The least interesting great composer that ever lived

The least interesting great composer that ever lived


norman lebrecht

April 02, 2014

In the April issue of Standpoint, I assess the disparity between the dull bourgeois personality of Richard Strauss and the celestial uplift we receive from his music. For stimulus and sparkle, Strauss is probably the last person you would invite to a dinner party. A determined egotist, lacking ethical or intellectual curiosity, he was no more and no less than a great composer.

So why do we expect genius to be interesting? Read my essay here.

STRAUSS, Richard  (1864-1949) in 1943

pictured with Baldur von Schirach and the playwright at the world premiere of Hauptmann’s Iphigenia



  • Allan Evans says:

    A very balanced portrayal of Strauss, whose talent and craft transcended a dull exterior. This came up in lively conversation (part of the liner notes for a new project involving Oskar Fried that I’m about to release):

    A casual note in Count Harry Kessler’s diary on 14 December 1905 describes the chatting when Kessler and Fried dropped by to visit their close friend, the decadent Hamburg writer Richard Dehmel and his wife:

    ‘About [Richard] Strauss and Fried. Where Strauss intends to be sensitive he regularly becomes banal. His strength is in the witty, in the subtle. Mrs. Dehmel said that Fried was superior to him because he naturally commanded a hot passion. Dehmel contradicted quickly; even though perhaps the race agrees with you that Frau Dehmel feels drawn to peace, he, Dehmel, joined in with the totally opposite reaction, I daresay, the dissimilarity of the race from his wife. Furthermore, one must admit, Thank God, for the cool art arising in the world is due to Strauss. We had played on the nerves much too much.”

  • Nicely done. I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times, but Toscanini’s take on Strauss:

    “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.”

  • Mark Stratford says:

    A splendid article. I especially liked the parallels drawn with Elgar.

  • Was Metamorphosen the one time he expressed real tragedy in his music?

  • Max says:

    Haters gonna hate.

  • urania says:

    Celestial uplift??? Strauss is much overrated, his bourgoise personality is found in his music….lets see in 50 years what people say about his music!

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Very thought provoking essay, Norman. Thank you for sharing it. The last paragraph made me smile.

  • Brian says:

    “Great?” Strauss himself said he was but a first class second-rate composer. I don’t think he had any delusions about “greatness.” Heldenleben? No more than the Walter Mitty-like projections of the man on the street fantasizing about what he would be an he dared. Marek accurately called his Strauss bio, “Life of a Non-Hero.”

    Still he had his moments. When the Nazis wanted to take the name of his jewish collaborator, Stefan Zweig, off the playbill for the 1934 ‘Scwheigsame Frau’ he raised a ruckus and threatened to withdraw the opera. Perhaps like so many others, Furtwaengler for one, he didn’t yet know who and what he was dealing with, but it was a gutsy and principled move. Perhaps uncharacteristic, but there it was.

    You say he never showed passion, not once? Lotte Lehmann recounts an incident during the FroSch rehearsals where he literally exploded. The artists asked what they (Barak and the Farberin) were supposed to do during the long orchestral interlude in Act 1. “What should you do?” he retorted. “Nothing absolutely nothing at all. Why must you be doing something? After all, in real life people don’t keep running back and forth all the time, do they? Just stand there quietly and think yourself into the meaning of the role. I’m sure you’ll find the right sort of expression.'” (del Mar, Vol.2). An incident stage directors today could well keep in mind.

    And Strauss didn’t quite retreat from the atonal abyss, there are passages in FRAU (the Amme’s music in particular) in which tonality is all but abandoned even more so than in ELEKTRA. Puccini saw the score and called it “all logarithms.” Mahler has certainly outstripped him as a “serious” composer but Strauss’s music seems pretty durable and I don’t hold it against him that, like Jacob Marley (or Massenet), he was “always a good man of business.”

