Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Richard Strauss: Before He Was Famous

Tonight’s concert – the third and last of Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic 2012 programs – includes another work by a world-famous composer before he was famous. Never a composer to lack self-confidence, nonetheless at the age of 83, he told the orchestra he was rehearsing, “I may not be a first-class composer but I am a first-rate second-class composer.”

The Piano Quartet that concludes this concert was completed when the composer was 19 or 20, but if you’d never known who the composer was, would you be able to figure out from listening to this music?

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Well, of course the video’s introduction kind of gives it away, doesn't it, if the post's title hasn't already, but hey…

(You can read a similar post about Beethoven, Poulenc and Britten from earlier Summermusic concerts, here.)

Back in the days one had needles one could drop onto a record, before there were CDs and MP3s, I loved taking something like this and playing it for my students and ask them to name the composer, a game that Karl Haas used to play on certain programs of his “Adventures in Good Music.” Of course, for him, he might begin with something like this before getting into things that might be less obscure, saving a representative familiar piece for last.

Listening to melodic and harmonic patterns, textures, certain patterns of notes and its overall emotional sweep, most people hearing this for the first time might guess Johannes Brahms – and that would be a good guess if you weren’t familiar with everything he wrote. More likely, someone who was heavily influenced by Brahms, imitating one of the most influential composers of the decade – as many German composers were, if they weren’t instead being heavily influenced by Richard Wagner, the other polarity in New Music.

Richard Strauss in 1886
That clip is the first movement of the Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 13 by Richard Strauss. Most of it was composed in 1884, though he'd begun it at some point the year before and completed it on New Year's Day, 1885 when he was 20. 

You can hear it tonight (if you're reading this in time...) with Market Square Concerts' directors Ya-Ting Chang and Peter Sirotin, joined by violist Michael Stepniak and cellist Fiona Thompson. Again, that's at 6pm at Market Square Church.

Here are the remaining three movements: the performance is by Ensemble Raro and features violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, whose uncle is the violinist Dmitri Sitkovetsky and whose grandmother is the pianist Bella Davidovich.

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2nd Mvmt – Scherzo

3rd Mvmt – Andante

4th Mvmt – Finale

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Normally, we don’t think of Richard Strauss as a prodigy, at least not along the lines of Mozart and Mendelssohn though he began composing when he was 6 and when he was 9, wrote a 33-page overture which he orchestrated himself. The year he was 10 wrote six piano sonatas. There are two piano trios written around the age of 13.

Yet at the time he was considered “a promising musical talent,” no more remarkable than any other “gifted child.” Music was, after all, the heart of most Germans domestic life – their home entertainment – and nearly everyone with an education could read music and have at least some elementary skill with an instrument. The family’s Munich apartment had a grand piano in what we would call the living room, surrounded by spacious windows, cherry-wood furniture and austere family portraits. This was where one family musicale took place, in his father’s absence, which Richard – then 14 – organized for his maternal grandparents, writing to him:

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“Enghausen’s C Major Sonata played by Robert [a cousin], then the Tirolean folk-song Hans und Lise sung very prettily by Johanna [his little sister]… and very well accompanied by Robert. Then August [perhaps another cousin] played one of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s ‘Songs Without Words’ with – I am sorry to say – very little style and finesse. Then August and I played [a four-hand duet by Mendelssohn] in which we both pleased greatly. Then I played Weber’s ‘Rondo in E-flat’ to loud applause.”
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He then conducted a “most successful performance” of Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony. Whatever may have happened to young Robert and August as they grew up, no one at the time assumed Richard was destined for greatness.

Unlike Leopold Mozart and his son, Franz Strauss – the pre-eminent horn player in Munich’s orchestra – had nothing directly to do with his son’s training, nor did he promote him as a child prodigy in any similarly theatrical way. But he did give him advice and contact his friends and colleagues like any proud father. He had some of his friends perform a polka his son had written which was well received. He would later, of course, use his connections with famous musicians to advance his son’s career: what father wouldn’t?

But he also insisted his son not go to a conservatory: by taking a ‘normal’ course of study, he could decide what he might become, being “able to take advantage of every opportunity. Whether your talent will last is yet to be seen,” he wrote to his son, knowing about too many prodigies whose careers fail to survive the transition to adulthood. “Even good musicians find it hard to earn a crust. You’d be better off as a shoemaker or a tailor.”

Strauss would grow up to become one of the few modern-day composers with an international career who never attended a music school.

He was 16 when he began his first concerto – the Violin Concerto in D Minor later published as op. 8. In March, 1881, no less than four of his works were premiered in Munich: a string quartet (later, Op. 2), a set of three songs, the Festive Overture by his father’s amateur orchestra, Wilde Gung’l – Gung’l, alas, is only the name of its bandmaster who composed music in the vein of Johann Strauss Sr. – and four days later, his 1st Symphony, also in D Minor, by the Munich Court Orchestra conducted by the famous Hermann Levi, an associate of Richard Wagner’s. In return for Levi’s performance, Franz agreed to play first horn at the 1882 Bayreuth Festival, the very center of Wagner’s influence, for the premiere of his latest opera, Parsifal.

