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From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Selections from Guntram, opus 25 by Richard Strauss

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

Contrary to what one might gather from this endless Festschrift for Richard Strauss, his life wasn’t simply a succession of triumphs, and his biggest public failure may well have been his first opera, Guntram.

The first video is the overture conducted by Carl Schuricht, and yes, there may be a trace of Wagner, but so what? I actually like it more than many of the Wagner overtures, maybe because I know it’s Strauss, but maybe also because it gets where it needs to go much more quickly than the interminable phrasing in so many of the Wagner pieces. It makes sense in terms of young Strauss’ development as a composer, and you’ll hear melodies in the overture that would fit pretty well in the tone poems he was composing at about the same time——the tone poems that are recognized as the masterpieces by critics who aren’t generally agin music of the period.

So why isn’t Guntram appreciated more? It probably has a lot to do with the libretto written by Strauss himself. A triangular Wagnerian-style story of love and redemption about the minstrel Guntram, the evil Duke Robert and his saintly wife Freihild.

Here is Wolfgang Windgassen singing “Ich schaue ein glanzvoll prunkendes Fest”:

And Leontyne Price singing “Fass’ Ich Sie Bang”:

And if you can’t wait for the end, here also is the finale, performed by the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana conducted by Gustav Kuhn, Alan Woodrow singing.

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Freundliche Vision, by Richard Strauss, performed by Anneliese Rothenberger

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

Freundliche Vision
Nicht im Schlafe hab’ ich das geträumt,
Hell am Tage sah ich’s schön vor mir:
Eine Wiese voller Margeritten;
Tief ein weißes Haus in grünen Büschen;
Götterbilder leuchten aus dem Laube.
Und ich geh’ mit Einer, die mich lieb hat,
Ruhigen Gemütes in die Kühle
Dieses weißen Hauses, in den Frieden,
Der voll Schönheit wartet, daß wir kommen.

Other versions by: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Gundula Janowitz, Montserrat Caballe, Hilde Gueden, Barbara Bonney, Arleen Auger, Renée Fleming, Suzanne Danco, Elina Shimkus, Diana Damrau, Karita Mattila, Franz Völker, Hermann Prey, Jonas Kaufmann, Nicolai Gedda, Rudolf Schock, Joseph Schwarz, Julius Patzak, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Thomas Hampson, Heinrich Schlusnus, Francisco Araiza and Walter Gieseking

One Short Poem about a Painting

watteau-pelerinage-cythère-f

L’Embarquement pour Cythère (Louvre)
All the elements of a daydream of leisure
fill this fête galante painted by Watteau: sea, an
island, everything lush, and the favonian
spirit of pink cupids borne aloft by pleasure.

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Thus Sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss

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

Along with a few Beethoven symphonies, Handel’s Wassermusik and Messiah, and Pachabel’s Canon in D, Zarathustra is one of the most well known pieces of music ever written. So thank you, Stanley Kubrick, because it really is worth knowing, and by “knowing”, I mean the whole thing. The sunrise is awesome and beautiful, but it’s worth listening all the way to convalescense and night wandering. And spiritually speaking, it’s worth hearing Wagnerian exvess (Strauss is counted among the greatest conductors of Wagner who ever lived) brought to heel by Nietzschean megolamania (Strauss obviously a fan of the philosopher), and thus closing a chapter in the history of music, or simply history, period, in which a majority of Germans were drunk and distracted enough to immolate as many Jews as they could—Jews, the people who, spititually speaking, made the whole European project possible.

Good thing we’ve moved beyond all that, right?

Listen, and feel triumphant.

Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise)
Von den Hinterweltlern (Of Those in Backwaters)
Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing)
Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions)
Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave)
Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning)
Der Genesende (The Convalescent)
Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song)
Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer)

See also: Eumir Deodato’s funky electronic version from 1972

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Don Quixote by Richard Strauss

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

Back to Richard Strauss. Don Quixote is an insanely beautiful cello concerto of sorts, really another of the composer’s great tone poems. From Wikipedia:

Don Quixote, Op. 35, is a tone poem by Richard Strauss for cello, viola and large orchestra. Subtitled Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters (Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character), the work is based on the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. Strauss composed this work in Munich in 1897. The premiere took place in Cologne on 8 March 1898, with Friedrich Grützmacher as the cello soloist and Franz Wüllner as the conductor.

The score is 45 minutes long and is written in theme and variations form, with the solo cello representing Don Quixote, and the solo viola, tenor tuba, and bass clarinet depicting the comic Sancho Panza. The second variation depicts an episode where Don Quixote encounters a herd of sheep and perceives them as an approaching army. Strauss uses dissonant flutter-tonguing in the brass to emulate the bleating of the sheep, an early instance of this extended technique.

