Program Notes

Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Opus 59


BORN: June 11, 1864. Munich, Bavaria

DIED: September 8, 1949.  Garmisch, Germany

COMPOSED:  The opera was begun in 1909 and completed on September 26, 1910

WORLD PREMIERE: January 26, 1911, at the Dresden Court Opera under the direction of Ernst von Schuch

US PREMIERE: December 9, 1913, at the Metropolitan Opera. The conductor was Alfred Hertz, soon to leave New York for the SFS. The score of the suite played at these concerts, which bears the copyright date of 1945 and was first played by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony under Artur Rodziński on October 5, 1944, credits no arranger. Rodziński himself probably had a hand in the arrangement, and possibly Leonard Bernstein, then the orchestra's assistant conductor, did too. It was published with the blessing of the composer, then desperately in need of income

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—June 1933. Richard Lert conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2016. Juraj Valčuha conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets with E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, ratchet, cymbal, bass drum, celesta, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 21 mins


THE BACKSTORY Richard Strauss is most conspicuously represented in the symphony hall through a handful of the tone poems he produced from the late 1880s through the early years of the twentieth century, some of which—like Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel, and Thus Spake Zarathustra—represent high points of their genre. He seemed to draw a double-bar on that phase of his career after writing Symphonia domestica in 1902-03, and he returned to the genre only once more, when An Alpine Symphony occupied him from 1911 to 1915. Apart from that, his production of symphonic poems gave way to his growing interest in composing operas, which was most immediately manifested in Salome (premiered in 1905) and Elektra (1909).  

Their successor, Der Rosenkavalier, is a delicate treatment of a sensitive subject—how youth and age do, or do not, mix in the arena of love. At the center of the plot, set in mid-eighteenth-century Vienna, we find the Marschallin, a princess who, in the absence of her husband (a military man of some eminence), is having an affair with Octavian, an attractive young count; Strauss underscores Octavian’s youth (and his barely changed voice) by assigning the role to a mezzo-soprano. The Marschallin’s boorish cousin, Baron Ochs, hopes to ensnare Sophie, the daughter of a nouveau riche gentleman, by offering access to well-born circles. Octavian (disguised as a maid) is sent to offer Sophie a silver rose—signifying a marriage proposal—on behalf of Baron Ochs. But when Octavian arrives to present the rose, he and Sophie fall in love at first sight. After various complications, the ardor of youth wins out: Ochs withdraws his bid for Sophie, and, with dignity and insight, the Marschallin accepts that young Octavian is better suited to love Sophie than a woman of her own advancing years.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto is itself the stuff of greatness—Strauss remarked that it practically set itself to music—but the addition of Strauss’s score turned Der Rosenkavalier into one of opera’s most enduring masterpieces. The Viennese setting is suggested by the use of local dialect and of seductive waltzes. The latter is an anachronism, since the action is set about a century before the “Waltz Era,” but, with music like this, who could seriously complain?

The 1911 premiere of Der Rosenkavalier was one the great events of operatic history. No pains had been spared by director Max Reinhardt and designer Alfred Roller in creating the most magical experience imaginable, and the Dresden Court Opera scheduled no fewer than thirty-three full-orchestra rehearsals totaling about a hundred hours. Critics were hostile: Hofmannsthal’s libretto was dismissed as humorless and Strauss’s music as superficial. Audiences, however, adored the piece, calling the performers to the stage for ten curtain calls after the second act and twenty after the third. As a result, Der Rosenkavalier was immediately accepted as an operatic standard, and in its first year it received more than fifty performances in Dresden as well as productions in Nuremberg, Munich, Basel, Hamburg, Milan, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Amsterdam. In the century since, it has not diminished in the affection of opera-lovers. Strauss remained ever fond of it, partly on esthetic grounds and partly for the income it kept churning out.

As one would expect of a commercial hit, the music was pressed into all manner of use through arrangements and transcriptions. Strauss produced the earliest orchestral extract in 1911, directly on the heels of the premiere; he titled it Walzerfolge Rosenkavalier 3. Akt (Waltz Sequence from Rosenkavalier Act 3). Among the other figures who cobbled together instrumental suites was Otto Singer, who made piano reductions of many of the composer’s major works and wrote piano fantasies on quite a few. His Rosenkavalier Suite, from 1911-12, was much played, but Strauss did not like it. In November 1944, Strauss created a more extensive orchestral suite for a larger orchestra, the Einleitung und Walzer aus Der Rosenkavalier, . . . I. und II. Akt (Introduction and Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier, Acts I and II), saying that he hoped it would supplant “Otto Singer’s terrible work, with those dreadful transitions.” It was Singer, along with the conductor Carl Alwin, who constructed the score for the 1926 film version of Der Rosenkavalier directed by Robert Wiene (more famous for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). That being the pre-sound era of cinema, they selected passages from the operatic score, Strauss added new or recycled material for interlacing sections, and the whole was arranged and made available for live performance by theater orchestras.

The most frequently encountered Rosenkavalier Suite is the one performed in this concert. It was made by an unidentified arranger in 1944, but it is widely held to be the work of the conductor Artur Rodziński. He was at that time music director of the New York Philharmonic, which introduced it that October. Strauss approved this arrangement and it was published in 1945 by the firm of Boosey & Hawkes. In the scholarly catalogue of Strauss’s works (Franz Trenner’s Richard Strauss Werkverzeichnis) it is designated TrV 227d or WoO (Work without Opus Number) 145.

THE MUSIC The Suite begins just as the opera does, with horns and bassoons intoning the leaping motif (Con moto agitato—With agitated motion) associated with the torrential hormones of pubescent Octavian. This cedes to chromatic writhing in the full orchestra before receding in deep relaxation. In the opera, this music sinks into calmness as the curtain rises to reveal the Marschallin and Octavian in bed, about to be served breakfast. The Suite then cuts to the music of Octavian’s “Presentation of the Rose” to Sophie (on behalf of Baron Ochs) in Act Two, an expanse of poised graciousness in which we witness those two characters inevitably falling in love with each other. Input from the solo oboe adds poignancy to this tender scene, as does the occasional overlay of a magical sequence of high, glistening chords (flutes and piccolo, celesta, two harps, three solo violins). The mood is interrupted by a loud outburst and ensuing tornado in the orchestra. The young lovers’ embrace has been witnessed by two household troublemakers, Annina and Valzacchi, who loudly alert Baron Ochs. The low winds and strings bring this short episode to its end with powerful punctuation.

But the Suite has gotten ahead of the opera, and we back up a bit to a moment when Baron Ochs is certain of his impending marriage to Sophie and sings his self-centered waltz-tune “Ohne mich”—“Without me, every day a misery; with me, no night too long for you.” Violins give out the melody (reminiscent of a yodel) to what is essentially an oom-pah-pah accompaniment and grows from there in character and orchestration. We move back further to a snippet from the Introduction to Act Two, and then leap ahead to Act Three and the trio “Hab’ mir’s gelobt,” in which the Marschallin cedes Octavian to Sophie and leaves them to sing their duet “Spür nur dich/Ist ein Traum.” This is the part where you get out your handkerchief. But you can put it away again when, to conclude, we are given two minutes of boisterous music which, in that same act, accompany the ignominious exit of Baron Ochs, pursued by creditors and other discontented parties.—James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Christian Thielemann conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Andris Nelsons conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra | Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony)

ReadingRichard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works, by Norman Del Mar (Chilton)  |  Richard Strauss, by Michael Kennedy (Schirmer)  |  Richard Strauss, by Matthew Boyden (Trafalgar Square)  |  “First-Rate Second-Class Composer,” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music (Oxford University Press)





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