Franz Strauss, himself illegitimate, had been born in poverty, his father abandoning him when he was 5 after which he was taken in by an authoritarian uncle, a man in charge of the small town’s musical events who believed in “an unenviable mixture of violent discipline and vigorous tuition.” He studied several instruments, filling in with the town band as needed, before settling on the horn. At 15, it was obvious he would become a musician. Shortly afterward, some uncles went to Munich to play in the court orchestra and Franz eventually joined them. A cousin would later become the orchestra’s concertmaster.

Franz Strauss eventually became one of the best known if not well-liked musicians in Munich.

And he detested Wagner’s music (not, though, as much as he detested the man), even though he was regarded by everyone as one of its finest performers. He considered Tristan und Isolde “an affront to the classical spirit of Mozart and Haydn.” But no one played Wagner’s epic horn solos like Franz Strauss.

This, from a man who considered everything from the finale of Beethoven’s 7th on to be the end of “pure music.”

So you can imagine the sacrifice it must have been for Franz to agree to become Bayreuth’s first horn in order to get his son’s symphony played. Proud father, indeed!

Perhaps that explains why Richard wrote a horn concerto for his father the next year.

When you listen to his Horn Concerto No. 1, it is clear his musical models – instilled from his father’s very specific tastes – were predominantly Schumann, but also Mozart, Mendelssohn and Spohr. Not Beethoven and, frankly, nothing more modern than the early-1850s.

By this time, Strauss had graduated from school with average grades – “very good” in history but in math and science “middling” – and a semester at the Munich University was quietly dropped when he realized he had learned more from reading about art and history on his own than “listening to some professor droning on and on for three-quarters of an hour.”

The following year, the 19-year-old Strauss was described as “over six foot tall with a long and beautiful face and a flowing head of thick, light-brown hair” who, despite having composed nothing out of the ordinary, had already written two concertos and a symphony and had a few works published.

On visits to Vienna and Dresden, he met some of his father’s acquaintances and heard his Serenade for 13 Winds, Op. 7, premiered – the great conductor Hans von Bülow was in the audience – and also his new Cello Sonata given two “premieres” ten days apart. Though Hans Wihan, the cellist for whom Dvořák would eventually compose his concerto, had performed it in Nuremberg at the end of November, Strauss convinced his Dresden host, Ferdinand Böckmann, he was giving the work its world premiere.

In addition to nearly destroying his host’s piano while composing or practicing, Strauss became interested in conducting, observing rehearsals and then practicing at home using a large wooden knitting needle for a baton.

It was then, on December 1st, 1883, that Strauss received a letter from his publisher informing him the conductor Hans von Bülow wished to perform his recently premiered serenade with his court orchestra in Meinigen (where Brahms frequently tried out his symphonies before performing them in Vienna) the day after Christmas before taking it on the road to Berlin. This caught the boy by surprise though it was primarily the result of Franz’s frequent nagging of the conductor. However, once Bülow heard the piece, he was secure in his own judgment, not just giving in to an annoying stage-father.

It was also during this time that the 19-year-old composer, away from home, began falling in love, apparently developing a preference for older women. One was the wife of a sculptor and another was the wife of the cellist Hans Wihan who later may well have obtained a divorce hoping to marry Strauss who, by 1890, was already engaged to his future wife, Pauline de Ahna.

Keeping this tidbit of personal trivia in mind, perhaps it’s not so surprising that this composer – one who would become so autobiographical as to describe his life as the hero of Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life) – would be attracted to a story about a young man, a teenager named Octavian, who must give up his love for an older woman, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, over 25 years later.

And so, Strauss went off to become Hans von Bülow’s assistant in Meiningen at the age of 19, conducting his own Serenade there, performing Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto (writing his own cadenzas) and performing his Symphony No. 2 in F Minor (which, by a strange twist, had already received its world premiere in New York City under the direction of the German-American conductor, Theodore Thomas).

Johannes Brahms was in Meiningen to attend the world premiere of his new E Minor Symphony and Strauss had a chance to hear all the rehearsals. Brahms heard Strauss’ concert and remarked his symphony was “quite attractive,” as Strauss wrote in his memoirs, but “too full of musical irrelevances.” “Take a good look at Schubert’s dances, young man,” he continued, “and try your luck at the invention of simple eight-bar melodies.”

One thing can be said about Strauss’ symphony, in hindsight: it’s quite overwritten, “a reflection of someone trying hard to impress.”

His father was also concerned that he was spending too much time on contrapuntal affectations” rather than on “natural, wholesome invention and execution. Craftsmanship should not be discernible. You have enough talent for something better than affectation.”

