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.