The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (251): Strauss only gets worse

The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (251): Strauss only gets worse


norman lebrecht

December 04, 2020

Dozens of Slippedisc readers rushed to defend Ein Heldenleben, an appalling musical concept that is redeemed from time to time by a brilliant conductor.

Here’s its companion piece, the self-regarding domestic symphony in which Richard Strauss portrays a day in the life of his marriage, including breakfast, childcare and marital intimacy. Way beyond embarrassing.



  • AngloGerman says:

    Both are absolutely stunning! I think someome may have forgotten to take their meds…
    The entire point of Ein Heldenleben and Sinfonia Domestica is the counterplay between the two extremes, and the irony inherent in each. One thinks particularly of the interweaving of the previously boisterous horn section (i. e. Der Held) with the violin solo sections in das Heldenleben, exposing the previous section for what it truly is – a representation of a capricious, young, naive Held (arguably, Strauss) who should be seen to embody those qualities, but by no means be glorified in the way so abhorrent (for whatever reason) to Mr. Lebrecht. I feel like this is lost in your ‘assessment’ of either work.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    The purely orchestral Strauss works that I like the best are the purely pictorial ones (Aus Italien; Alpine Symphony) and not the ones that are either autobiographical or overtly “philosophical”.
    All those orchestral extravaganzas are best heard in various recorded performances by Mengelberg, Furtwangler, Kempe, Karajan, Reiner, and Ormandy.
    On the other hand, Strauss’ post-WWII “disillusionary” works, Metamorphosen and the Four Last Songs, are immortal works of genius.

  • Very difficult to find some recordings of the domestic symphony. For the two symphonies of Richard Strauss it’s harder! I’am desappointed by the RCO who had to do it. If they read me… Recently I found the domestic on a biutifull box Decca of Zunbin with the LA Phil. But, for me the domestic is not to the level of Tod und Verklärung the Evrest of Strauss and of the RCO

    • Pedro says:

      Karajan with the VPO is excellent despite the poor recording made at the Salle Wagram in Paris.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Try VPO/Clemens Krauss. I don’t have an opinion on their Domestic, but Krauss is my favorite Strauss conductor. Not only was he an exceptional conductor, even by golden age standards (try his Bayreuth Ring), but he was also a close collaborator of the composer.
      Nice to see the SD Strauss Fab Club fight back.

    • NYMike says:

      Two Philly recordings, one conducted by Dutoit and the other by Sawallisch, are both excellent. There’s also one by Chicago/Reiner.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Rudolf Kempe recorded all of Strauss’ orchestral works in Dresden for EMI.
      If you can find those recordings, that’s the whole-ball-of-wax way to go.

  • Gustavo says:

    “Way beyond embarrassing” until Neeme Järvi recorded it with SNO…

    …and Eliahu Inbal with OSR.

    • Greg says:

      Agree about the Jarvi recording. The SNO plays brilliantly for him. Their recordings of Strauss, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich are gripping and exciting. There are also some wonderful recordings with Alexander Gibson at their helm. SNO has always been a bit of a sleeper orchestra here in the US unless you happen to be a brass player.

    • Daniel A. says:

      Here, here Gustavo. I could not agree more. The Jarvi recordings of the complete tone poems are some of his best recordings in his entire output. You can get them on a 2-disc, two-volume collection.

      I dare say its the best Domestica and Death & Transfiguration committed to disc, and a top tier Alpine Symphony as well. For those who have not heard these interpretations, do yourself a favor and seek them out.

      I also highly recommend Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra on EMI for their Strauss recordings, including a live and highly charged and majestic Festival Prelude.

  • RW2013 says:

    The real embarrassment is rating ANY conductor above these works!

  • John Borstlap says:

    The Domestic Symphony has some stretches of good music, and some hilarious music, and lots of idiotic music, and these three components find their combined climax in the crazy but brilliant triple fugue (at 30:55). But the whole idea is embarrassingly naive and ridiculous, of course.

  • John Borstlap says:

    What did Strauss’ collegues find of these blown-up pieces? We know of Stravinsky’s condemnation, he wanted all of S’s works be thrown in hell, with their ‘hair-raising banality’. But Debussy found Heldenleben and the Domestic Symphony (he called Strauss ‘le domestique symphonique’) good music, and liked the sunny mood in them and the scoring (‘he lets the trombones sneeze their nose’). He did not mind their lack of taste – but I suspect Debussy liked their provocative nature.

    • Eric says:

      Stravinsky also used the term Der Sklerosenkavalier.

    • Stuart says:

      I was 18 years in Chicago during the Solti and Barenboim years so heard a lot of Strauss. I view him more as an opera composer. Love Salome and especially Elektra as well as Ariadne. Strauss lost his way after Die Frau. Over 50 years of collecting and listening to classical music, I enjoyed most of Strauss’ orchestral output but over the last 10 years, have listened to these works less and less. I agree with NL’s view of Heldenleben. And the Domestic Symphony is truly bad. I have the whole Kempe box and enjoy a few of these works on occasion. Probably like the Alpine work the most, especially in the Theilemann recording. As bad as many of these orchestral works are, they are nothing in comparison to the terrible operatic output after Die Frau (and I have heard them all.)

