Program Notes

Ein Heldenleben, Opus 40

BORN: June 11, 1864 . Munich, Bavaria
DIED: September 8, 1949. Garmisch, Germany

COMPOSED: Begun sketches in the spring of 1897, completed on December 1, 1898. On December 23 he began to rewrite the ending, completing what are now the final twenty-five measures on the 27th of that month. The score bears a dedication to Willem Mengelberg and the Orchestra of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw

WORLD PREMIERE: March 3, 1899. The composer conducted the first performance at a Frankfurt Museum

US PREMIERE: March 10, 1900. Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— October 1926. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—November 2010. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes and piccolo, 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn), 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tenor tuba, bass tuba, timpani, tam-tam, cymbals, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, 2 harps, and strings (including a prominent violin solo)

DURATION: About 46 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Richard Strauss would have described himself primarily as an opera composer. Between the revision of Macbeth in 1891 and the composition of Till Eulenspiegel (originally planned as an opera) in 1895, he completed an opera called Guntram, though this disappeared from the stage almost immediately. Altogether the Guntram experience cost Strauss a lot of headaches, and his happiest association with the work was his engagement during the rehearsal period and marriage four months later to his pupil and difficult leading lady, Pauline de Ahna. She plays an important part in Ein Heldenleben as well.

All this time, Strauss had been making a name for himself as a conductor. He had made his debut in 1884, leading his Suite for Winds, Opus 4, without benefit of a rehearsal. A valuable apprenticeship at Meiningen with Hans von Bülow was followed by an appointment as third conductor at the Munich Opera. From there he had gone to Weimar and then back to Munich, where he now shared the number-one spot with Hermann Levi. Each time Strauss had ended up frustrated, bored, in some way dissatisfied. The year 1898 at last brought liberation from a trying situation in Munich in the form of a ten-year contract as principal conductor at the Court Opera in Berlin. He had had a previous and unhappy experience in the Prussian and Imperial capital, when after only one season with the Berlin Philharmonic he had been replaced by Arthur Nikisch. But now Strauss faced Berlin with confidence—rightly so, as it turned out—and most of the score of Ein Heldenleben, begun in Munich and completed in Berlin, was written in sky-high spirits.

Early in 1897, Strauss was busy conducting Wagner and Mozart in Munich and taking his melodrama Enoch Arden on tour with the actor Ernst von Possart. He was composing choruses on texts by Rückert and Schiller, but on April 16 he was able to note that the symphonic poem Held und Welt (Hero and World) was beginning to take shape. “And with it,” he adds, “Don Quixote as satyr-play,” that is to say, as comic pendant. The two works remained associated in his mind. He worked the two scores simultaneously for several months and always felt that together they made a superb concert program. By summer’s end, however, he found himself concentrating exclusively on Don Quixote, and he brought that score to completion on December 29, 1897. The other project, variously referred to as Heldenleben, Held und Welt, Heroische Sinfonie, and even Eroica, was completed in short score on July 30, 1898—the date, Strauss registered in his journal, of “the great Bismarck’s” dismissal by the young Kaiser Wilhelm. Three days later, Strauss began work on the full score, and this he finished on December 1, subjecting the end to a striking revision in the last days of that month.

Ein Heldenleben is usually, and not incorrectly, translated as A Hero's Life; argument, however, could be made that A Heroic Life comes as close, or closer. This, in any event, brings us to the troublesome question of extra-musical meaning or content. First of all, Strauss was—obviously—aware of the Eroica connection and of its dangers. On July 23, 1898, we find him writing to a friend: “Since Beethoven’s Eroica is so unpopular with conductors and thus rarely performed nowadays, I am now, in order to meet what is clearly an urgent need, composing a big tone poem with the title Heldenleben (to be sure, without a funeral march, but still in E-flat major and with very many horns, which are, after all, stamped for heroism).”

But who is the hero? Two details point to Strauss himself. He authorized his old school-friend Friedrich Rösch and the critic Wilhelm Klatte to supply, for the premiere, a detailed scenario in six sections. One of these is called The Hero's Companion and it is, by the composer’s admission to Romain Rolland and others, a portrait of Pauline Strauss; another is called The Hero’s Works of Peace, and it is woven from quotations of earlier Strauss scores. “Of course I haven't taken part in any battles,” wrote Strauss to his publisher half a century later, “but the only way I could express works of peace was through themes of my own.”

