Home > Uncategorized > Beyond Hominids and Star Children: Strauss at 150

Beyond Hominids and Star Children: Strauss at 150

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Everyone has probably heard at least one piece by German composer Richard Strauss, born on this date in 1864. In fact, it is likely the same one. A progression of three notes that culminate in a suspenseful chord that remains unresolved, followed by a rhythmic thumping on the kettledrums. A similar theme appears again, and a third time, now evoking a sense of the sublime in a new theme. A ritual somehow sacred and profane, a worship of the sun, a feeling of the power of the universe.

The opening of Strauss’ 1896 composition Also Sprach Zarathustra, a musical meditation on the 1883 work by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is instantly recognizable, even to those who know nothing about the composer. Used most famously in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, its sense of power signifies pivotal moments in the evolution of humankind, with some assistance from enigmatic extraterrestrial, or perhaps ultraterrestrial, powers.

After the release of 2001, classical music companies have capitalized on these associations by having celestial images on the covers of albums with Zarathustra. Unfortunately, as one can see on the Internet Movie Database entry about Strauss, the Zarathustra opening became a victim of its own success, overused in numerous movies, TV shows, and advertisements, typically as a form of easy parody. Beyond its introduction, however, Zarathustra itself is a spellbinding piece. Lasting approximately a half hour beyond the roughly two minute opening, it contains musical meditations on religion, science, the tensions between humanity and nature… in other words, some of the “big questions” of life, as detailed further in a Limelight piece by Melissa Lesnie.

But Zarathustra isn’t all heavy-handed. There are very light moments alongside the dense ones, quiet moments among the loud. Of course, other composers have such contrasts in their music. Strauss’ musical palate somehow manages to amplify them, however, and with great detail work to boot in the orchestration. Some would argue that Strauss stretched tonality to its limits, as his music typically tried to tell some kind of story, depicting as fully as possible a range of human emotions. Indeed, there are other moments in Strauss that almost seem to be depicting profound events, or that evoke images of the convergence of matter (at least in musical form) in an act of creation. Although against conventional religion, and often accused of composing music that lacks “soul” or “spirituality,” there’s something about Strauss’ music that seems profoundly spiritual. Maybe some it comes from depicting our individual longings and desires within a vast universe, a tension that perhaps seemed especially apt within the context of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course, we stumble when we attempt such paths. And Strauss, who also possessed a wry and sardonic wit that was lost on his critics, portrays such missteps and misfortunes as well. For this reason, perhaps it’s apt that one of his tone poems focuses on Don Quixote (1897)…

… and another on the original merry prankster Till Eulenspiegel (1895).

In keeping with his generally wry and sardonic perspective, Strauss claimed that he could portray knives and forks musically. Indeed, in some of his works, he even portrayed typical domestic lives (that is, bourgeois like his). Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica (1904) attempted to depict “typical” happenings in a “typical” household, while his comic opera Intermezzo (1924) revolves around a marital misunderstanding between a composer and his wife. So Strauss indulged in a bit of autobiography (the Intermezzo composer is named “Robert Storch”), perhaps most infamously as the titular “hero” of his symphonic work Ein Heldenleben (1899). He allegedly told the writer Romain Rolland, “I find myself quite as interesting as [or “no less interesting than”] Napoleon or Alexander [the Great].” Again, critics did not understand the wry nature of his comment, or his intentions. But even if Heldenleben is a bit tongue-in-cheek, it is quite an awesome work, anyway. The opening alone can be enough to fill one with courage to take on the challenges in one’s life:


I vaguely remember first hearing Strauss when I was quite young, although I didn’t know the names of the pieces that emerged from the stereo system as my mother would play the RCA LP album Richard Strauss’ Greatest Hits. Released in 1972, it likely was capitalizing on the usage of Zarathustra in 2001, with the opening appearing as the first piece. I only learned these tracks’ names later, when I rediscovered classical music in high school, and when I found it while going through my mother’s album collection.

Immediately following the Zarathustra opening was one of Strauss’ first masterpieces, the tone poem Don Juan (1889). Quite a pairing for sure. An invocation of the universe, followed by the musical portrayal a man engaged in very earthly erotic pursuits.

Along with evoking those vague childhood memories, the opening also grabbed my adolescent attention, the rich orchestration and galloping rhythm making me think of the start of some kind of adventure. Strauss’ genius with bringing together different instruments, and in creating any number of sonic effects, is aptly demonstrated in the excerpt below from the wonderful 1991 PBS series Orchestra!, with Sir Georg Solti leading a youth orchestra, and comic actor Dudley Moore (himself a talented musician) acting as the “everyman” looking on (starting at 2:15).