Incidentally, of the other candidates for Bülow’s assistant was a Frenchman and a favorite of Bülow’s rival, while another had proven unpopular in his previous post. Gustav Mahler, contending with a series of small and disappointing conducting jobs, didn’t even make the short list primarily because he was Jewish.

And so, without any conducting experience at all, Richard Strauss got the job.

Three years earlier, Hans von Bülow, showed a stack of young Strauss’ music, had commented, “…immature and precocious… fail to find any signs of youth in his invention. Not a genius in my most sincere opinion but at best a talent with 60% aimed to shock.”

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It was during this time that Strauss composed his Piano Quartet in C Minor.

When I can find references to the work at all, it appears to have been written in 1885 (presumably before the summer he joined Bülow in Meiningen when he turned 21) but the Grove Dictionary lists the date of composition as 1883-1884 when he could have been between 18 and 20. It’s quite possible 1885 was when the work was first performed – many sources lists the date of pieces as the premiere rather than when they were actually composed.

Certainly, compared to the Classical Horn Concerto of 1882-83, this is a very Romantic work and a far cry from his father’s sense of what good music ought to be. If there’s any influence here, it is Johannes Brahms, first and foremost. Just because his father detested Wagner did not mean he would automatically be an advocate for the more conservative Brahms.

When composition students ask me how they “find their voice,” I usually tell them “as a student, your job is to be a sponge, to soak up everything you can hear, absorb what you like, dispose of what you don’t like, and take everything in to find a way of doing it ‘your way.’ By the time you’ve developed those ‘fingerprints’ we call a composer’s voice, you won’t even be aware of it.”

So, having grown up on Strauss tone-poems and operas, going back to hear some of these early works is often disappointing – at best, the “how did he get from here to there?”

Perhaps Strauss was checking out the New Music scene in Dresden and Berlin, out from under his father’s arch-conservative attitudes, and discovered new harmonies, new melodic and structural approaches previously “forbidden” which he decided to try on for size?

Having heard his Brahmsian Piano Quartet, now listen to at least the opening of his first major tone poem, his “break-out” piece, Don Juan:

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The Danish Radio Symphony conducted by Fabio Luisi
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(By the way, Strauss' Don Juan will open the Harrisburg Symphony's new season with Stuart Malina conducting, and the substantial violin solos will be played by the acting concertmaster, Peter Sirotin!)

This was begun in the fall of 1888 when Strauss was 24, about three or four years after the quartet. Conducting its premiere the following year, Strauss would immediately be hailed as a significant new composer – and conductor – on the international scene.

How does a composer make the leap from something clearly derivative – in the “sponge-absorbing” sense – like the Quartet to something like this which no other composer could have written?

What’s curious is that the Horn Concerto, for instance, sounds much more like the mature Strauss than the Piano Quartet written a year or two later. Had he consciously tried imitating Brahms then – considering Brahms’ rather cool rejection of his symphony – putting this aside for other things?

The Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, written between 1885-1886, the next large-scale work composed after the quartet, also sounds at points very Brahmsian but more on the way to being recognizable as the Richard Strauss we would later become familiar with. Add in the Violin Sonata of 1887 and the first of his tone-poems, Macbeth of 1888, the next work would be Don Juan.

It’s a very short route.

And from there, he composed his most famous works heard in concert halls today, all regarded as masterpieces:
Death & Transfiguration (1888-1889), sketched while he worked on Don Juan;
Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1894-95)
Also Sprach Zarathistra (1895-96)
Don Quixote (1896-97)
Ein Heldenleben (1897-98)

But in 1892, Strauss began his first opera – Guntram – followed by Feuersnot in 1900-01, both failures. But in 1903 he began the opera that would so shock the world, he would never look back.

Strauss in 1905 (photo by Steichen)
After the 1905 premiere of Salome, he wrote primarily operas and songs, very rarely composing any more tone poems, certainly nothing that became regarded as a masterpiece.

One could argue for the string sextet that is the prelude to his last opera Capriccio in 1941 or the original string septet version of the tragic Metamorphosen for string orchestra following the bombing of Dresden in 1945, but basically, after the Violin Sonata of 1887, he wrote no more chamber music.

So while you could argue the Piano Quartet becomes a kind of dead end, stylistically and categorically (for lack of a better word, the category being ‘chamber music’), it is fascinating to hear it in this context of a composer’s musical development, picking and choosing, absorbing and rejecting various influences and ideas.

It stands, of course, on its own but at the same time it is also a piece that is part of the continuum that is Richard Strauss – or, for that matter, the development of music making the transition from one generation to the next, from the late-19th Century leading into the new 20th Century.

For that matter, you could listen to Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, the first begun around this same time period, in light of his own Piano Quartet, written around 1876, and even more surprisingly, perhaps, the evolution that was Arnold Schoenberg even before Verklärte Nacht led the way to the atonality of Pierrot Lunaire one hundred years ago and the serialism he developed in the 1920s – by hearing the very Brahmsian and often Dvořákian string quartet he composed in 1897.

But, as usual, I digress…

- Dick Strawser

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