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ClassicsOnline Home » STRAUSS, R.: Don Juan / Till Eulenspiegel / Also Sprach Zarathustra
Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20
Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op. 28
(Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss represents a remarkable extension of the work of Liszt and Wagner in the symphonic poems of his early career and in his operas shows an equally remarkable use of late romantic orchestral idiom often within an almost Mozartian framework. Born in Munich, the son of a distinguished horn-player and his second wife, a member of a rich brewing family, he had a sound general education at the Ludwigsgyrnnasium in Munich, while undertaking musical studies under teachers of some distinction. Before he left school in 1882 he had already enjoyed some success as a composer, continued during his brief period at Munich University, with the composition of a Violin Concerto, a Horn Concerto and a Cello Sonata. By the age of twenty-one he had been appointed assistant conductor to the well known orchestra at Meiningen under Hans von Billow, whom he succeeded in the same year.
In 1886 Strauss resigned from Meiningen and began the series of tone-poems that seemed to extend to the utmost limit the extra-musical content of the form. Aus Italien was followed by Macbeth, Don Juan, Tod und Verkliirung, and, after a gap of a few years, Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben. Meanwhile Strauss was establishing himself as a conductor of high reputation, directing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for a season and taking appointments at Munich and then at the opera in Berlin, where he later was conductor of the Court Orchestra.
The new century brought a renewed attention to the composition of opera, a medium in which he had not initially been particularly successful. The first performance of salome in Dresden in 1905 was followed in 1909 by Elektra in the same city, with a libretto by the writer with whom he was to enjoy a fruitful collaboration, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. Der Rosenkavalier, a romantic opera in the world of Mozart, was staged at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1911, followed by ten further operas, ending only with Capriccio, staged at the Staatsoper in Munich in 1942.
It was unfortunate that Strauss, in common with certain other musicians of the greatest distinction, was compromised by association with the National Socialist Government that came to power in Germany in 1933. His acquiescence, when given the position of president of the German Reichsmusikkammer and his ingenuous willingness to take the place of Bruno Walter at a Berlin concert, when Walter had been obliged to withdraw after threats of officially inspired disorder, and of Toscanini, who had withdrawn from projected performances in Bayreuth in voluntary protest at anti-Semitic National Socialist policies in Germany, were remembered. The fact that his daughter-in-law was Jewish and that she and her grandchildren had to be protected may have influenced the course of apparent complaisance that he chose to take, a course that brought its own difficulties in 1945, when he withdrew for a time to Switzerland, to return to his house at Garmisch only in May 1949, four months before his death. There were at the time many who put a much less charitable interpretation on his behaviour, Klemperer claiming that Strauss remained in Germany, instead of choosing American exile like Thomas Mann, because in Germany there were fifty-six opera-houses and in America only two.
The symphonic poem Don Juan takes for its hero not so much the figure dramatised by Tirso de Molina in the seventeenth century or of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte in the eighteenth as Lenau's hero, a man of very different character, an introspective lover of beauty, who avoids satiety and boredom, the blunting of his taste, by constant change. This first important essay by Strauss in the form of the symphonic poem was written in 1888.
Lenau's Don Juan, published posthumously in 1851, is incomplete, but records the amorous exploits of its hero and his final disillusionment, after which he allows himself to be killed by the son of the man he has murdered, father of a woman he had wronged, the Commendatore of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. The theme that represents Don Juan himself, a motif that is to recur, is easily identifiable. Attempts to suggest precise episodes in the hero's amatory career with the secondary themes is possibly beyond the composer's original intentions, which seem to have been of a more general kind. The work is, in fact, no naïve piece of programme music, although three of the Don's conquests seem to make their appearance, to be recalled after a carnival scene. The final death of the protagonist takes place at night in a churchyard, a moment for him of final resignation.
The symphonic poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks) is based on some of the adventures of the legendary anti-authoritarian Eulenspiegel - Owlglass or Howleglass in the sixteenth century English version of the German publication of 1519. Eulenspiegel, a peasant born allegedly in 1300, here uses an assumed simplicity to deflate authority of every kind, an activity for which he receives a just reward. The orchestral work by Strauss was completed in 1895.