Sections:

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Don Juan by Richard Strauss

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

Strauss wrote began this “tone poem” (his own term) in 1887, shortly after conducting Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 1885/1886 in Munich. He was also familiar with Paul Heyse’s play, Don Juans Ende, and a fragment by the German writer Nikolaus Lenau, based on the same subject.

Here are some fine Program Notes for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, by Phillip Huscher:

Strauss’s Don Juan is not Heyse’s, nor Mozart’s, nor Lenau’s—despite words on the title page to the contrary—but a character entirely and unforgettably his own, defined in a few sharp musical gestures. (Now that Strauss’s tone poem—the term he preferred—has conquered the world’s concert halls, the figure of Don Juan is unimaginable without the ardent horn theme which, in Strauss’s hands, becomes his calling card.) Strauss once said his two favorite operas were Tristan and Isolde and Così fan tutte, and this work is informed by both the Wagnerian idea of undying love as well as Mozart’s understanding of passion as a fragile, ever-changing state of mind. It’s no small coincidence that, at the time he was composing this tone poem, Strauss himself fell madly in love with Pauline de Ahna, the soprano who would eventually become his wife.

Strauss worked on two tone poems during the summer of 1888. Macbeth, which gave him considerable trouble and wasn’t finished until 1891, doesn’t profit from comparison with Shakespeare’s play. But with Don Juan, composed in just four months, Strauss discovered the knack (which would rarely desert him thereafter) for depicting character, place, and action of cinematic complexity so vividly that words of explanation are unnecessary. Still, Strauss prefaced the score of Don Juan with three excerpts from Lenau’s poem, and at the earliest performances he asked to have those lines printed in the program. Later, realizing that the public could follow his tone poems, in essence if not blow by blow, he disdained such self-help guides and trusted the music to speak for itself.

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Ständchen by Richard Strauss, sung by Kathleen Battle

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

This was written in 1887, the second of six Lieder published as opus 17, originally poems by Adolf Friedrich, Graf von Schack (1815 – 1894). Just 24 at the time, Strauss was already the the court music director in Meiningen and well on his way in his career as a conductor and composer.

Albert Combrink has written a great little precis of the song, including an explanation of what different keys meant to Strauss. He also includes a translation that’s better than the bubbles in the Battle video above.

Ständchen by Adolf Friedrich, Graf von Schack (1855-1894)

Mach auf, mach auf, doch leise mein Kind,
Um keinen vom Schlummer zu wecken.
Kaum murmelt der Bach, kaum zittert im Wind
Ein Blatt an den Büschen und Hecken.
Drum leise, mein Mädchen, daß [nichts sich]1 regt,
Nur leise die Hand auf die Klinke gelegt.

Mit Tritten, wie Tritte der Elfen so sacht,
[Die über die Blumen]2 hüpfen,
Flieg leicht hinaus in die Mondscheinnacht,
[Zu]3 mir in den Garten zu schlüpfen.
Rings schlummern die Blüten am rieselnden Bach
Und duften im Schlaf, nur die Liebe ist wach.

Sitz nieder, hier dämmert’s geheimnisvoll
Unter den Lindenbäumen,
Die Nachtigall uns zu Häupten soll
Von unseren Küssen träumen,
Und die Rose, wenn sie am Morgen erwacht,
Hoch glühn von den Wonnenschauern der Nacht..

Ständchen in free translation by Albert Combrink

“Love Song”

Open up, open up, but softly my child,
So as not to wake anyone from their sleep,
The stream is barely murmuring, the wind hardly causes quivers
In a leaf on bush or hedge.
So, softly, my young girl, so that nothing stirs,
Just lay your hand softly on the door-latch.

With steps as soft as the footsteps of elves,
that hop over the flowers,
Fly lightly out into the moonlit night,
Sneak to me in the garden.
Around us sleeps the blossoms along the trickling stream,
Fragrant in sleep, only love is awake.

Sit down, here it darkens mysteriously
Beneath the linden trees,
The nightingale over our heads
Shall dream of our kisses,
And the rose, when it wakes in the morning,
Shall glow from the joyous showers of the night.

