STRAUSS, R.: Don Juan / Till Eulenspiegel / Death and Transfiguration (Martin Sauer/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/ Zdenek Kosler) (Naxos: 8.550250)
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Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949)
Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklarung) Opus 24
Tone-poem for large orchestra (Tondichtung f??r grossesOrchester)
Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks Opus 28 (Till Eulenspiegelslustige Streiche)
Don Juan Opus 20
The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss represents aremarkable extension of the work of Liszt and Wagner in the symphonic poems of his earlycareer and in his operas shows an equally remarkable use of late romantic orchestral idiomoften within an almost Mozartian framework. Born in Munich, the son of a distinguishedhorn-player and his second wife, a member of a rich brewing family, he had a sound generaleducation at the Ludwigsgymnasium in Munich, while undertaking musical studies underteachers of some distinction. Before he left school in 1882 he had already enjoyed somesuccess as a composer, continued during his brief period at Munich University, with thecomposition of a Violin Concerto, a Horn Concerto and a Cello Sonata. By the age of 21 hehad been appointed assistant conductor to the weIl known orchestra at Meiningen under Hansvon B??low, whom he succeeded in the same year.
In 1886 Strauss resigned from Meiningen and began the series oftone-poems that seemed to extend to the utmost limit the extra-musical content of theform. Aus Italien was followed by Macbeth, Don Juan,Tod und Verklarung, and, after a gap of a few years, Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote andEin Heldenleben. Meanwhile Strauss wasestablishing himself as a conductor of high reputation, directing the Berlin PhilharmonicOrchestra for a season and taking appointments at Munich and then at the opera in Berlin,where he later was conductor of the Court Orchestra.
The new century brought a renewed attention to the compositionof opera, a medium in which he had not initially been particularly successful. The firstperformance of Salome in Dresden in 1905 was followed in 1909 by Elektra in the same city,with a libretto by the writer with whom he was to enjoy a fruitful collaboration, Hugo vonHoffmannsthal. Der Rosenkavalier, a romantic opera in the world of Mozart, was staged atthe Court Opera in Dresden in 1911, followed by ten further operas, ending only withCapriccio, staged at the Staatsoper in Munich in 1942.
It was unfortunate that Strauss, in common with certain othermusicians of the greatest distinction, was compromised by association with the NationalSocialist Government that came to power in Germany in 1933. His acquiescence, when giventhe position of president of the German Reichsmusikkammer and his ingenuous willingness totake the place of Bruno Walter at a Berlin concert, when Walter had been obliged towithdraw after threats of officially inspired disorder, and of Toscanini, who hadwithdrawn from projected performances in Bayreuth in voluntary protest at anti-SemiticNational Socialist policies in Germany, were remembered. The fact that his daughter-in-lawwas Jewish and that she and her grandchildren had to be protected may have influenced thecourse of apparent complaisance that he chose to take, a course that brought its owndifficulties in 1945, when he withdrew for a time to Switzerland, to return to his houseat Garmisch only in May 1949, four months before his death. There were at the time manywho put a much less charitable interpretation on his behaviour, Klemperer claiming thatStrauss remained in Germany, instead of choosing American exile like Thomas Mann, becausein Germany there were 56 opera-houses and in America only two.
The tone-poem Tod undVerklarung (Death and Transfiguration) was completed in 1889 and firstperformed at a music festival in Eisenach under the composer's direction. The work, aremarkable evocation of a deathbed scene, is in three sections, a slow introductionleading to a central section in sonata-form, followed by a conclusion. It exemplifiesremarkably enough the practice of thematic transformation advocated by Liszt, the originaltheme built, for the most part, on the descending notes of the scale. It is this themewhich is used to introduce the dying memories of the protagonist, his childhood, hisyouth, his maturity and his struggle against death and final transfiguration. Strauss wasto use this transformed theme again in his autobiographical symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben, ten years later, and in the lastof his four Last Songs, at the end of his own life, where he employed the same melody insetting the poignant words of Eichendorff: Wie sind wir wanderm??de/Ist dies etwader Tod? (How tired we are! Can this, then, be Death?)
The symphonic poem TillEulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegels Merry Pranks) is basedon some of the adventures of the legendary anti-authoritarian Eulenspiegel-Owlglass orHowleglass in the sixteenth century English version of the German publication of 1519.
Eulenspiegel, a peasant born allegedly in 1300, here uses an assumed simplicity to deflateauthority of every kind, an activity for which he receives a just reward. The orchestralwork by Strauss was completed in 1895.
The first episode in the symphonic poem, itself in something ofthe form of a rondo, is Eulenspiegels mad ride through the market, the second Eulenspiegel theme appearing loudly in the strings asthe market-women scatter. The opening figure of the theme shows him escaping inseven-league boots and, after a pause, hiding in a mouse-hole. He appears in the guise ofa priest, but is seized by foreboding at his own sacrilegious temerity, a solo violinglissando leading him into flirtation. When he is jilted, he reacts in acharacteristically impudent way, and then poses impossible problems to a group of pedants,represented here by four bassoons and a bass clarinet, revealing himself and his motivesto their discomfiture. There is a street-song, as Till goes on his way, but reflectionleads to more outrageous behaviour and to a sentence of death. Till is hanged, withdramatic musical realism, the composer closing the tale with an epilogue that matches thebrief introduction with which the story had begun.
The symphonic poem Don Juan
takes for its hero not so much the figure dramatised by Tirso de Molina in the seventeenthcentury or of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte in the eighteenth as Lenau's hero, a man of verydifferent character, an introspective lover of beauty, who avoids satiety and boredom, theblunting of his taste, by constant change. This first important essay by Strauss in theform of the symphonic poem was written in 1888.
Lenau's Don Juan,published posthumously in 1851, is incomplete, but records the amorous exploits of itshero and his final disillusionment, after which he allows himself to be killed by the sonof the man he has murdered, father of a woman he had wronged, the Commendatore of Mozart'sopera Don Giovanni. The theme thatrepresents Don Juan himself, a motif that is to recur, is easily identifiable. Attempts tosuggest precise episodes in the hero's amatory career with the secondary themes ispossibly beyond the composer's original intentions, which seem to have been of a moregeneral kind. The work is, in fact, no native piece of programme music, although three ofthe Don's conquests seem to make their appearance, to be recalled after a carnival scene.
The final death of the protagonist takes place at night in a churchyard, a moment for himof final resignation.
The Czech conductor Zdenek Kosler studied under Karel Ancerlat the Prague Academy of Arts, and