An Evening with Richard Strauss

Friday, August 2, 2019 , 6:30 PM

R. Strauss: Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 11

R. Strauss: Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Op. 60

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 11

Composed: 1882-83
Instrumentation: Solo horn, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Ravel, featured on Tuesday’s Festival Chamber Orchestra program, are all well known for their neo-Classical streaks, but Richard Strauss—known best for his lush tone poems—also had his moments of neo-Classicism. Strauss was steeped in music of the Viennese masters from a very young age. His father guided him attentively during the course of his musical training through his late-teen years, directing him towards Mozart and Haydn rather than Wagner, whom the elder Strauss detested. The early horn concerto exemplifies his musical education.

Strauss’s upbringing would be the envy of any modern-day college student: he grew up in a household surrounded by music and beer. His father, Franz, was the principal horn player at the Munich Opera and had been dubbed “the Joachim of the horn” for his unmatched talent. Strauss’s mother was part of the famous Pschorr family of Munich brewers, still producing their famous Bavarian weisse today. Both artistically and financially, Strauss was lucky to have the support of his family, which allowed him to begin composing at an early age. No doubt inspired by his father, a number of these early works involved horn. After a brief and half-hearted stint at Munich University in 1882, Strauss decided to venture out on his own, touring the European musical capitals with his father’s blessing, not to mention a long list of his professional contacts. One of the pieces that the 18-year-old Strauss brought with him on these trips was his recently completed horn concerto. Originally dedicated to his father, Strauss changed the dedication to Oscar Franz, probably on the advice of his father, who was determined to have his son establish his own musical identity. Although it took a couple of years, Strauss did eventually have his concerto performed by the famous conductor Hans von Bülow, with Gustav Leinhos as soloist in early 1885. The work is widely viewed as one of Strauss’s first important compositions. Showing a cogent understanding of Mozart’s well-known works in the genre, Strauss instills the work with a clever motivic unity that presages his future successes.

After a full opening chord in the orchestra, the horn immediately enters with a bold fanfare that provides the initial thematic material. Strauss’s knowledge of the cantilena quality of his father’s instrument is abundantly clear in the lyrical swells of the second theme. After a modified recapitulation, the orchestra eases the music into rising staccato arpeggios in the winds and then the strings as a transition directly into the second movement.

The Andante is scored in the rarely-found key of A-flat minor. A sustained lament in the horn begins the movement and a nicely balanced countermelody in the clarinet and then bassoon is soon added to it. After a second lyrical sub-theme, the middle section arrives in E major with a contrasting texture. When the two themes from the beginning return, their order is surprisingly reversed.

The rondo finale (in A-B-A-B-A form) follows without pause, but begins with a little introduction that again uses the rising arpeggios as a method of transition. First stated by the horn, the exuberant rondo theme is closely related to the opening fanfare from the first movement, a connection that is made explicit at the first repeat of the rondo theme. The episodes also include subtle references to the second theme of the first movement and the opening theme of the second. The work ends with an energetic coda in which the horn player indulges in a virtuoso display for a rousing finish.


Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Op. 60

Composed: 1911-17
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons plus contrabassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, bass trombone, timpani, 4 percussion (snare drum, tambourine, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel), harp, piano, and strings

After hearing the horn concerto, it perhaps does not come as a shock that Strauss took his father’s reverence for Mozart to heart, a profound admiration that lasted his entire life. At age 13, Strauss wrote gushingly about Mozart, astounded by work that was “serious and yet so lovely and fresh,” and at age 80, reflecting on his life, he inscribed in a score a dedication: “To the divine Mozart at the end of a life full of thankfulness.”

Incidental music he scored for Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s new production of Molière’s 1670 satire Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is a prime example of Strauss’s take on neo-Classicism. The original 17th-century production included numerous dance interludes composed by French Baroque master Lully, and Strauss’s stylistic choice here determined by the origins of the work. Strauss and Hofmannsthal had already had a productive working relationship prior to this project. In 1908 Strauss completed work on his shocking opera Elektra adapting Hofmannsthal’s play for the libretto. The following year, the two worked together to produce Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss’s fifth opera, lighter in tone with a score that evokes Vienna of the 18th and 19th centuries (conjuring Mozartian opera buffa and waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr.).

Their vision for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was grand and ambitious. Hofmannsthal would adapt Molière’s original for stage with Strauss’s neo-Classical (or perhaps more accurately, neo-Baroque) score providing the musical backdrop. The play follows the title character, Monsieur Jourdain, a middle-class buffoon with aspirations towards nobility. The foppish Jourdain’s foolish ambitions render him an easy target for hucksters as the play progresses. Hofmannsthal emphasizes a commedia dell’arte troupe in the proceedings to further satirize the low-brow/high-brow divide. In their original conception, the production of the play would be followed up by an opera for which Jourdain would dictate the absurd parameters, creating a kind of opera within an opera/play structure. The piece was premiered in this form in 1912, but the audience found the divide between play and opera unappealing, and the costs of producing it with a professional acting troupe and an opera company were prohibitive. Strauss and Hofmannsthal decided to rework the material into two separate productions: the play with expanded incidental music and an ending that adhered more closely to Molière’s original, and a completely separate opera with a new opening frame in order to explain why a commedia dell’arte troupe was suddenly appearing with the mythological goddess Ariadne on an otherwise deserted island. The opera, now known as Ariadne auf Naxos, is a biting parody with a score that Strauss also imbued with neo-Classical references.

The revised play offered more opportunity for dance and pantomime, and Strauss’s score reflects this. The suite contains most of the incidental music from this revised version of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, premiered in this form in 1918.

The suite is divided into nine episodes. The lively, charming—though at times off-kilter—overture remarkably captures Monsieur Jourdain’s airs and mannerisms which do not quite ring true. The next series of movements depict Jourdain in his dance and fencing lessons, as well as his wardrobe transformations, all in an attempt to raise his perceived status. The Menuet, Courante, and Entrance of Cléonte movements all adapt music written by Lully for the original 17th-century performance of the play. Jourdain’s daughter Lucille and Cléonte are in love, but Jourdain refuses to grant them permission to marry, hoping to have Lucille marry into the aristocracy. The Intermezzo sets up the second act, when the various parties attempt to manipulate Jourdain to their individual ends. The music culminates with the final movement, accompanying the lavish feast Jourdain has arranged to impress his aristocratic guests. Strauss has some fun with this banquet, musically referencing the mouton with a bleating sheep (from his Don Quixote score), the Rhine salmon with snippets of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and the thrushes and larks with birdsong from his Der Rosenkavalier.


Program notes by Jon Kochavi