Spotlight on: Richard Strauss

Spotlight on: Richard Strauss

Between 1897 and 1899, Richard Strauss had five works published by Forberg-Verlag, a catalogue that now belongs to Ricordi: four orchestral lieder as well as the melodrama Enoch Arden. The most popular of these works is the late-Romantic song Befreit. Less frequently performed are the orchestral songs Notturno and Nächtlicher Gang, whose advanced, expressionistic musical language already suggests that of Arnold Schoenberg’s early works as well as Strauss’s own Salome and Elektra. The setting of the Richard Dehmel poem Der Arbeitsmann occupies a special place in Strauss’s oeuvre due to its explicit social commentary. Also atypical of the composer is his melodrama Enoch Arden for piano and voice, which has become better known through Glenn Gould.

Richard Strauss: Befreit
op. 39, no. 4 (1898, instrumentation: 1933)
Text: Richard Dehmel (1863–1920)
2.2.Ca.2.Bclar.2.Cbsn – – Timp – Hp,Harm – Str – Solo Voice
Duration: 5‘
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Befreit, one of the 5 Lieder Op. 39, was composed in 1898 but not orchestrated until 1933. Much had changed in Strauss’s life during the 35 years separating the piano and orchestral versions. His operas and tone poems had made him one of the most successful composers of his time. The mastery of orchestration he had attained in those works is clearly evident in his instrumentation of Befreit.

Strauss chose, as he had done before, to set a poem by Richard Dehmel (1863-1920). A man bids farewell to his beloved wife, with whom he has shared all of life’s highs and lows. Happiness and sorrow, grief and hope merge in the love of this couple.

Joy and despair are also closely associated in Strauss’s emotionally charged setting. When the impassioned vocal line descends a semitone on the words “O Glück!” (“O happiness!”) in the song’s refrain, it sounds like a melancholy sigh. The significance of the imminent farewell is ultimately left to the imagination: it is not clear in either Dehmel’s poem or Strauss’s music whether the separation is a temporary parting or her death. 

Richard Strauss:
Der Arbeitsmann
op. 39, Nr. 3 (1897)
Text: Richard Dehmel (1863–1920)
Picc.2.2.Ca.3.2Bassett-Horn.Bclar.3.Cbsn – – 2Perc – Str – Solo Voice
Duration: 3‘
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Also from the 5 Lieder Op. 39, the orchestral song Der Arbeitsmann (The Workman; 1897) is based on a text by Richard Dehmel. Strauss’s sombre setting of Dehmel’s socially critical poem – it depicts the sense of entrapment and alienation experienced by the working class in the modern industrial world – reflects the oppression and depression that the protagonist feels.

“We also have work – in fact work for two – and the sun and rain and wind. We lack only one little thing that keeps us from being as free as the birds: only time.” – The singer declaims the verses in a minor key, interrupted only by a brief lyrical passage, momentarily suggesting the dream of a free, unburdened life.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Zwei größere Gesänge für eine tiefe Singstimme mit Orchesterbegleitung op. 44, Nr. 1 (1899)
Text: Richard Dehmel (1863–1920)
Picc.2.2.Ca.2.Bclar.2.Cbsn – – Str – Solo Voice
Duration: 14‘
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“ soft and weary from distant night, so heavy with sorrow came the breath of his fiddle.” – Long before the advent of Expressionism, the symbol of the fiddler as a figure of Death had been a favourite stylistic device in art and literature. In Richard Dehmel’s poem Notturno, Death appears to the dreaming narrator in the form of a deceased violin-playing friend. Strauss’s thematic and musical material is clearly related Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), also based on a Dehmel text.

The uncomfortable, threatening wintery atmosphere and erotic allusions offer ample scope for multi-faceted musical realization, an opportunity of which Strauss takes full advantage. His setting from 1899 is unusually long for an orchestral song (some 14 minutes), and may fairly be described as a miniature drama. Its musical language exhibits the avant-garde tendencies that Strauss would later exploit in his operas Salome and Elektra. Through a skilful deployment of distant keys, churning dissonances and a fragmented vocal line that interacts with the solo violin (symbolizing Death), he depicts a gripping, ghastly picture of death and loss.

Richard Strauss: Nächtlicher Gang
Zwei größere Gesänge für eine tiefe Singstimme mit Orchesterbegleitung op. 44, Nr. 2 (1899)
Text: Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866)
2Picc.4.2.Ca.3.2.Cbsn – 6.4.3.Bass-Tb – Timp,3Perc – Hp – Str – Solo Voice
Duration: 7‘
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How closely Strauss approached the style of early Schoenberg is also evident in the 1899 orchestral song Nächtlicher Gang (Night Passage), together with Notturno comprising his Op. 44, two large-scale songs for low voice and orchestra.

In this composition, based on a text by the German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), the subject of night is treated completely differently than in Notturno. Here Strauss’s setting is wild, unbridled, highly dramatic, but, like the first song, hints at his more advanced later compositional style. Each time – seven in all – the poetic narrator sings the refrain “Es muss doch zur Liebsten gehn!” (“I must go to my beloved!”), the pitch rises a semitone, reflecting his determination. Indeed the lover has every reason to be desperate: in his arduous search for her, he encounters ghostly apparitions while forcing his way through a stormy night. Finally, after seeking her tirelessly, he finds the woman dead and entombed.

Richard Strauss: Enoch Arden

A melodrama (1897)
for piano and voice
Text: Alfred Tennyson; German translation: Adolf Strodtmann
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In 1897 Strauss composed Enoch Arden to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1864 poem (in Adolf Strodtmann’s German translation): a story worthy of the cinema. Since childhood Enoch and Philip have been rivals for the affections of Annie, the loveliest girl in the village. Annie initially favours Enoch, but when he disappears at sea, Philip seizes the opportunity and marries her. Many years later, Enoch returns but does not reveal himself in order not to destroy Annie’s new life. She discovers his true identity only after his death.

Richard Strauss’s melodrama is in two parts and plays for nearly an hour, but it does not consist of continuous music. The accompaniment is applied strategically in order to underscore and comment on the most emotional moments of the story. The three principal characters and the sea are given leitmotifs. Musicologists have categorized Enoch Arden as incidental music or audio opera.

The premiere of Enoch Arden took place in 1897 with Strauss at the piano and Ernst von Possart as the narrator. It was so successful that the two immediately went on tour with the work. After falling into oblivion for a time, Enoch Arden was rediscovered after World War II thanks to interpreters such as Glenn Gould, Emanuel Ax and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Notes by Henriette Schwarz, translated by Richard Evidon