Strauss, R.: Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra

Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich, Bavaria, on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch, Germany, on September 8, 1949. He completed his Oboe Concerto on October 25, 1945, slightly revising the end on February 1, 1948. The first performance was given on February 26, 1946, by Marcel Saillet with the concerto's dedicatees, Dr. Volkmar Andreae (whose name is misspelled by the publisher in the study score) and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. The first US performance was given on February 1, 1948, by Mitchell Miller with Daniel Saidenberg and the Columbia Concert Orchestra. That was a broadcast; the first public concert performance in this country was given later that month in Rochester, New York, by Robert Sprenkle, with Frederick Fennell conducting the Little Symphony of the Eastman School of Music. The first San Francisco Symphony performances were given in March 1982; the soloist was Heinz Holliger and the conductor was Dennis Russell Davies. In the only subsequent performances, in May 1991, William Bennett was soloist and Hugh Wolff conducted. The orchestra consists of two flutes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

Late in life, Richard Strauss rediscovered the charms of non-programmatic music. He had begun his seventy-eight-year career as a composer with a Tailor's Polka for piano in 1870, when he was six, and from the days of his young manhood we have a number of attractive pieces that still get an occasional airing, among them a Cello Sonata, Violin Concerto, the Horn Concerto No. 1, the F minor Symphony, the Burleske for piano and orchestra, and the Violin Sonata. With Aus Italien in 1886 he began a flirtation with illustrative music, quickly taking a more decisive step in that direction with Macbeth. From then until 1903, the year of the Symphonia domestica, the tone poem for orchestra was his principal concern; with Salome, first performed in 1905, he completed the shift to what he thought of as his real métier, that of opera composer. The Alpine Symphony of 1915 is a grand postscript to the series of tone poems. Except for that work, years went by without a significant piece of instrumental music from Strauss's pen. Indeed, he complained that the prospect of writing a piece of music unattached to a poetic or dramatic plan suggested no ideas to him.

When Strauss was in his late seventies all this changed. As always, he was motivated by practical considerations. The regime he had neither endorsed nor repudiated had pressed the self-destruct button, and prospects for opera were not good. Theaters were going up in flames or collapsing as rubble, musicians and technical personnel were absorbed into the armed forces, and in 1944 the theatrical establishments still functioning were shut down in an attempt to alleviate the fuel crisis.

Strauss had completed his last opera, Capriccio, in 1941, and he saw it performed in Munich the following year. In 1942 he wrote a Second Horn Concerto (sixty years after the first), continuing on his new path with two sonatinas for wind ensemble (they are called From an Invalid's Workshop and Cheerful Workshop), Metamorphosen for twenty-three solo strings, the Oboe Concerto, and the Duet-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with strings and harp. The Four Last Songs, which have become the best-known and best-loved of the works of Strauss's old age, brought his professional life to a close. They and the Metamorphosen, an agonized meditation on a theme revealed on its last page as that of the Eroica Funeral March, are the rich and deep gatherings of that remarkable Spätlese. Somehow, the old man found the strength and concentration to present the world this last bundle of masterpieces, major and minor, all music of elegance and purity.

Among the music-loving American soldiers stationed in Bavaria whose curiosity was aroused by the Garmisch villa with the name-plate "Dr. Richard Strauss" on the gate was Alfred Mann, who would later become a distinguished musicologist and an enlivening conductor of Baroque music. As a refugee from the Third Reich, Mann was fluent in German and thus particularly welcomed when he called to pay his respects. He was invited to return, and on several later visits took along a younger friend, John de Lancie, who had joined the army as a bandsman but who was later transferred to the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA. Though only twenty-one when he was drafted, de Lancie had already been Fritz Reiner's principal oboe in the Pittsburgh Symphony, and he went on after the war to become principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and director of the Curtis Institute of Music.

“During one of my visits with Strauss,” de Lancie recalled some years ago, “I asked him if, in view of the numerous beautiful, lyric solos for oboe in almost all of his works, he had ever considered writing a concerto for oboe. He answered ‘NO,’ and there was no more conversation on the subject. He later told a fellow musician friend of mine . . . that the idea had taken root as a result of that remark. He subsequently, in numerous interviews and letters, spoke of this concerto in reference to my visits with him, and I have a letter from him inviting me to the first performance in Zurich. . . . After my return to America and civilian life in 1946, I corresponded with the family. I received a letter from the editor of Boosey [and Hawkes, Strauss’s English publisher] informing me of a request from Strauss that I should be offered the first performance in America. . . .”

That did not come about. Strauss's autograph score is headed "Oboe Concerto 1945/suggested by an American soldier/oboist from Chicago”; nonetheless, until he recorded it in 1988, de Lancie had only a single opportunity to perform "his" concerto, and that was with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Interlochen, Michigan, in the summer of 1964.

Oboists tend to go pale when you say the dread words "Strauss Concerto." Most particularly this response has to do with the opening, where, after two twitches from the cellos, the oboe has a solo of fifty-seven measures in a fairly leisurely tempo and with not so much as a single sixteenth-rest.

However, having faced this technical obstacle, the oboist finds a melodic line that is sinuous and lovely, thoroughly vocal in manner. If you are occasionally reminded of the Symphonia domestica or Ariadne auf Naxos, it is probably because Strauss wanted you to be; there are moments, too, when the work seems like a study for the Four Last Songs, particularly “Beim Schlafengehen.” The orchestral framework is delightfully detailed and also managed with admirable (and necessary) discretion and tact. The cello twitch that started the music rolling turns out to be not just a pervasive feature of the first movement, but also a bit of common ground between it and the gentle Andante. (Here, too, Strauss begins with a cruel endurance challenge, a cantilena of thirty-three unbroken measures.) This movement spills into an elaborate cadenza with orchestral punctuation. The cadenza leads directly into a spirited rondo, gracefully nostalgic for the eighteenth century. By way of another, shorter cadenza, Strauss moves into an expansive coda. The tempo of this Allegro is actually slower than that of the preceding Vivace; however, the beats allow for subdivision into very fast notes so that the effect of the close is nicely brilliant.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Heinz Holliger with Edo de Waart conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra (Newton Classics)  |  Stefan Schilli with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Oehms)  |  Alex Klein with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Teldec)  |  Lajos Lencsés with Neville Marriner and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Hänssler Classic)

Reading: Richard Strauss, by Norman Del Mar (Cornell University Press, three volumes)  |  Richard Strauss—Man, Musician, Enigma, by Michael Kennedy (Cambridge University Press)  |  Richard Strauss, by Tim Ashley (Phaidon 20th-Century Composers)  |  Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait, by Kurt Wilhelm (Thames & Hudson)  |  “First-Rate Second-Class Composer,” by Larry Rothe, in the essay collection (by Rothe and Michael Steinberg) For the Love of Music (Oxford University Press)