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Mahler has certainly outstripped him as a “serious” composer

      Mahler and Strauss have both been accused of many of the same things and of not being really “serious” composers, attacked for using “bombastic” musical language and oversized orchestral forces, effects like cowbells or wind machines, for being “vulgar” and many other things, and especially for being self-indulgent and making themselves the heroes and subjects of their compositions. So the question is not which composer is the more or less “serious” one but if one thinks that kind of criticism deserves to be taken seriously in the first place. I don’t think it does, and comparing and ranking the two doesn’t make much sense either. They were both men of their age and reflect many of the same and some very different aspects of their age at the same time.

      Heldenleben? No more than the Walter Mitty-like projections of the man on the street fantasizing about what he would be an he dared.

      You completely misunderstood what Ein Heldenleben is “about”. It’s not about a small man fantasizing about being a hero, it’s a parody of and response to the Wilhelminian image of the hero as a mighty warrior and its “message” is that the real hero is not one with a sword who fights dragons, but the artist whose fight is against philistine critics.

      • Brian says:

        I doubt many would put Heldenleben on the same artistic plane as, say, Mahler’s 5th or 9th. The artistic battles Strauss fought rather pale in comparison with Mahler’s struggle for recognition. Not attempting in any way to belittle Op.40; the opening, the audacious critics section (the first recording, under Moerike, cuts it) , and the moving finale are wonderful. The piece won comparatively rapid acceptance from the public, though not necessarily from some critics. But Strauss was not the hero optimistically portrayed in the piece.

      • m2n2k says:

        In my opinion, in music, not unlike other arts, the question “how it was done” may be even more important than “what it was about”. In case of Richard Strauss’ best works, the answer to the former is often – “brilliantly”. And that is why I consider him a first-rate composer, his modest statements to the contrary notwithstanding.m

        • m2n2k says:

          Please accept my apologies for that stray letter m that obnoxiously invaded my comment above here. Thanks.

    • Anonymus says:

      I really wonder, what this statement is based on? It’s a strange statement, confronted with the diversity of both composer’s oeuvre.

  • Russell Platt says:

    Bravo—great “kicker.”

  • Hmm, curate’s egg. Strauss benefited from the best private tuition Franz could find; you don’t end up composing Heldenleben at 24 via osmosis. Strauss’s orchestral virtuosity was such that when Mahler asked him how he composed passion, Strauss replied, ‘I can write passion. Give me a glass of beer and I’ll compose that, too’. The fact remains that his incredible facility masked a great reader of humanity; were his music emotionally facile it’d be there alongside Sigismund Thalberg’s and performed just as rarely. Maybe his only mistake in the eyes of later commentators was not to suffer as publicly as Mahler. Just because emotional expression in music came easily to Strauss does not mean he didn’t experience it. Does one have to visibly suffer for one’s art to be taken seriously? Interestingly, one of the comments about the Standpoint article is from Vovka Ashkenazy. I wrote programme notes for him when he came to my university to give a recital in the early 1980’s. His father (my mother’s former next-door neighbour, funnily enough) would regularly give incredible piano recitals without ending up as if he’d come out of one of Anton Rubinstein’s famous ‘shower baths’. Should his virtuositic economy of means lessen his artistic viability?

    If you can do it, you don’t need to crow about it.

  • Anonymus says:

    And so continues Mr. Lebrecht’s private little vendetta against Germanic culture.

  • Lucien says:

    Lebrecht conveniently elides the most salient points registered by Michael Kennedy, in what is doubtless the best biography of Strauss to date: “Strauss was incontrovertibly an intellectual by any standard of measurement, but he was never an intellectual with his head in the clouds. He liked people to think he was non-intellectual just as Ralph Vaughan Williams liked to pretend he knew nothing about orchestral technique and Elgar pretended he knew nothing about double counterpoint. It was a pose in all cases.” This said, few might be moved to dispute Strauss’s venality or the characterization of him as a “determined egotist” but the notion that he was – at least in life – devoid of “emotional or intellectual depths” comes across as patently untenable.

    • I don’t elide MK’s point: I dispute it. Strauss lacked intellectual curiosity.

      • Anonymus says:

        What about Mozart? What about Beethoven? What about Brahms? What about Bach? Can we say with certainty that they were intellectually more curious than Richard Strauss?