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Piano Quartets by Richard Strauss and Johanness Brahms

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

Piano Quartet in C minor, opus 13, by Richard Strauss

A few weeks ago I compared Clarinet Quartets by Mozart and Brahms to show what each reveals about the historicity of music, and how composers can use notes outside the key signature of a given piece to emphasize chromaticism (from χρώμα, color) over diatonicism (διατονική, notes belonging to the prevailing key). Chromaticism abounds in these piano quartets by Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms. From program notes to Strauss’ Piano Quartet, by Eric Bromberger:

in 1883, at the age of 19, Richard left college and moved to Berlin to study music, and in the process he discovered a new model: Johannes Brahms. Brahms was at this point only 50 years old and at the height of his powers – his Third Symphony had just been premiered, and he was about to begin his Fourth (in fact, Brahms and the young Strauss would meet at the premiere of the Fourth Symphony in October 1885).

Under the new influence of Brahms, the teenaged composer began his Piano Quartet in C minor in the spring of 1884 in Berlin and completed it later that year. This music shows an unusual fusion of musical personalities – the sobriety and grandeur of Brahms are here wed to the fire and impetuous virtuosity of the young Strauss. The Piano Quartet is a big piece (35 minutes), it has a rich, dark sound, and it develops its ideas with a blazing energy.

The quiet opening of the Allegro is deceiving, for the music will quickly explode in a shower of energy, and that sharp contrast may be a key to this sonata-form movement: moments marked con espressione or tranquillo will instantly give way to superheated passages marked molto appassionato or agitato. This opening movement is the most “Brahmsian” in the Quartet, particularly for its dark sonority, its development of small thematic motifs, and its dramatic scope – the movement drives to a close that is virtually symphonic in conception and sound.

The Scherzo, marked Presto, is full of quicksilvery motion and a great deal of energy, especially in the pounding octave drops that recur throughout. A flowing trio section leads to a return of the opening material, and Strauss recalls a bit of the trio section before the movement whips to its Prestissimo close.

After two such powerful movements, the Andante brings a measure of calm. The piano’s lovely opening idea gives way to the viola’s lyric second subject, and Strauss extends these two themes gracefully. The concluding Vivace returns to the mood and manner of the opening movement. Its fiery beginning, full of sharp edges and syncopated rhythms, leads to the cello’s calm second theme (molto con espressione, specifies Strauss), and these two ideas are developed at length – and with a great deal of virtuosity – before the music hammers its way to the conclusion on a firm C-minor chord.

The Piano Quartet in C minor was premiered in Weimar on December 8, 1885, and the following year it won first prize (among 24 entrants) in a piano quartet competition sponsored by the Tonkünstlerverein of Berlin. But this music represents a direction the young composer did not choose to follow. With his Violin Sonata of 1887, Strauss would say goodbye forever to chamber music: ahead of him lay the great tone poems, which wed a slashing orchestral virtuosity with the most vivid pictorial imagination. Chamber music (and the influence of Brahms) were no longer of interest to him, and this Piano Quartet – trailing clouds of Brahms – represents one of the last moments of Strauss’ youthful apprenticeship before he discovered the path to his own musical independence.

Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor opus 60, by Johannes Brahms

And from Russell Steinberg’s website, here are Secrets from the Brahms Opus 60 Piano Quartet:

The great C minor Piano Quartet, op. 60 shows the art of a lion tamer and is easily one of Brahms’ finest achievements. He began the piece while living with Clara Schumann and helping run the Schumann household while Robert was in the mental asylum. Brahms was candid that the brooding quality of the piece was a direct reference to Werther, Goethe’s Romantic hero of unrequited love who eventually commits suicide. To his publisher he wrote, “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose. Since you seem to like color printing, you can use blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots.” That was the exact description of Werther and 20 years later Brahms was able to joke about his hyper-passionate feelings.

The piece was originally in C# minor, the key used by E.T.A. Hoffman’s famous character, the hypersensitive composer Kreisler (on whom Schumann wrote his famous piano suite Kreisleriana). So it is transparent that Brahms was embroiled working out his growing feelings for Clara amid the tragedy of Robert.

The name of Clara appears immediately in the musical notes, based on Schumann’s own musical motto for Clara—C#-B-A-G#-A, which Brahms in his revisions transposed in C minor to: Eb-D-C-B-C. A discerning ear will hear this motto and variations of it throughout the piece.

But for us this is significant mostly in that it took Brahms 20 years to sort this all out in a piece of such ambitious Beethovenian grandeur. Changing the key of the piece to C minor itself is a Beethovenian move, and the quartet certainly recalls the drama and fate motives of Beethoven’s C minor pieces. The finale deliberately recalls Beethoven’s stormier piano sonatas (op. 2#1 last movement particularly) as well as quotes of the 5th symphony motto. And placing the slow movement after the Scherzo can’t help but recall Beethoven’s similar decision in the 9th symphony.