Strauss was and remained ambivalent on the subject of extra-musical meaning, being irritated by requests for “programs” but supplying them anyway (or allowing someone else to); insisting that music’s business was to say only those things that music could uniquely say, but also that art with no human content was no art; and often—as in the case of Heldenleben—making elaborate verbal sketches before he was ready to jot down musical ideas. “Why,” he asked in one of his last notebook entries, “why does no one see the new element in my compositions, how in them—as otherwise only in Beethoven—the man is visible in the work?” A passage from a letter to Romain Rolland at the time of the Paris premiere of the Symphonia domestica in 1906 seems to sum up his feelings (at least to the extent that they allow themselves to be summed up): “For me, the poetic program is nothing more than the formative stimulus both for the expression and the purely musical development of my feelings, not, as you think, a mere musical description of certain of life's events. That, after all, would be completely against the spirit of music. But, for music not to lose itself in total arbitrariness or dissolve somehow into the boundless, it has need of certain boundaries, and a program can provide such bounds. An analytical program isn't meant to be more than a kind of handhold for the listener. Whoever is interested in it, let him use it. Anyone who really knows how to listen to music probably doesn't need it anyway.”

THE MUSIC  The first large section of the work, swaggering, sweet, impassioned, grandiloquent, sumptuously scored, depicts The Hero in his changing aspects and moods.

A grand preparatory gesture, followed by expectant silence, leads to a drastically different music, sharp, prickly, disjunct, dissonant. The directions to the performers say things like “cutting and pointed,” “snarling” (the oboe), “hissing” (the pianissimo cymbals). Underneath all this nastiness, the tubas make a stubborn and pedantic pronouncement on the subject of that grammatic solecism in music called “parallel fifths.” This is the scene of The Hero's Adversaries, the grudgers and the faultfinders. Strauss was convinced that some of the Berlin critics recognized themselves as the target of this portrait and the composer as The Hero, which, he remarked, was “only partially applicable.” The Hero's theme, on its next appearance, is much darkened.

One violin detaches itself from the others to unfold the vivid portrait of Pauline. “She is very complicated,” Strauss told Romain Rolland, “très femme, a little perverse, a bit of a coquette, never the same twice, different each minute from what she was a minute earlier. At the beginning, the hero follows her lead, picking up the pitch she has just sung, but she escapes farther and farther. Finally he says, ‘All right, go. I'm staying here,’ and he withdraws into his thoughts, his own key. But then she goes after him.” Flippant, tender, a little sentimental, exuberantly playful, gracious, emotional, angry, nagging, loving--these are some of the directions to the violinist in this scene of The Hero's Companion.

The single violin is again absorbed into the orchestral mass and we hear love music, as lush as only Strauss could make it. Briefly, the adversaries disturb the idyll, but now their cackling is heard as though from a distance. But the hero must go into battle to vanquish them. Trumpets summon him, introducing that immense canvas, The Hero's Battlefield. The hero returns in triumph, or, in musical terms, there is a recapitulation as clear and as formal as the most ardent classicist could wish.

The music becomes more quiet, and we have arrived at one of the most remarkable sections of the score, The Hero's Works of Peace. Alfred Orel recalled how Strauss, when accompanying song recitals, used to build bridges from one song to the next by playing—almost inaudibly—passages from his operas, passages that would turn out to be closely related to the song they prepared. Here Strauss weaves a texture both dense and delicate as he combines music from Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, Don Quixote, Macbeth, and the song “Traum durch die Dämmerung” (“Dreaming at Twilight”). The episode is one of Strauss's orchestral miracles--richly blended, yet a constantly astonishing, shifting kaleidoscopic play of luminescent textures and colors.

Even now, the adversaries are not silenced. The Hero rages, but his passion gives way to renunciation (and this is very unlike the real Richard Strauss indeed). The final section is called The Hero's Escape from the World and Completion. The Hero retires and, after final recollections of his battling and his loving self, the music subsides in profound serenity. This, in the original version, was undisturbed through the pianissimo close with violins, timpani, and a single horn. Strauss's friend Rösch, so the story goes, protested: “Richard, another pianissimo ending! People won't believe that you even know how to end forte!!” So he called for pen and paper and . . . . Dates and other details of that charming story unfortunately don't quite mesh; we do know, however, that Strauss did reconsider and that in the few days between Christmas and the New Year he composed the present ending with its rich mystery and fascinating ambiguity, an ending of marvelously individual sonority and one that at least touches fortissimo.

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.

: Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra (CBS Records)  |  Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (London)  |  Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo)

DVD: MTT and the London Symphony Orchestra (ICA Classics)

ReadingRichard Strauss, by Michael Kennedy, in the Master Musicians series (Dent)  |  Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma, also by Kennedy (Cambridge)  |  Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works, a three-volume study of Strauss's music, by Norman Del Mar (Cornell University Press)  |  The Life of Richard Strauss, by Bryan Gilliam (Cambridge’s Musical Lives series)

(October 2017)

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