The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or
As Strauss himself wrote, “”It is entitled ‘A Hero’s Life,’ and while it has no funeral march, it does have lots of horns, horns being quite the thing to express heroism. Thanks to the healthy country air, my sketch has progressed well and I hope to finish by New Year’s Day.”
Strauss took what he could from his own heroes, Beethoven and Wagner, (the Eroica of the former, the anything of the latter) and used the sonata rondo form for this work: a loose structure of themes, variations, and leitmotifs. Who specifically was the hero? The critic Richard Freed wrote:
The music, though, points stubbornly to its own author as its subject, and Strauss did concede, after all, in a remark to the writer Romain Rolland, that he found himself “no less interesting than Napoleon,” and his gesture of conducting the premiere himself instead of leaving that honor to the respected dedicatee may well be viewed as further confirmation of the work’s self-congratulatory character.
The Wikipedia article, from which I’ve cribbed these notes, goes into further detail about the manner in which the piece dramatizes Strauss’ conflicts with the music critics of his day, as well as threading through the love story of himself and his wife, Pauline de Ahna.
And how did the critics of his day respond?
One of them called the piece “as revolting a picture of this revolting man as one might ever encounter”. Otto Floersheim wrote a damning review in the Musical Courier (April 19, 1899): “… alleged symphony … revolutionary in every sense of the word. The climax of everything that is ugly, cacophonous, blatant and erratic, the most perverse music I ever heard in all my life, is reached in the chapter ‘The Hero’s Battlefield.’ The man who wrote this outrageously hideous noise, no longer deserving of the word music, is either a lunatic, or he is rapidly approaching idiocy”.
So I’m sure there are those who might add that “the sensuous in its elemental originality” here is rather masturbatory than otherwise, Pauline or no Pauline. Inspiration be damned! The true artist works with whatever materials he has at hand.
Strauss later asked that the program be left out of the score, but of course we now understand how full of themselves writers, composers and artist really are … so here it is:
(1) “Der Held” (The Hero)
(2) “Des Helden Widersacher” (The Hero’s Adversaries)
(3) “Des Helden Gefährtin” (The Hero’s Companion)
(4) “Des Helden Walstatt” (The Hero at Battle)
(5) “Des Helden Friedenswerke” (The Hero’s Works of Peace)
(6) “Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung” (The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Consummation)