The two overriding compositional ideas in the quartet are the sigh figure and the octave. The sigh’s two descending notes imbue gloom and expression, while the octave lends a power and drama. Frequently these ideas are bound together. The piece begins with octaves in the piano followed by the sigh figure in the strings. The second phrase begins a full step lower, as if the piece has literally fallen, and thereby creating a sigh figure on a longer structural level between phrases. The opening of the Scherzo is an octave followed by the sigh figure inverted (going upwards). The slow movement descends in an arpeggio down an octave followed by an inverted sigh. With Brahms’ technique of developing variation, it is not an exaggeration to say all four movements are a continual evolution of these two ideas bound tightly together.

Yet a deeper unifying “secret” of the work lies embedded in its harmonic construction. Strange moments seem to subvert the tonality of C minor. For instance, after the opening bars comes a suspended moment where the viola plucks E natural, a note that is as distant from C minor as possible, confusing our ear as to whether we are in C minor or C major. This E natural becomes in the highest sense of the word, an “irritation” that accumulates as the movement develops, until in the recapitulation when a significant passage modulates entirely to E minor. The third movement of the piano quartet itself is in E major.

This subversion of C minor with E is a telltale that there is a bigger harmonic game going on beneath what at first might seem standard classical structure. What Brahms has done is to organize the entire work around an augmented triad—C-E-G#, far more than a traditional minor triad—C Eb-G. The augmented triad is the “key” that unlocks so many of the strange and wonderful harmonic and melodic impulses of the work. Sometimes the sound of the augmented triad is on the musical surface—such as the opening theme of the slow movement G#-E-C-A etc. Most other times, though, the augmented triad is the secret underpinning of larger progressions, such as the areas of the development section in the first movement around a G augmented triad—G-B-Eb.

Whence the hidden augmented triad structure? My hunch is that the augmented triad is the fusion between the original key of the piano quartet—C# minor—and the finalized key—C minor. A C# minor triad is the notes C#-E-G#. A C minor triad is the notes C-Eb-G. A tonic “fusion” of these two would be the augmented triad C-E-G#. Similarly, the “fusion” of the dominant chord would be G-B-D# which is precisely the structure Brahms uses to alternate throughout the quartet.

This may seem overly technical, but there is a poetic idea behind it. C# minor was the key that represented for Brahms the suicidal unrequited lover. C minor was the key of Beethoven that represents heroic struggle. Brahms used the fusion of these two harmonic centers as a device to represent the powerful music drama of this piano quartet.

Tagged: Death

A fun little jaunt through the last 700 1,400 years of death.

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal

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

Last night I went to Seattle Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos for the fourth time in the last few weeks. That’s a whole lot of Ariadne. Obviously, I liked it. It was a pretty amazing production—well staged, great voices, great costumes … well done all the way around, I thought. Ariadne features three great soprano roles, and here Marcy Stonikas, a dramatic (or spinto?) soprano played Ariadne, Rachele Gilmore was fantastic in the coloratura role of Zerbinetta, and the mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen was terrific as the talented yet naive composer of an opera about a bereft lover stuck on a deserted island.

For those unfamiliar with the work, Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera in two parts. The first part is a Prologue that takes place backstage at the home of a wealthy patron of the arts, who has scheduled three events for an evening’s entertainment. The first is a dramatic opera by a talented young composer, the second is a comedy skit called Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers, and to finish it all off, a display of fireworks is scheduled to begin promptly at 9:00. Towards the end of the prologue it becomes apparent that there isn’t enough time for both productions, and all the performers are informed that the two plays will be performed simultaneously.

The second part is the performance of both the opera and the comedy skit at the same time, as demanded by the patron. It turns out to be wonderful mess, as the high pathos of Ariadne is constantly upstaged by the antics of Zerbinetta and her screwball clowns, and then the whole wacky crew and even the composer is laid low by the sublime pathos of an opera prodcution that had seemed mangled beyond repair. Low comedy, high poetry, and the drama of love found through mistaken identities are all held together by great, great music.

The video above is a legendary production conducted by Karl Böhm, with Gundula Janowitz, Edita Gruberova, Trudelise Schmidt (legendary for me, anyway, Janowitz and Gruberova being two personal favorites). Take a look at the staging, which is a good example of adequate staging in suitable costumes of the era in which the action takes place. Take a look, because I want to emphasize by way of comparison that the Seattle production is an amazing revelation of what great stagecraft can reveal in an opera. Here is a very short clip:

Here also is a video on Collaboration, Comedy, and Chaos, narrated by Patrick Carfizzi (who was fantastic in the bass-baritone part of the Music Teacher.

Last of all, here is a repeat of a clip I shared a few years ago, the aria by the Harlequin, which is what drew me into the opera in the first place.