It’s no accident that one can easily compare the sound of Don Juan with music from very old school “swashbuckling” cinematic escapades, as Strauss’ musical style influenced a number of those who composed such scores, as well as composers like John Williams who brought a similar “sound” to adventure movies in more recent years.

Of course, another source of appeal was the aforementioned erotic nature of the piece. Given the legend of Don Juan and its colloquial usage, the “riding” nature of the opening could be taken as a kind of double entendre. And the couple of seconds leading up to the cymbal clash, along with the clash itself, could be taken to signify another kind of climax, before the Don dashes off to yet more “adventures.” Although my peers were unconvinced when I tried telling them about this particular portrayal of sexuality in classical music, I suspect they would have said something if I hadn’t mentioned it. After all, who couldn’t imagine an adolescent “jokingly” making that kind of comparison, and underlining the point by making appropriate moaning and heavy breathing sounds… and maybe feeling surprised that such a perception might not be too far off the mark? After all, classical music isn’t “supposed” to have anything to do with sex… even though many in the know, know otherwise.

The same goes for opera, of which Strauss wrote quite a few as well. And, yep, sexuality can certainly be found in Strauss’ operas. Next on the “Greatest Hits” album was a compilation of his charming waltzes from the amusing and poignant Der Rosenkavalier (1911). However, it did not have the full opening from the original opera, which lasts approximately a minute and precedes the rising of the stage curtain, which reveals the thirtyish wife of a field marshal (the Marschallin) with her adolescent lover Octavian (a boy portrayed by a soprano) lying in bed together. One can guess what has just transpired, and Strauss’ closed-curtain opening underscores the point quite unmistakably, right down to the musical afterglow.

Even the Symphonia Domestica contains a depiction of carnal bliss, at least in the first few minutes of this clip.

And his song Cäcilie (1894) can sound like quite the bodice-ripper, too.

But perhaps the most scandalous of all his works tops all of these. And, personal disclosure, it is [ahem] one of [ahem] my favourite operas. Composed right after Domestica, Salome premiered in 1905. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde, which added to the “scandal,” Salome is a single act thrill ride that depicts the title character’s mounting desire for the prophet Jochanaan (a thinly-veiled renaming of John the Baptist). After she does the “Dance of the Seven Veils” for her lecherous stepfather Herod, she asks for the prophet’s head on a silver platter, culminating in a tour de force final scene that is somehow horrifying and beautiful (starting around 4:16).

The whole final scene is definitely worth hearing, but the big climax is quite amazing as well. It’s not unlike the Zarathustra opening in terms of sheer power, but it’s much better in my opinion (starting around 7:23):

This version, although it doesn’t feature subtitles, is quite a wonderful live performance as well:

Kaiser Wilhelm was concerned about the opera doing damage to Strauss’ reputation. However, as has always been the case with “scandalous” works, Salome became a huge hit with the public. And, as Strauss pointed out, “the damage it did me allowed me to build my villa in Garmisch.” He followed it up with another “shocking” work, a reworking of the Greek tragedy Elektra in 1909. Although less explicit, its libretto, written by Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, carries some obvious Freudian themes.

Elektra is also the furthest Strauss went in terms of composing “dissonant” music, which (under the influence of Strauss) became a current trend in composition. At least, this was the case among such Austro-Germans as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), who composed Erwartung (Expectation) the same year.

Strauss, however, “retreated” to older composition styles, signified by Der Rosenkavalier (with another libretto by Hofmannsthal), with its waltzes…

… and tear-jerking trio near the end of the opera, where the Marschallin lets go of Octavian for someone more appropriate for his age.

Although Strauss fell out of favour with more diligently avant garde poseurs, composers like Schoenberg and his disciple Alban Berg (1885-1935) maintained their respect for Strauss (even though Strauss uncharitably stated that Schoenberg would be better off giving up composition for shoveling snow).

His Alpensinfonie (1915) is another example of Strauss going on his own compositional path, regardless of musical trends (and with World War I raging across Europe). Like Zarathustra, it’s evocative of the sublime in its vivid depiction of a mountain setting.

As well, Alpensinfonie has its origins in underlying Nietzschean ideals. This is reflected in its original title Der Antichrist, named after another work by Nietzsche, as well as an excerpt from his diary:

“It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity…. I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.”

