RICHARD STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), op. 40

Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on September 8, 1949. He started to sketch Ein Heldenleben in the spring of 1897 and completed the score on December 1, 1898. One December 23 he began to rewrite the ending and composed what are now the final measures, the date of the definite completion being December 27, 1898. Strauss himself conducted the premiere at a Frankfurt Museum concert on March 3, 1899. The score calls for three flutes and piccolo, four oboes (the fourth doubling English horn), high clarinet in E-flat, two clarinets in B-flat, bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, eight horns, five trumpets, three trombones, tenor tuba, bass tuba, timpani, tam-tam, cymbals, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, two harps, and strings, including a prominent part for solo violin.

Ever since Beethoven sent his Third Symphony into the world, the key of E-flat has been recognized, at least by the musically sensitive in nineteenth-century Germany, as a key of heroism. For Beethoven, of course, the protagonist of his “heroic” symphony was Napoleon, a colossus on the European stage of his day concerning whom Beethoven held contradictory feelings. The connection between tonality and was strengthened when Wagner put important passages of his Ring of the Nibelung relating to affect Siegfried at his most heroic also in the key of E-flat. At the end of the century, Richard Strauss composed a large symphonic work in the same key with a title that is usually translated “A Hero’s Life,” though it could equally well mean “A Heroic Life”—a slightly different thing.

Who was the hero thus celebrated? Strauss offered two particular hints. First, the section depicting “The Hero’s Companion” he identified explicitly to critic Romain Rolland as a musical portrait of his wife Pauline. Even more telling is “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” which consists of a remarkable web of quotations from his own earlier compositions. Is Strauss calling himself a hero? To his publisher he once commented, “I didn’t engage in any battles,” as the musical hero must do. But if he is thinking of the Artist as Hero, which is entirely likely, the battles are metaphorical anyway, and the hero’s “works of peace” would be samples of his art.

The identification of the Hero with Strauss himself was scandalous when the work was new. It has often been taken to express arrogance on the composer’s part, and A Hero’s Life has been critically downgraded accordingly. But Strauss, though fully aware of his extraordinary technical abilities, was a man of rather easygoing character and not one to push himself forward unduly. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor, which shows through in his music. So in making himself the hero of his own work, Strauss is following a tradition of the Romantic era, and he does it with music that is by turns gloriously rich, captivating, and even witty. His Hero, the Artist, combats the forces of petty philistinism, accomplishes his work, and retires from the world into contemplation (something that Strauss himself never did). Rather than considering the work an act of self-glorification, we can with perhaps equal justification regard it as Strauss’s general views on the heroic with illustrations from the world he knew best.

A Hero’s Life was the last in a close-paced group of tone poems with which Strauss astonished the world, beginning (after some less interesting youthful attempts) with Don Juan, completed in September 1888, which revitalized the genre of the tone poem and linked Strauss with all that was modern in the music of his day. It was followed in rapid succession by Death and Transfiguration (1889), a revised version of his earlier Macbeth in 1891, then (after time out to compose his first opera) Till Eulenspiegel in 1895, Thus spake Zarathustra in 1896, Don Quixote in 1897, and A Hero’s Life in 1898. After a break of several years he wrote two more—the Symphonia Domestica in 1904 and the Alpine Symphony in 1914—but by then his heart had been captivated totally by the stage.

Like many composers he was ambivalent about literary programs for music. Ideally the listener does not need such an aid—but if it helps in projecting a work more clearly into the listener’s mind, especially at first hearing, then why not? In 1906 Strauss wrote to Rolland to explain this point of view.

For me, the poetic program is nothing more than the formative stimulus both for the expression and the purely musical development of my feelings, not, as you think, a mere musical description of certain of life's events. That, after all, would be completely against the spirit of music. But for music not to lose itself in total arbitrariness or dissolve somehow into the boundless, it has need of certain boundaries, and a program can provide such bounds.

The outline of the traditional program is useful as a rough guide to the unfolding of the music over three-quarters of an hour. The splendid, grandiose opening introduces “The Hero,” with a soaring melody (one of the widest-ranging themes ever composed, spanning some three octaves in the first few measures) in the horns and lower strings and a sumptuous orchestral sound. This is developed at some length, only be to interrupted by a sudden pause and music of a totally different kind—fussy, niggling, filled with petty detail. Here we have “The Hero’s Critics”; the woodwinds are directed to play “very sharply and pointedly,” the oboe “rasping.” Two tubas quietly intone a figure of parallel fifths, a fundamental academic error, suggesting that the only thing the critics have on their minds is to catch the artist out in such solecisms. The Hero’s theme returns, somewhat muted by the criticism, but builds to new energy.

Suddenly the Hero is brought up short by the appearance of a solo violin, representing “The Hero’s Companion.” There is little question that Strauss deeply loved Pauline, despite her rather shrewish personality. At one point the easy-going composer admitted to a friend that her nagging behavior was “good for me.” In this passage, with the solo violin in the leading role, he depicts Pauline in all her aspects (performance directions include such non-musical terms as “hypocritically languishing,” “frivolously,” “tenderly,” “arrogantly,” “amiably,” “naggingly,” and “lovingly”). The Hero is drawn into a passionate love scene as sensuous as only Strauss can make it. (The critics can be heard distantly as the scene ends, but they seem to have little effect on the Hero’s mood.)

Three offstage trumpets summon the Hero to battle. He prepares himself and heads into “The Battlefield.” The tattoo of a military drum unmistakably identifies the struggle, which rages at length until the Hero emerges as victor. Strauss signals this moment by a glorious recapitulation of the Hero’s theme from the opening, now sounded resplendently in the full orchestra. A moment’s pause allows the critics (those tubas, with their single-minded focus on the parallel fifth) to complain, but the Strauss is now ready to embark on “The Hero’s Works of Peace.” Michael Kennedy has identified nearly two dozen passages from Strauss’s earlier works woven into the glowing orchestral fabric, including themes from most of his earlier tone poems, some of his songs, and his opera, Guntram. Listeners will surely recognize some, though probably not all, of these themes, so intricately do they intertwine.

A long pause, followed by the tuba “critics” and a quick, petulant outburst from the Hero, leads to “The Hero’s Escape from the World and Consummation.” This passage is strikingly similar to Don Quixote’s return home, composed a year earlier, in the steady pulsing heartbeat of the timpani that underlies the transition from an active life to “retirement,” evidently—to judge from the English horn call—in an alpine environment. He recalls the past, the battles and the love, before Strauss closed the work in a wonderfully serene and glowing passage.

Soon after writing the double bar line to end the score, Strauss reconsidered. Possibly persuaded by a friend, who supposedly insisted that so many of his tone poems ended quietly that it appeared to be the only way he knew how to close a piece, Strauss added a few more measures to give his Hero a final fortissimo gesture before the end. –© Steven Ledbetter