RICHARD STRAUS: Le bourgeois gentilhomme, op. 60

Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on September 8, 1949. The Bourgeois gentilhomme suite is the last of a series of reworkings from the music that he had composed for a theatrical evening designed by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with limited success, as detailed below. Owing to the multiple versions, the present suite took from 1915 to 1919 to put into its final shape. Strauss conducted the first performance in Salzburg on January 31, 1920. The score calls for two flutes (both doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), two horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, bass drum and cymbal, cymbals, glockenspiel, harp, piano, and strings (specified as six first violins, no seconds, four violas, four cellos, and two basses).

Following the extraordinary success of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss had to face the question of what he could write next that would not be an anticlimax. Rosenkavalier had been his second successful collaboration with the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and it was a foregone conclusion that the two would work together again. But in what kind of project?

What turned out to be their next project grew out of a desire on the part of both men to provide a way of thanking the behind-the-scenes director of Rosenkavalier, Max Reinhardt, though the official credit went to someone else. So they conceived the idea of preparing a lively and entertaining piece for Reinhardt’s theater company in Berlin. Eventually this turned into Hofmannsthal’s German version of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, in which the closing scene (an irrelevant Turkish ceremony) would be turned into something musical. The musical pendant was Strauss’s version (with Hofmannsthal’s libretto) of the story of Ariadne, the princess of Crete who had helped Theseus slay the Minotaur and escape from the Labyrinth, only to be deserted by him on the island of Naxos, from which she was rescued by Dionysus. The two artists ended up reworking this material in various ways—and no fewer than four different, but related, works—that led to the music that you’ll hear in this concert.

The first work, produced in Stuttgart in 1912, was one of those odd mixtures that leaves everyone dissatisfied. The first half of the evening was Molière’s spoken comedy (in a German adaptation); the last half Strauss’s opera. Theater people thought the opera took too much attention away from the play; opera buffs hated to have to sit through a play before the singing started. Moreover it was impractical and expensive, since a producer had to hire both a theater company and an opera company to put it on!

Hofmannsthal’s solution was to separate the two parts, expanding each one into a full evening’s work. That led to the second work—the one we know today as Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, in which the spoken drama was replaced by a musical prologue about the backstage preparations for the opera. This was completed and performed in 1916.

That left the German version of Molière’s play, the third work, for which Strauss contributed a score of incidental music. Some of this music had already appeared in the first work, but Strauss expanded it, drawing in part from music by the seventeenth-century composer Lully (who had actually worked with Molière on the music for the original production), as well as writing more music of his own.

And because incidental music is almost never heard except when the play is actually performed, Strauss chose to prepare a concert suite by drawing together nine musical numbers from the score he composed for the play—thus producing the fourth related work, the suite you are about to hear.

The “Overture” was actually the Overture to the original Ariadne production of 1912. It is a modern pastiche of Baroque musical gestures, designed to characterize M. Jourdain, the title character, a wealthy bourgeois who believes his riches can elevate him to the status of gentleman—for which he lacks both taste and education.

The “Minuet” accompanies Monsieur Jourdain’s attempts to learn this elegant court dance. Strauss has drawn upon music composed in 1901 for an abortive ballet based on Watteau's painting, The Embarkation for Cythera.

Strauss’s ability to characterize the flamboyant energy of “The Fencing-Master” is wittily evident.

“The Entrance and Dance of the Tailors” offers a gavotte for the entrance of the tailors, followed by a polonaise.

“The Minuet of Lully” is actually a number that Lully wrote for the original production of Molière’s play in 1670, here adapted by Strauss.

The “Courant” was newly added to the score for the revision of 1918.

“The Entrance of Cléonte” draws upon two passages from Lully: first a sarabande composed for Molière’s George Dandin, then as the contrasting middle section a dance featuring the woodwinds (punctuated by a triangle) drawn from the 1670 score for Le bourgeois gentilhomme.

The “Prelude to Act II” also appeared in the 1912 work, the original Ariadne opera.

“The Dinner” is filled with musical in-jokes. It begins with an entrance march for the guests, and a series of courses identified musically and followed by the opportunity for some (musical) conversation: The fish is salmon (a quotation from Wagner’s Ring tells us that it must have been caught in the Rhine). The meat is mutton (the sheep from Strauss’s own Don Quixote). A lovely meditation for cello follows, perhaps for no better reason than that thinking of Don Quixote brought made Strauss think of the instrument featured in that score. Roasted songbirds are identified partly by the larks heard at the beginning of Rosenkavalier (and, for some strange reason, Verdi’s “La donna è mobile”). Finally an omelette surprise is marked by the sudden arrival of a kitchen lad who performs a lively, suggestive waltz, though Strauss’s music is filled with simple joie de vivre. —© S. L.