    • Tom Varley says:

      I recall reading that regarding the Domestic Symphony, Beecham said something to the effect of “That one Bavarian baby in his bath makes more noise than all the sacred elephants in India stampeding towards the Ganges.” I love it, if the conductor is willing to wallow in the sheer over the top-ness of it all. I’ve only heard it once in concert – with Ormandy and the Philadelphia c. 1980, in a concert that also included the Beethoven Concerto with Nathan Milstein as the soloist. A great evening.

  • A.L. says:

    Don’t agree with your assessment of Heldenleben but do agree with your opinion of this other flimsy and embarrassing composition. But not every single composition by any given master can be a masterpiece, as we know. Question: Did Carlos Kleiber ever conduct Till Eulenspiegel?

  • Concertgoer says:

    The Symphonia Domestica, in his weird spelling, is a truly awful work. No argument there!

  • Gustavo says:

    This is no comfort zone.

  • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:

    I pity the fools who extemporize asinine verbiage against Bruckner, Strauss & Mahler having never sat in a fully committed orchestra and felt the visceral/mystic experience of rendering some of those major works before an enthusiastic audience. I have. I will never, ever forget it. Lately I had the distinct honor of listening to a Bruckner 8 by the New York Philharmonic. Had tears in my eyes several hours after the concert, and even now as I write about it…

    • John Borstlap says:

      Who was conducting it?

    • Martin says:

      The first time I heard Bruckner 8 was in the 60’s when Wm Steinberg conducted the NY Phil in Philharmonic Hall.

    • William Safford says:

      JOOC, which edition of the Bruckner 8?

      Also, where did you hear it? IMHO, Philharmonic Hall/Avery Fischer Hall/Geffen Hall is a terrible place to hear Bruckner. The acoustics, bad as they are, are especially infelicitous for any of Bruckner’s music. (This is no knock on the NY Phil itself, I hasten to add.)

      It was not until I listened to Bruckner in a setting other than that barn, that I started to understand his music.

      I completely agree that an excellent vantage point for the works of those composers is from within the ensemble. I have had very little experience with performing Bruckner, but it is always a treat whenever I get to perform (or listen to) Strauss and Mahler.

  • Caractacus says:

    Who’s embarrassed?! It’s terrific stuff! Each to their own , of course.

  • Edward says:

    Previn would agree with John’s comment earlier, and with Debussy; after conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in the Domestic Symphony, his first words off stage were, “isn’t that piece completely outrageous?” And older American readers will know that NBC must have liked it, too, since they used a motif from it for their peacock.

  • MacroV says:

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, however wrong it may be. Even bad Strauss is usually pretty good. I love Domestica as well. Fondly recall hearing it with the Czech Philharmonic and Kristian Jarvi at Prague Spring a couple years ago, and 20-some years ago with Edo deWaart and the Sydney Symphony at the University of Connecticut (not related, but that guy knew how to pick cities – San Francisco, Minneapolis, Amsterdam, Sydney, Perth, Wellington…).

  • Jean says:

    Wasn’t ‘Sinfonia Domestica’ premiered in a shopping mall ?
    A very fitting place for a premiere……

    (I must confess of sharing Norman’s thoughts on him.)

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Strauss reserved the premiere for his American tour in 1904, and Carnegie Hall in New York was booked. He would conduct it himself. Originally the premiere was scheduled for March 9, but the orchestral parts were delayed, so it was postponed to March 21. The later date allowed more rehearsals, of which 15 were required before Strauss was satisfied. The Wetzler Symphony Orchestra was adequate, but not much more. During a performance of his Don Quixote two nights earlier, the orchestra had broken down in the middle of the piece.”

      “Nevertheless, the performance was a great success, so much so that he was prevailed upon to conduct two more performances in Wanamaker’s department store in New York, on 16 and 18 April, for a fee of $1,000. An entire sales floor had to be cleared to make way for the huge orchestra, and the concerts attracted audiences of 6,000 people. The New York and German press were very critical, not just of these exhibitions but of the very work itself, regarding them as a blatant commercialization of the sacred art of music and the intimacy of family life. Strauss responded: “True art ennobles this Hall, and a respectable fee for his wife and child is no disgrace even for an artist”.”

  • Rikkitavi889 says:

    I think Strauss rose to great heights in Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier. And, although this may annoy Mr Lebrecht (!) I hold Heldenleben, and several other symphonic poems in high regard. But the Symphonia Domestica is, I think, an indiscretion. How could the man who wrote the Four Last Songs have written this piece of self-indulgent nonsense!

