Program Notes: Strauss' Merry Pranks

Program Notes: Strauss' Merry Pranks

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Full program notes:

Richard Wagner
Born: May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1883, Venice, Italy

Prelude and “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde

During the 1850s Wagner was at work on the operas that would make up The Ring of the Nibelung. He completed Das Rheingold in 1854 and Die Walküre in 1856 and immediately set to work on Siegfried. But his plans took an unexpected detour when he became fascinated by the ancient Irish legend of Tristan and Iseult, lovers who find fulfillment only in death. He set aside his work on Siegfried for three years and composed Tristan and Isolde between 1856 and 1859.

Even before the opera was premiered in Munich in 1865, Wagner had led orchestral excerpts from it in concerts, and the most important of these involves a remarkable piece of compositional surgery: Wagner took the very beginning of the opera, its opening prelude, and the very ending, Isolde’s farewell to life—and fused them in an orchestral work he called Prelude and Love-Death. This reduces the four-hour opera to a 17-minute distillation that moves directly from its yearning beginning to Isolde’s ecstatic fulfillment in death, and it remains one of the most popular orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s operas.

The Prelude opens this tale of unfulfilled love with music that is itself the embodiment of unfulfilled longing: a falling cello line intersects dissonantly with a rising oboe line, and that harmonic clash does not resolve. That same pattern repeats in a new key, again without resolution. It will never resolve. The music’s failure ever to find harmonic stasis mirrors the lovers’ failure to find fulfillment in life, and despite the beauty of the music, its effect is intentionally unsettling.

The Prelude, built on a series of longing, surging phrases, comes to a quiet close on two deep pizzicato strokes, and the music continues directly into the concluding “Liebestod,” or Love-Death. Tristan has died, and Isolde, dying herself, clings to his body and finds in death the union that the two could never achieve in life. The “Liebestod” is built on a quite different orchestral sonority than the Prelude, full of shimmering sounds—string tremolos, harp arpeggios and long crescendos—that mirror Isolde’s transfiguration. When joined with the Prelude, the “Liebestod” is most often performed by instruments alone; today it is presented with soprano Amber Wagner (of no relation to the composer) singing the text as heard in the opera’s final scene.

Instrumentation: solo soprano with orchestra comprising 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Richard Wagner

“Brünnhilde’s Immolation (Opfertat)” from Götterdämmerung

Wagner’s operatic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung stands as one of the most compelling and overwhelming artistic creations in mankind’s history. Wagner expected the four components—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung—to be presented on four consecutive days. Requiring about 15 hours to perform (not counting intermissions), it constituted the largest single integrated body of music ever written until Karlheinz Stockhausen completed his Licht cycle in 2004. It involves several dozen characters and portrays nothing less than the entire cosmos in one all-embracing art form. The entire gamut of human emotions and themes is encountered, and listeners are swept into another dimension as gods, heroes, mortals, giants, dwarfs and more interact in a cosmic scenario of awesome expressive power.

The Ring occupied Wagner for more than a quarter of a century, from his first version of the text in 1848 to completion of the orchestral score of Götterdämmerung in 1874. The first performance of the complete cycle took place in 1876 in Bayreuth, Germany, where the composer had overseen construction of a new theater designed specifically to accommodate his colossal creation. It was the musical event of the decade.

The answer to the oft-heard question, “What is the Ring all about?” can and does fill volumes. In its purest essence, however, the story is about the pursuit of power and the evil consequences arising therefrom. The quest for power is ultimately incompatible with a life based on love, compassion and other noble human values. Siegfried and Brünnhilde, two of the principal characters, are victims of the old world system ruled by force and corruption, but they herald the dawn of a new utopian age.

The final catastrophe of the Ring is announced by Brünnhilde the Valkyrie in the Immolation Scene. To music of awesome majesty, she commands the vassals to pile up mighty logs to make a funeral pyre for the fallen hero Siegfried. Then she reviews her glorious past with him: how he was like a glorious sunset, how he was tricked into betraying her, and how it was the gods, Wotan especially—who brought on this tragedy. But now she knows all, and forgives all.

Slipping the ring from Siegfried’s finger, she muses on how this cursed object is now about to be returned to the pure depths of the Rhine, where it will be cleansed of its evil properties. Brünnhilde calls upon the ravens to “take to Wotan the tale of what you have heard here on the Rhine,” puts the ring on her own finger, jumps on her horse Grane, and rides into the flames of the funeral pyre to join Siegfried in death. The flames roar up, consuming the adjacent Hall of the Gibichungs. In the distance, Valhalla, the abode of all the morally flawed gods, can be seen in flames as well. A vast tapestry of leitmotifs spreads before us in this stupendous concluding symphonic fresco. The great cosmic issues have been played out, the ring has been returned to the Rhine, and a new world order will grow from the ashes of the old, now purified by fire and water. To portray these spectacular events in sound, Wagner composed, in the words of Ernest Newman, “such music as the spirit of the universe might hear when world crashes into world at the end of time.”

Instrumentation: solo soprano with orchestra comprising 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, tuba, 2 timpani, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, 2 harps and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.


