece. But that, too, is a part of the char­ac­ter of Till Eulen­spiegel. And to think the sub­ject of his next tone poem would be about as far from the char­ac­ter of Till Eulen­spiegel as it is pos­si­ble to get: Friedrich Nietzsche’s philo­soph­i­cal­ly auda­cious tome, Also Sprach Zarathus­tra.

Per­haps the time has come to admit that as a com­pos­er, Richard Strauss is much more than an enter­tain­ing tech­ni­cian. In fact, he can be one of the most pro­found com­posers West­ern music has.

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