The first episode in the symphonic poem, itself in something of the form of a rondo, is Eulenspiegel's mad ride through the market, the second Eulenspiegel theme appearing loudly in the strings as the market-women scatter. The opening figure of the theme shows him escaping in seven-league boots and, after a pause, hiding in a mouse-hole. He appears in the guise of a priest, but is seized by foreboding at his own sacrilegious temerity, a solo violin glissando leading him into flirtation. When he is jilted, he reacts in a characteristically impudent way, and then poses impossible problems to a group of pedants, represented here by four bassoons and a bass clarinet, revealing himself and his motives to their discomfiture. There is a street-song, as Till goes on his way, but reflection leads to more outrageous behaviour and to a sentence of death. Till is hanged, with dramatic musical realism, the composer closing the tale with an epilogue that matches the brief introduction with which the story had begun.
Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spoke Zarathustra), a tone poem after Friedrich Nietzsche, was written in 1896, during the period Strauss spent as conductor at the opera in his native city of Munich. It is based on the rhapsodic expression of Nietzsche's highly personal philosophy, finally published in 1892, in which Christian virtues are rejected in favour of the power of the Superman (Obermensch), a concept that with his notions of die blonde Bestie, Herrenmoral and Christian Sklavenmoral, proved useful to later political extremists.
Zarathustra, a mouthpiece for Nietzsche, took himself to the mountains, staying there for ten years in solitude. Then, one morning, he arose and addressed the Sun, seeking his blessing, as he proposes to descend once more among men to impart to them his wisdom, setting as the Sun sets and pouring out to mankind his accumulated understanding.
Strauss makes use of an unusually large orchestra, deployed in the most varied way, while there is a tonal ambiguity that remains to the final bars. The work opens with the rising of the sun and emergent nature, over a note sustained by double basses, organ and double bassoon. The climax of the rising sun is followed by Von den Hinterweltlern, the inhabitants of the unseen world, a mysterious theme, leading to the sound of the Credo and song of faith, scored for strings and organ. The great longing brings together a theme of yearning, briefly touched on before, and the nature theme, the Credo, and now, from the organ, the Magnificat. This material, with a stormier element, leads to a passage Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften. Das Grablied, employs two of the preceding motifs and leads, in the section Von den Wissenschaften, to a fugue, its development interrupted by the appearance of another, triumphant theme, and resuming with a motif representing satiety. These motifs and the fugue combine in the convalescent, Der Genesende. The dance-song brings together the earlier motifs, dwindling to the night-song, a preparation for the song of the night-wanderer. The final epilogue leaves unresolved the conflict of tonality and the conflict of nature and spirit.
The complex process of the tone poem takes Zarathustra from the splendour of sunrise through a rejection of those who look to the past, to longing, joys and passions. He turns from satiety and despair, in the funeral song, and finds no comfort in science. Falling as one dead, he is revived and finds joy in the dance of laughter, in which all human aspirations may be combined. Night comes and the song of the watcher, as midnight renews its eternal enigma.
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra has benefited considerably from the work of its distinguished conductors. These include Vaclav Talich (1949 -1952), Ludovit Rajter, Ladislav Slovak and Libor Pesek. Zdenek Kosler has also had a long and distinguished association with the orchestra and has conducted many of its most successful recordings, among them the complete symphonies of Dvorak.
The Czech conductor Zdenek Kosler studied under Karel Ancerl at the Prague Academy of Arts, and distinguished himself early in his career at the Besançon Conductors' Competition and in the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition in New York. The first prize in the second of these enabled him to work as assistant-conductor with Leonard Bernstein for one year.
In Czecho-Slovakia Kosler began as conductor of the Prague opera ensemble, before becoming chief conductor and music director of the opera in Olomouc and Ostrava. He spent a short time as permanent conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, before moving to Berlin, where he was appointed Music Director of the Komische Oper in 1965. In 1971 he became chief conductor of the Slovak National Theatre Opera, undertaking engagements at the same time with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, and conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague, in addition to guest appearances with major orchestras abroad, in Europe, Canada and the Far East.
As permanent conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Zdenek Kosler travelled widely. From 1980 until 1985 he was chief conductor and artistic director of the Prague National Theatre Opera to which he returned as chief conductor in 1990. He received the highest national honour, the title National Artist, from the Czecho-Slovakian government, while winning awards abroad for his recordings.
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STRAUSS, R.: Don Juan / Till Eulenspiegel / Also S...