STRAUSS, R.: Heldenleben (Ein) / Macbeth (Gerhard Markson/ Ireland National Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554417)
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The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss represents aremarkable extension of the work of Liszt and Wagner in the symphonic poems ofhis early career and in his operas shows au equally remarkable use of lateromantic orchestral idiom, often within an almost Mozartian framework. Born inMunich, the son of a distinguished horn-player and his second wife, a member ofa rich brewing family, he had a sound general education at the Ludwigsgymnasiumin Munich, while studying music under teachers of obvious distinction. Beforehe left school in 1882 he had already enjoyed some success as a composer,continued during his brief period at Munich University with the composition ofconcertos for violin and for French horn and a sonata for cello and piano. Bythe age of twenty-one he had been appointed assistant conductor to thewell-known orchestra at Meiningen under Hans von B??low, whom he succeeded inthe following year.
In 1886 Strauss resigned from Meiningen and began the series oftone-poems that seemed to extend to the utmost limit the extra-musical contentof the form. The first of these works, Aus Italien ('From Italy'), wasfollowed by Macbeth, Dan Juan, Tod und Verklarung ('Death andTransfiguration') and, after a gap of a few years, Till Eulenspiegel, Alsosprach Zarathustra ('Thus spoke Zarathustra'), Don Quixote and EinHeldenleben ('A Hero's Life'). Meanwhile Strauss was establishing hisreputation as a conductor, directing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for aseason and taking appointments in Munich and then at the opera in Berlin, wherehe later became Court Composer.
The new century brought a renewed attention to opera, a medium in whichhe had initially enjoyed no great success. Salome, performed in Dresdenin 1905, was followed in 1909 by Elektra, with a libretto by the writer withwhom he was to collaborate over the next twenty years, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. DerRosen-kavalier ('The Knight of the Rose'), a romantic opera set in theVienna of Mozart, was staged at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1911, followed byten further operas, ending only with Capriccio, mounted at theStaatsoper in Munich in 1942.
It was unfortunate that, in the eyes of many, Strauss was compromised byhis seeming acquiescence under the National Socialist Government that came topower in 1933, taking over from conductors threatened by the regime or fromthose, like Toscanini, who refused engagements under the prevailingcircumstances. In particular his acceptance in 1933 of the position ofPresident of the new Reichsmusikkammer established by Joseph Goebbels,with F??rtwangler as Vice-?¡President, brought later criticism and hostility,although his actions may be seen as defending his Jewish daughter-in-law andhis own grandchildren from the obvious dangers that the Third Reich presented.
After 1945 he withdrew for a time to Switzerland, returning to his own house atGarmisch only four months before his death in 1949.
Strauss completed his tone-poem for large orchestra, Ein Heldenleben,in 1898 and conducted the first performance on 3rd March 1899 at a MuseumConcert in Frankfurt. The work, which was dedicated to Willem Mengelberg andthe Concertgebouw Orchestra, had a varied reception as it was introduced toaudiences. Critics in Berlin took matters personally and Hanslick in Vienna,who had never had anything good to say about symphonic poems, found pleasingrespite from musical battle only in the singing of the composer's wife, Paulinede Ahna, clearly his better half. The daughter of General de Ahna, she hadmarried Strauss in 1894 and something of her character is reflected in the newtone-poem. Ein Heldenleben, however unheroically Strauss may haveregarded himself, is autobiographical. Its six movements, intricately interwoven,provide what is essentially a single symphonic movement, incorporating a slowmovement and a scherzo. The titles, later omitted by the composer, startwith the introduction of the hero, whose strong theme starts the work. Alove-theme is introduced, with a theme of hope and courage, leading to a thirdelement, a stirring, martial theme, a first subject group. These are developed,with the final return of the principal theme. There follows a caricature of thehero's enemies, with the cackling scherzo-like passage of windinstruments. The hero's theme returns, now down-hearted, in a minor key andlacking its earlier exuberance, until a theme of victory quells the criticalintervention. This transition leads to the second subject depicting the hero's companion.
This is introduced by a solo violin, capricious and varied in what it has tooffer, before joining the hero in a song of love, with critics now defeated anddisappearing into the distance. Off-stage trumpets call the hero to battle inthe equivalent of a development, and in the tumult the hero and love triumphover the enemies, their theme heard from the trumpet, to be banished in heroicvictory. The hero's works of peace are heard in references to Strauss's earliercompositions, including themes from Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, Todund Verklarung, Don Quixote, the opera Guntram whose failure hadbrought him enemies, Macbeth and the song Traum durch die Dammerung ('Dreamin the twilight'), a comprehensive recapitulation. The last section, a finalcoda, depicts the hero's withdrawal from the world and fulfillment, withbattles over, not in the pastoral simplicity that Don Quixote hadattempted, as the cor anglais suggests, but now comforted by the love of hiswife.
Strauss completed the first version of his symphonic poem Macbeth in1888, revising it in the following years, to give its first performance withthe Weimar Hofkapelle in October 1890, after the first performances of DonJuan and Tod und Verklarung. He himself later preferred the title Ton-Dichtung(tone-poem) for compositions of this kind, although they remainfundamentally symphonic. Macbeth is in the form of a symphonic movementand opens with a fanfare-like motif of kingship, followed by the themerepresenting Macbeth himself, soaring in its ambition and combined with asecondary element heard from the horns and bass trumpet. A further motif isintroduced in the lower wind and string registers, suggesting Macbeth'smounting ambition. The theme for Lady Macbeth carries the words in the score:
Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue,
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown'd withal.
It is introduced by flutes and clarinets, over a sustained horn note,but is followed by a further motif that suggests her inner turmoil.
The principal material now introduced, there is an episode in whichMacbeth and his wife converse in dialogue that rises in intensity, as sheattempts to screw his courage to the sticking-place. The music mounts to aclimax and the kingly motif is heard three times. King Duncan, whose murder theMacbeths have now planned, draws near, to their agitation, as the stringsprovide a scurrying introduction to a second episode, based on materialassociated with Lady Macbeth. Now Duncan is heard, in royal procession,announced by the kingly motif and greeted by Lady Macbeth. In the developmentearlier themes return, with the Macbeth theme first heard. It is in thissection that Duncan is murdered and that the guilty pair hear knocking at t