        Going by their letters and historic witnesses I don’t know who should make that judgement and how.

        And who was definitely a curious intellectual? I would define this as a creative mind that intellectually veered into other spheres than only composing, orchestration and maybe literature, as far as libretti were concerned.

        Richard Wagner probably. Skrjabin? Stockhausen?

      • Lucien says:

        The weight of evidence argues against it. In fact Strauss was one of the most intellectually distinguished composers who ever lived. How many composers are conversant with Max Stirner? The idea that Strauss lacked intellectual curiosity is preposterous.

    • I wonder to what extent intellectual narrowness might have contributed to the rise of the Third Reich. It’s as if people took little interest in what was happening around them. And if they did, its as if they didn’t have the broader intellectual grasp to understand the implications of what was happening, or to even see the fundamentally crude nature of Hitler’s thought and writings. Of course, once Hitler gained power they couldn’t do much, but there were many years during his political rise when action was possible.

      One of my wife’s students here in Germany recently won a scholarship awarded by the National German Academic Foundation. In the light of this discussion, the criteria for the reward is interesting. The intensively competitive and long process involves recitals, essays, and interviews and is given to students thought to be the best ambassadors of Germany. It’s awarded to highly gifted musicians who show enjoyment of intellectual challenges, a genuine interest in intensive exchange with other people and cultures, the perseverance to deal in detail with non-specialist topics, the curiosity to learn intellectually and practically in new worlds, and a conviction toward social responsibility.

      Germany seems to now prefer artists a bit different form Strauss.

      • Anonymus says:

        I don’t think the intellectual class of any country, even Germany, has or had that much influence. Hitler rose to power pushed by two main forces. First the bottom of the society, the votes of millions of unemployed, hungry and WW1 traumatized people, who wanted radical change in times of a great economic recession. Second the top 1%, the major capitalists and bankers, who liked fascism since it empowered the capital to unprecedented opportunities. That was the unholy amalgam of interests that pushed Hitler into power.

        Intellectuals played no roles other than court jesters in these troubled times.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I think all this is entirely true.

        • The issue is not the “intellectual class” (whatever that might be,) but that people in the Weimar Republic’s middle class, which had relatively high levels of education, did so little to stop Hitler. In “Mein Kampf, Hitler spelled out his plans in more completeness and detail than almost any leader in history. (And horrifically, he did everything he said he would.)

          So why didn’t millions of relatively well-educated people take heed in Germany and else where? Were there forms of intellectual narrowness that prevented them from seeing the implications of National Socialism? Racism, resentment, xenophobia, hyper-nationalism, authoritarianism, absolutism, and anti-communism were all factors in narrowing thought in Germany and else where. Most of these factors had long traditions in Germany and existed long before the Weimar Republic. Some of these factors created intellectual narrowness that left people indifferent, and some fell right in line with National Socialist values. In this sense, Strauss was a man of his times and it seems like people aren’t so different today.

          • Anonymus says:

            “…Racism, resentment, xenophobia, hyper-nationalism, authoritarianism, absolutism, and anti-communism were all factors in narrowing thought in Germany and else where…”

            The crucial words being “and elsewhere”, exactly. None of those explain what happened in Germany in the 30s of the last century. But my two main factors mentioned above do explain it.

            I don’t think you have a good grasp for the realities at those times.

          • I’m well read in that history and have lived in Germany for the last 34 years. It would be absurd to think that racism, hyper-nationalism, authoritarianism and anti-communism didn’t play a role in the rise of National Socialism.

          • Anonymous says:

            The factors you mention were prevalent in Britain (and other nations) as well at the times. Doesn’t explain the Hitler-Fascism phenomenon. My factors do.

          • Britian and France had “the votes of millions of unemployed, hungry and WW1 traumatized people, who wanted radical change in times of a great economic recession.” And they had “the top 1%, the major capitalists and bankers, who liked fascism since it empowered the capital to unprecedented opportunities.”