Although not Nazis themselves, Nietzsche and Strauss were both used by the regime that came to power in Germany almost 20 years later. The Nazis appropriated the philosopher posthumously with the help of his aging right-wing anti-Semitic sister, whose husband had tried starting a short-lived “New Germany” colony in Paraguay as far back as the 1880s. As for Strauss, who was approaching 70 and was recognized as one of the world’s greatest living composers, the Nazis used his fame as a way of gaining legitimacy and prestige. He accepted the position of president of the Reichsmusikkammer (State Music Bureau), perceiving his role as trying to minimize damage to musical life, caused by “amateurs” and “place-holders.” He paid no heed to politics, and privately considered many members of the regime to be incompetent. Having been around since the emergence of Germany as a nation-state in 1871, Strauss believed that the Nazi regime would simply go the way of it predecessors.

Along with having a Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren, Strauss also asked Jewish author Stefan Zweig to write the libretto for his 1935 opera Die Schweigsame Frau (“The Silent Woman”). Although Zweig wasn’t sure what to make of Strauss agreeing to work with him, the composer wrote back:

“Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German’? Do you suppose Mozart was consciously ‘Aryan’ when he composed? I recognise only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none.”

The letter was intercepted by the Gestapo, which left Strauss in a tenuous position for the remainder of the regime. Nonetheless, he remained almost dangerously naïve, going so far as to drive up to the gates of a concentration camp and ask for the release of his daughter-in-law’s relatives. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who disliked Strauss (and to whom Strauss returned the favour), was particularly rough on him.

After the end of World War II, Strauss’ reputation took a beating from his associations with the Nazis. Of course, much of it was greatly exaggerated by Allied propaganda, which went so far as to claim that his string piece Metamorphosen (1945) was a tribute to the collapsed Nazi regime. Although evidence remains vague, it is much more likely a meditation on the cruelty and destruction visited upon Germany by the Nazis, as well as the Allied bombings.

One of Strauss’ strengths as a composer was to portray vividly a range of emotions and sensations. Many of the compositions listed above relate to feelings of elation, but one can also find poignancy and sadness within some of them. But some, like Metamorphosen, have poignancy and sadness as a primary trait, even if there is also a degree of elation within them as well. One of his earlier works, Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration,” 1889), is a perfect example. Sometimes paired with Metamorphosen, it portrays an unnamed protagonist on his deathbed, which includes memories of youthful ardour, as well as his passing into an afterlife.

Sixty years after composing Tod, and just a few weeks before leaving this world on 8 September 1949, Strauss remarked that dying was just as he had imagined it in that piece. Although he may or may not have been indulging in his trademark sardonic humour, the “transfiguration” motif appears near the end of one of the songs he composed a year before his passing. Set to a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, Im Abendrot (“At Sunset”) became the last of a set of four profoundly beautiful songs, with the other three set to poems by Hermann Hesse. Typically performed as the Vier Letzte Lieder (“Four Last Songs”), they premiered in 1950.

Although Strauss’ influence can easily be noted within “classical” composition and film scores, one is hard-pressed to find it beyond those genres. Perhaps the most obvious is this jazz-funk version of… well…

Nonetheless, a few “non-classical” musicians have cited his influence, such as David Bowie. And there are the connections I’ve noted as well to Poe and U2, although no one has found any evidence of direct connections in either case. Nonetheless, at least with U2, Brian Eno is a common denominator between the band and Bowie. Interestingly, he also designed the visuals for this video of Jessye Norman singing Beim Schlafengehen (“Time to Sleep”), another of the “four last songs.”

I’ve already written a posting about Bowie acknowledging the influence of Vier Letzte Lieder on his album Heathen, so it’s naturally tempting to think of “Heroes / Helden” as another quasi-Straussian work (especially with its German lyrics).

And certainly, as mentioned before, one could extend it to action/adventure film music. I defy anyone to listen to “You Know My Name” from Casino Royale, obviously in a “popular” genre, and say it isn’t at least a little bit like the opening from Heldenleben (reposted below for convenience)… right down to the roughly four-minute length, interesting instrumentation, and “challenges” hurled out at the very end to the hero’s opponents.

Or try the instrumental version.

Of course, for reasons of space, this posting only provides a sampling of Strauss’ compositions, bits of his personal life, and some discussion of both influence and potential similarities to Strauss found in other genres. Strauss’ prowess at composition (and in particular instrumentation) effectively encompasses a wide range of human experience, from the earthbound to the sublime, from sadness to elation. It can make one contemplate what it means to be human, as well as our place in the universe. Perhaps that explains the indelible link between a sliver of one of his compositions and 2001. Nonetheless, at least for novices, there remains much more of Strauss’ music to explore. Not out of an obligation to listen to music by a “great composer,” but rather to feel something that can overwhelm the senses… whether it’s a sense of strength, vulnerability, or even both. And to realize that Strauss is more than just 2001.

Oh, what the hell…

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