Richard Strauss

Born: June 11, 1864, Munich, Germany
Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten, Opus 65a

Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) was Strauss’ seventh opera (out of 15) and his fourth in collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss spent more time working on Frau than any of his other works, but the result was what Hofmannsthal called “the most beauti- ful opera in existence.” Strauss, encouraged by the story’s fairy- tale setting, poured into it a veritable phantasmagoria of opulent sounds, kaleidoscopic colors and stupendous climaxes. He exploited the unique tonal spectrum of each instrument, reveled in creating unusual combinations, pushed every instrument to the extremes of range and limits of endurance, and in doing so redefined the word virtuosity for nearly everyone involved.

Critics and commentators commonly use words like sumptuous, extravagant, resplendent, gorgeous, radiant and luminous to describe Die Frau ohne Schatten. In its luxuriant web of counterpoint, soaring melodies and especially its orchestration, Frau stands at the very peak of Strauss’ achievements.

So why don’t we see it more often? Well, it’s long—well over three hours of music. It calls for an extra-large cast, and the principal roles are fearsomely difficult. The orchestra required is one of the largest and most varied that Strauss (or anyone else, for that matter) ever mustered. And the staging is almost impossibly complex, not to mention horrendously expensive, to mount—flying fish, collapsing walls, vanishing caves and a flood are just a few of the headaches a director has to deal with.

Tantalizing the Audience

The opera’s premiere was given in Vienna on October 10, 1919. Nearly three decades later, Strauss created what he called a “symphonic fantasy” from the opera. The war had just ended, Germany’s opera houses were mostly destroyed, and complex operas like Frau were unlikely to be seen again in the near future. Strauss’ aim was that the new Fantasy would tantalize concert audiences with the riches awaiting them when times were more conducive to staged productions.

The Fantasy was premiered by the Vienna Symphony on June 26, 1947. Strauss reduced slightly the size of the orchestra (eliminated were the quartet of Wagner tubas, four of the eight horns, a second celesta, offstage ensembles and much special-effects percussion). Some vocal lines were retained, but reassigned to instruments. The Fantasy begins and ends as does the complete opera, but in between Strauss freely rearranges the material and even adds a few transitional passages.

The story is far too complex to relate here. Far better for the listener to concentrate on the continuous parade of Strauss’ incredible orchestral wizardry, the masterly counterpoint, the melodic and harmonic invention. Of special note are the heavy, sinister opening motif of the evil Keikobad; the gentle motif of Barak’s innate goodness immediately following; the ensuing passage scored with chamber music delicacy (fluttering woodwinds, shimmering celesta, trilling violins); Barak’s noble theme “sung” by the solo trombone halfway through the Fantasy; and the final apotheosis, in which the surging power of Strauss’ huge orchestra is unleashed. Yet Frau ends not with a stupendous wall of sound but with harps, celesta, glockenspiel, flutes and violins in their highest register, glittering and shimmering as the final pages approach. The final measure brings peace and contentment—a C-major chord spanning more than six octaves.

Instrumentation: 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, basset horn, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, castanets, triangle, 2 harps, celesta, organ (ad lib) and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.


Richard Strauss

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Opus 28

There was an actual Till Eulenspiegel, born early in the 14th century near Braunschweig and gone to his reward—in bed, not on the gallows as in Strauss’ tone poem—in 1350. Stories about him have been in print since the beginning of the 16th century, the first English version coming out around 1560 under the title Here beginneth a merye Jest of a man that was called Howleglas (Eule in German means “owl” and Spiegel, “mirror,” or “looking-glass”). The consistent theme behind his jokes and pranks is that of an individual getting back at society, specifically, the shrewd peasant more than holding his own against a stuffy bourgeoisie and a repressive clergy.

The most famous version of Till Eulenspiegel is the one published in 1866 by the Belgian novelist Charles de Coster. Richard Strauss knew de Coster’s book. Strauss’ first idea was to compose an Eulenspiegel opera, but, as he wrote in a letter, “the figure of Master Till does not quite appear before my eyes.” But before 1894 was out, he had begun the tone poem that he finished the following May.

“Let Them Guess at the Musical Joke”

As always, Strauss couldn’t make up his mind whether he was engaged in tone painting or “just music.” To Franz Wüllner, who conducted the first performance in Cologne on November 5, 1895, he wrote: “I really cannot provide a program for Eulenspiegel. Any words into which I might put the thoughts that the several incidents suggested to me would hardly suffice; they might even offend. Let me leave it, therefore, to my listeners to crack the hard nut the Rogue has offered them. By way of helping them to a better understanding, it seems enough to point out the two Eulenspiegel motifs, which, in the most diverse disguises, moods and situations, pervade the whole up to the catastrophe when, after being condemned to death, Till is strung up on the gibbet. For the rest, let them guess at the musical joke a Rogue has offered them.”

On the other hand, for his exegete Wilhelm Mauke the composer was willing to offer a more detailed scenario: Till among the marketwomen, Till disguised as a priest, Till paying court to pretty girls, and so forth—the sort of thing guaranteed to have the audience anxiously reading the program book instead of listening to the music, probably confusing priesthood and courtship anyway, wondering which theme represents “Till confounding the Philistine pedagogues,” and missing most of Strauss’ dazzling invention in the process.

It is probably useful to identify the two Till themes, the very first violin melody and what the horn plays about 15 seconds later, and to say that the opening music is intended as a “once- upon-a-time” prologue that returns after the graphic trial and hanging as a charmingly formal epilogue with a rowdily humorous “kicker.” For the rest, Strauss’ compositional ingenuity and orchestral bravura plus your attention and fantasy will see to the telling of the tale.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, ratchet and strings

Program note by the late Michael Steinberg, used with permission.

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