            But they didn’t go the path of Germany. The factors are far more complex than the few commonly known reasons you present — as if Germany only embraced National Socialism because it was some sort of unique victim. Anyway, I’m not go to debate the forms of German denial you seem to argue. No point.

          • Anonymus says:

            History says something different. Britain and France didn’t lose the war (WW1) and suffer from a revenge driven Versaille treaty, that went too far in punishing the Krauts and which strangled and humiliated their national consciousness. Brits and French never had to feel self conscious about their national identity in those times. They were in full enjoyment of their superiority complexes while their slaves from their colonies washed their feet and served tea.

            German denial? Denial of what?

    • Brian says:

      You can add to that list Verdi who invariably knew more than he let on.

  • Auschwitz was an act of transcendentalism. Nazi ideology was a mishmash of conservative bourgeois values, transcendentalism, and radical evil.

    Evil is often justified and even motivated by transcendental concepts. Witch burning is an obvious example. The concepts of the Übermensch and Lebenrausm, and the genocide they caused, were manifestations of transcendentalism. In many respects National Socialism was the ultimate manifestation of Romanticism’s transcendental concepts of the hero, the artist-prophet, and cultural nationalism. One might think of Hitler as the last Romantic.

    Similar ideals appeared in US history with concepts like the Manifest Destiny, a transcendental idea that justified genocide against Native Americans and stealing the huge area of the American Southwest from Mexico at gun point. It is strikingly similar to Hitler’s transcendental concept of Lebenraum that involved exterminating the Slavic people to colonize their lands. Radical evil and transcendentalism walk hand in hand.

    This helps us understand why conservative bourgeois values, the transcendentalism of classical music, and conceptions of radical evil sometimes exist along side and reinforce each other. This perspective, as repugnant as it might seem, helps explain why we see Strauss conducting his music in concert halls draped with Nazi flags and see him casually hob-nobbing with mass murders.

    As Strauss illustrates, the transcendental mechanisms of classical music are a technique that can be learned and practiced with Apollonian detachment — at least in the hands of a gifted craftsman. It does not necessarily require a personal commitment or any sort of moral authority.

    To put this in an American cultural sphere, it’s why a Jewish guy from Brooklyn could capture the transcendent spirit of the American heartland in “Appalachian Spring.” Never mind that the rural whites of Appalachia do not live such ideal lives and that the region was only settled through acts of genocide. We are adept at seeing transcendental ideals and ignoring the rest. One of the survival mechanisms of the human mind is that it can compartmentalize its thought in order to not face its “Heart of Darkenss.” Culture becomes a code that allows us to see only what we want to.

    The Apollonian detachment of the entrepreneurial spirit also helps us understand Strauss’s “Salome.” For Oscar Wilde, “Salome” was an expression of radicalism to which he had committed his life and for which he paid a catastrophic price. For Strauss it was a carefully calculated transgression, an operatic titillation, that brought him enough money to build a house in the alpine resort of Garmisch.

    The lack of Wilde’s type of commitment is why the opera has virtually no character development. We see Biblical stick figures bellowing in bel canto over a sort of churning alpine symphony. And yet, here and there, transcendent moments open up, crafted with Apollonian detachment. It’s the music of the bourgeois entrepreneur who founded GEMA. Wilde goes to prison, Strauss sits down next to Baldur von Schirach. Wilde ends his life in poverty and with a broken spirit. Strauss ends his writing the sublime “Four Last Songs.” The bestial and the sublime exist together because in humans they cannot be separated. And of course, it cannot be forgotten that the creation of sublime art never justifies immorality, including Strauss’s grotesque opportunism.

    I discuss these troubling ideas more systematically in this article published by the MIT Press:

    • It’s interesting to contemplate the sort of “Appalachian Springs” that might have been written if the Nazis had won the war and colonized an area extending from Rotterdam to the Pacific Ocean in eastern Russia. Due to transcendentalism’s horrific history, post-war Germany turned to the Sachlichkeit of Darmstadt. Stockhausen is the only major German composer who returned to transcendentalism. It’s interesting that he referred to 9/11 as the “greatest work of art in history.”