    • John Borstlap says:

      He was happy at the time, got rich on Salome and Rosenkavalier, had a villa built with a view on the Alps, got a young son, and Pauline did no longer send him to the village every day for bottles of milk. So he composed Domestica. The Four Last Songs were born from a desillusionment too deep for words but illuminated by nearing death.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    It was said of Strauss that he could set a table place-setting to music and you’d be able to tell which motif was the spoon, which the fork, which the knife.

    This line of dispute has already been aired in the famous public argument between Ernest Newman (anti-Strauss) and George Bernard Shaw (pro-Strauss) in the pages of The Nation in the years 1910 to 1914. One part of the controversy was generated by performances of Elektra (Newman: “there is not one large work of his, from Don Quixote onward, that is not marred by some folly or some foolery … you are rather sorry, in fact, that the composer should take so much trouble to be a failure”; the other by a performance of the ballet Josephslegende (“bad enough to ruin any man’s reputation” wrote Newman). And Shaw was in fine form too: (“Mr. Newman’s erroneousness is almost certain enough to be accepted as a law of nature and his death-bed repentances may be as confidently looked forward-to as the revivals of Peter Pan”). It has all been gathered in one big chapter in Newman’s book, Testament of Music, and is well worth seeking out. Two fine writers in a battle of well chosen words employed as scalpels. It puts the New York Review of Books to shame.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Those were the days….. but Newman compared Strauss with Wagner (about whom he wrote a 4-volume biography), and who could survive the comparison?

  • Curvy Honk Glove says:

    Richard Strauss was a Nazi. I thought we were cancelling Nazis and white supremacists for the past 4 years. What gives? …or was Strauss one of the “good” Nazis

  • John Borstlap says:

    The 2nd picture shows Strauss at the moment Pauline summoned him for the dish washing.

  • M2N2K says:

    Unlike Ein Heldenleben, this is a rather poor work, probably the weakest of the composer’s symphonic pieces. No wonder then that it is so rarely performed and by only very few of the finest conductors – this kind of “neglect” is fully justifiable.

  • Gustavo says:

    “Schopenhauer gebraucht irgendwo das Bild zweier Bergleute, die von entgegengesetzten Seiten in einen Schacht hineingraben und sich dann auf ihrem unterirdischen Weg begegnen. So kommt mir mein Verhältnis zu Strauss treffend gezeichnet vor.”

    – Gustav Mahler –

    Apaarently, Mr Lebrecht entered this vertical tunnel at Mahler’s lower end, got stuck somewhere inbetween, and is now refusing to pay any respect to Richard Strauss who is waiting patiently in the blazing sunlight at the other side.

  • Tom Vendetti says:

    Strauss tone poems are not to my taste. I’m sure they are technically brilliant and to some listeners entertaining. Unfortunately I find my mind wandering when exposed to them. The operas, on the other hand, are beautiful and fascinating.

  • William Safford says:

    Here’s a detail of the domestic symphony that I think is a microcosm of the whole.

    Strauss employed a quartet of saxophones.

    This, in itself, could have been a laudatory gesture. I love the sound of classical saxophones in an orchestra. Think of Bizet’s innovative (for the time) and beautiful utilization of the alto saxophone in L’Aresienne. Think of how effectively Prokofiev employed the tenor saxophone in Lieutenant Kije and Romeo and Juliet, and Ravel’s use of the alto saxophone in Pictures, and the saxophones in Bolero, and the Vaughn Williams 9th Symphony. This is without discussing the evocative use of saxophones in Gershwin’s An American in Paris, which give the Gallic opening a piquant Yankee flavor at their entrance.

    However, there are two significant issues:

    a/ He wrote for instruments that, in effect, do not exist. Instead of writing for say, one soprano sax in Bb, one alto sax in Eb, one tenor sax in Bb, and one baritone sax in Eb, he wrote for one (uncommon) soprano sax in C, one (very uncommon) alto (mezzo-soprano) sax in F, one baritone sax in F (which, AFAIK, was never built), and one bass sax in C (which was rare as hen’s teeth). “Not only did he score for 2 rare saxophones, 1 extinct saxophone, and 1 fantasy saxophone,…” (Bret Newton)

    b/ You can hardly tell that they’re there. If you’re going to go to the bother of employing a quartet of saxophones, they do not necessarily have to have solos, but why not at least acknowledge their presence? “… [T]heir parts are not even the slightest bit important.” (ibid.)

    • John Borstlap says:

      The saxophones in Domestica merely add to the body of sound, they are supposed to support the volume of the rest. Strauss often wanted more volume than any other composer, and that is not necessary since fortes and tuttis are a matter of proportion and relationship to the surrounding music. In theory one could rescore Domestica, Heldenleben, etc. for smaller forces without the loss of any musical effect.

      For instance, the fortissimo full organ chord at the beginning of Zarathustra, concluding the opening cadence, is an attempt to undo the audience’s hairdo’s, and is not a musical idea whatsoever.