      Anyway, thanks for the interesting article.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “As Strauss illustrates, the transcendental mechanisms of classical music are a technique that can be learned and practiced with Apollonian detachment — at least in the hands of a gifted craftsman. It does not necessarily require a personal commitment or any sort of moral authority. ”

      Real transcendentalism is NOT a ‘technique that can be learned and practiced with Apollonian detachment’. Where high art is coupled with evil and destruction, it is not properly understood. To suggest that high art, in this case classical music, is inevitably related to genocide, is missing the point entirely and shows itself to be the typical postwar chestbeating guilt complex.

      Strauss made a number of stupid mistakes, not properly understanding what was going-on around him. At the end of his life he suffered intensiily and paid dearly for them, resulting in his Metamorphosen and Four Last Songs. It was his worldly success and the influence of his bourgeois wife which stilted his creativity in the long period of conventional, uninspired music, twenties and thirties.

      • What is “real transcendentalism,”and what is “high art”? And how is high art “properly understood”? Ironically, absolutist definitions and philosophies of such complex things might represent the narrowness of thought under discussion……….

        • John Borstlap says:

          But isn’t it rather the blurring of the two which can be considered ‘narrow-minded’? It has become conventional to debunk anything that might, yes: ‘might’, point towards something better than we have al around us. I don’t see any ‘narrow-mindedness’ in the idea that art, and especially hign art (= the best there is, as far as we can know), should be inspiring to become ‘better’. It is, on the other hand, very easy to throw-up one’s hands and sink back in a state of indifference. The entire classical music culture rests upon a collection of excellent works; the suggestion that all this is tainted by evil is merely finishing the job that Hitler et al began. In George Steiner’s ‘In Bluebeard’s Castle’ he claims that Europe’s high art is (partly) responsible for the holocaust. Talking about narrow-mindedness… I see all that as the mere postwar moral hangover and not as any valid assessment of the works of high art that came to us from the past.

          • To be very brief, I think we are still far too close to those horrors to answer these questions with much confidence, including the question of how the arts (and high arts) have shaped our worldview and actions. Do you ever wonder why there is no other culture whose high musical forms are regimented like like our orchestras, or certainly not to a comparable degree? Or where such large groups of people as an orchestra are under such a hierarchical and authoritarian control? Or why we developed concepts of transcendentalism as exemplified by the quote from a speech of Hitler:

            “Art is an exalted mission requiring fanaticism. He who is chosen by providence to reveal the soul of a people around him, to let it sound in tones or speak in stone, suffers under the power of the Almighty as a force ruling him, and will speak his language, even if the people do not understand or do not want to understand. And he would prefer to take every affliction upon himself than even once be untrue to the star that guides him internally.”

            Hitler used that same fanaticism to sculpt the human race according to his aesthetic ideals. And he had a lot of helpers. Few people claim to have the answers to these questions, but given the magnitude of horror and death, and the immense complexity of the questions, it seems we have little choice but to keep our minds open.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I would even go further and advise to keep our mind so far open as to include the possibility that Hitler gravely misunderstood the meaning of art and that the communities which form orchestras, are a form of collaboration resulting in great artistic achievements.

          • And open to the idea that a 19th century aesthetic of Radical Will ultimately accompanied a 20th century morality of Radical Evil. What role has classical music played in these conceptions of authoritarianism, absolutism, and radical will? To what extent did the appropriation, or misappropriation of the orchestra’s conceptions of hierarchy, regimentation, and authoritarianism play in how our societies have been structured? How did this vary by country and to the extent orchestras were a central part of those cultures?

            It is not so much that Hitler misunderstood art (hopefully a given,) but that art shapes how we view the world. As Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitate art far more than art imitates life.”

          • John Borstlap says:

            I really find all this TOTALLY nonsensical and irrational. This is not the place to go very deep into this question, of which I agree it is an important one in connection with the current cultural climate with fake art and fake music all around us, but here I only want to remark that to connect these things in this way is suicidal. If we take the core form of the classical reperoire: ‘the symphony’, there is nothing in it of the ‘radical will’ (some quaint Schopenhauer there?). In the Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Sibelius symphonies, as in the symphonies of Shostakovich, there is a concentration of forces, both mentally in the composer’s mind and in reality in the orchestra’s ensemble, to create a statement about the human condition, NOT an invitation to evil. None of these composers had a pact with the devil. Wagner is the only composer who consciously wanted to change something, with his work, in the reality of life, and at the end of his life he was convinced that he utterly failed, especially when he saw the character of the new Reich that had come into being, which he thought barbarous (esp. its militarism). And where Strauss was ‘heroically’ symphonic, he failed to be that in a convincing way.

            Classical music has to be liberated from all these apocaliptic misgivings which are mere projections in the wake of the tragic history of the last century. That high art has been abused does not mean that this art itself was guilty of it. And quoting Oscar Wilde is not the most convincing way of defending such a negative opinion…. The best way of committing cultural suicide is to project the postwar hangover into the high art of the past, as George Steiner does. Where concentration camp brutes weep at a Schubert recital, after a hard day’s work at the camp, such absurdities do not demonstrate the evil nature of Schubert songs. It is an understandable but intellectually totally wrong proposition to suggest such a link exists.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Any stick – even one as unpromising as Richard Strauss – will serve Progressives in beating the Main Enemy, the United States.

      Left off your little list of transcendental evils: collectivization, the Great Leap Forward, the Great Cultural Revolution, Juche. Did these, too, reflect “conservative bourgeois values”?

  • Tommasini has an article in the Times about the moral responsibilities of artists.

    What a surprise to see that artists who disagree with US national interests are immoral or morally equivocal, and those who support US interests are doing the right thing.

    And of course, big issues involving US allies are overlooked. Gergiev is rightfully castigated for supporting Putin’s anti-gay policies, but there’s not one word about the Vienna Phil’s exclusion of Asians. As far as the Times goes, that problem doesn’t exist.

    In practice, morality in classical music is basically a matter of convenience and conformity.

    • Anonymus says:

      And on a more general level. What about the moral responsibility of anyone else? What about the moral responsibility of investment bankers? What about pharma industry executives? What about actors? What about the moral responsibilities of anyone else? Why are musicians apparently held to a higher standard? They are just musicians after all.

      And congratulations, you managed to sneak the Vienna Phil in. We should find a name for your compulsion. “Godwin’s law” is reserved for the mention of Hitler in a thread. What about “Osborne law” for mentioning the alleged racism of Vienna Phil in relation to any unrelated subject?

    • Brian says:

      “What a surprise to see that artists who disagree with US national interests are immoral or morally equivocal, and those who support US interests are doing the right thing.”

      Yes, that’s it; I’m sure Mr. Tommasini called the White House and got his talking points and marching orders from Messrs. Obama, Kerry and Ms. Rice before he wrote the piece. Sigh.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “……but there’s not one word about the Vienna Phil’s exclusion of Asians. As far as the Times goes, that problem doesn’t exist. In practice, morality in classical music is basically a matter of convenience and conformity.”

      ??? Since when should a private organisation like an orchestra being forced to appoint non-Europeans when they prefer to cultivate a local image and a local performance tradition? Since when are Asians considered typical Viennese? Are Asians hurt when they find-out that, in fact, they are not Viennese? If Asians, living in Europe, would set-up an orchestra entirely composed of players from Asian descent, would they not be discriminatory? In China most of the orchestras are made-up entirely of Chinese. Should they appoint Western white women to compensate for this? I find this kind of reasoning utterly puzzling.

      Then, the accusation of classical music lacking morality. There is as much, or not enough, morality in that field as anywhere else, being a human endeavor, and in fact there may be a bit more morality there because of the requirements of the art form (how could such thing be researched?). Every orchestral player knows how bad it is when the atmosphere in the ensemble is disturbed by, for instance, bad behavior, which affects the musical results.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Norman’s article is a really good one for bringing-up such questions like the moral responsibilities of artists, especially great ones. In Strauss’ life history and career this subject takes-on a particularly urgent character.

  • Well, that’s that thread well and truly hijacked.

  • Late to the party here, but good to see so much discussion of a composer whose music has a huge place in classical culture in spite of the fact that so few people understand the complexities of the music or the man. Of course, Strauss himself contributed greatly towards this state of affairs by refusing to reveal anything of his inner world except through his music. Like many creative artists, he adopted a mask to protect his innter world. Hans Gal wrote of Schubert “Instinctively the artist seeks the mask which will best enable him to come to a tolerable arrangement with the world and its everyday demands. The mask he chooses will depend on his character. What he needs is a minimum of living space, a secure domain behind invisible walls where he can live unmolested with his dreams, his visions… Agains such intrusion one artist will cover himself in prickly armour, another will pad himself with everyday banality.” Gal could well be describing Mahler and Strauss respectively in that last sentence.

    I’d invite curious readers to check out the series of Strauss posts for the 150th Anniversary at my blog, here:

    A good place to start might be with this one:

    There is also a Strauss micro-site for this year’s Bridgewater Hall Strauss’s Voice series here:


    • John Borstlap says:

      These Strauss texts on Woods’ site are really most enjoyable and expert, even if one would not agree with some details. They make you think and listen again. Eulenspiegel is a hilarious piece, in the best sense of the word.

      Only 2 comments:


      “In the area of instrumentation, Strauss may not have been as innovative as Wagner, but he was certainly more accomplished. Wagner left us some nearly un-solvable technical problems- be honest, when have you ever heard a good live performance of the Prelude to Parsifal, one where the wind and brass writing was really in tune? It’s damn near impossible (but worth the effort). Strauss’s orchestral writing is often more athletic and can sound more over-the-top, but it’s far more idiomatic. The balances work better, the wind chords are organized in such a way that they’re far more likely to be in tune.”

      I have heard various live Parsifal performances where the Prelude did not demonstrate ANY problem in intonation. A good orchestra can manage all woodwind intonation problems, as they have to, since there are so many places in the repertoire which are just difficult to get the ‘right’ intonation. Composers don’t take intonation problems into account as also Strauss did not, in fact he was quite careless as to the technical difficulties of the orchestral textures, which often seem to have been conceived at the piano. I think Strauss’ scores are rife with intonation problems but one does not hear them so clearly because the idiom is often quite ‘vague’ as to tonality, so if a player is skating at the edge of a chord, it does not make much difference. Also balance in Strauss SEEMS to be better because often imbalances in his works don’t destabilize the music, especially where very much is going-on in the same time. The notion of ‘balance’ is quite different in Strauss than in Wagner where textures are more ‘open’, or – better said – less overloaded. Another point is the type of instruments before the change in the twenties and thirties when brass got louder. If you listen to the recordings of, for instance, the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra on period instruments from around 1900, brass can freely blast their tuttis without distorting the balance because they have less volume. As for colouring: Wagner’s mixtures of timbre are sometimes hard to play, it seems, but with some extra attention and rehearsel time they can be solved perfectly well. In Strauss’ Eulenspiegel there is the notorious 6/4 chord in flutes and clarinets in bar 5-6 which often gives intonation trouble, just one of the many examples…. I don’t believe at all that Strauss was ‘more accomplished’ in instrumentation than Wagner; their scoring fits their imagination and where Wagner gives difficulties, this is because he gave priority to expressing a musical idea over practicalities for the players, the same in Beethoven.


      Strauss’ works after Rosenkavalier often exude a sweetish, rather sickly perfume of mediocrity that really does damage to his stilistic idea of combining Mozart (melodically) with Wagner (harmonically). The famous arias of Zerbinetta gives me the shivers, and not musical ones…. It is music where all effort has gone into the surface but there is nothing under it, while in this idiom he could write fantastic stuff like the beginning scene of Intermezzo or many stretches in Rosenkavalier.

      But of course he is a great composer, the problems nothwithstanding.