“With Beethoven, sonata means instrumental poetry”
Symphonic Music by Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Strauss
Some places have a magic that is difficult to explain, as though a spirit were secretly at work there, inspiring people to thoughts and actions. There was such a local spirit in the southern Thuringian city of Meiningen, in the person of Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. When he succeeded his father in 1866 Georg also assumed responsibility for the Meiningen court theatre, whose ensemble he led for almost fifty years, establishing its international reputation with outstanding performances and European tours.
What Georg had accomplished with his actors he also wanted to achieve with his court orchestra. He saw that the moment had come in 1880: Hans von Bülow accepted his invitation to become the new music director of the orchestra. The Duke and the musician shared the goal of building an orchestra that would be able to give works the interpretations they deserved, and they were also in agreement about how that could be achieved, namely with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. In a programmatic letter to his future employer Bülow presented his plan in a broader context: “I belong to the Meiningen School, so to speak; I have made a point, partly instinctively, partly intentionally, of emphasizing the Meiningen principles in my main sphere ... In my opinion, a Beethoven symphony is a drama for the listening imagination.”
Originality from the first moment: Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony
What Richard Strauss later observed about himself was already true of Beethoven: that he had reinvented the genre with every work. The originality is apparent from the first moment of the slow introduction in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. An oboe melody grows out of the opening orchestral chord and in the fourth bar already suggests a rhythmic motif that runs through the entire work in several variants. During the subtle transition to the fast section, a compelling force develops which is so far-reaching that no real contrasting second theme emerges. The second movement – with a theme that builds up layer by layer in a kind of variation form, interrupted twice by a gentle, comforting second theme – pleased the audience so much at the premiere in 1813 that it had to be repeated immediately.
The scherzo is in the remote key of F major: the first joke that Beethoven indulges in during this movement. The second trick is the fact that the trio switches to the home key of A major without advance warning. The final prank comes at the close: here the composer feints another repetition of the trio, then slams the lid down with five orchestral blows. The finale takes up these blows and throws itself into an allegro frenzy whose “con brio” marking is to be understood literally. The theme hurls the notes around the listeners’ ears, the rhythm dominates everything, and the melodies, almost like fragments in their breathlessness, are swept away by the propulsive energy.
During the fifth (and last) year of his tenure in Meiningen, 1885/1886, Bülow lost his assistant: Franz Mannstädt was appointed conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in spring of 1885. As his successor Bülow chose a musician who was barely 20 years old: Richard Strauss. This appointment was a turning point in the career of the young Munich native. Although he had no previous practical conducting experience, within a short time he became one of the most important conductors of his generation. Years later he said that “Bülow trained me as a conductor in his and Wagner’s spirit”. Bülow’s influence extended far beyond conducting techniques, however. As a composer who had not yet found his own voice, Strauss underwent what was probably the most fundamental change in his musical-aesthetic thinking in Meiningen – with Beethoven, above all, as his example. In Bülow’s interpretations, Strauss wrote, “the full light of Beethoven’s sun shone on me for the first time in my life”. This realization had a great deal to do with Bülow’s conviction that “with Beethoven, sonata means instrumental poetry”. Both ideas became essential aspects of Strauss’s music. Each of his works is a confrontation with the question of how sonata form can be reconciled with musical narrative.
The first high point: Straussʼs Don Juan
Although Strauss’s first tone poem, Macbeth, which he began in Meiningen and completed soon after he left, was a critical success, the second tone poem was his breakthrough. Paul Heyse’s drama Don Juan’s End,in particular, had inspired him to compose Don Juan. As an explanatory hint, however, he prefaced the score with several lines from Nikolaus Lenau’s “dramatic scenes” of the same name: the life philosophy of a man who is always in search of new excitement, who is only stimulated by constant change, until at the end the “fuel is consumed” and does not even resist being extinguished. But how could this subject matter be depicted in sonata form? Strauss resorted to a trick. After the soaring Don Juan theme and a second theme representing one of Juan’s love episodes, along with another exposition in which a captivating seduction theme played by the oboe is heard instead of a love episode, he introduces a third theme, the “heroic theme”. After the development section, with a masked ball and disillusionment (the composer called it the “hangover passage”), he substitutes this heroic theme for the second theme during the recapitulation, thus presenting only two facets of the character rather than a final convergence of thematic contrasts: the hero becomes a narcissist admiring himself in a mirror, and his boredom with the turmoil of the world ends in a death wish. Don Juan gives up, throws down his sword during the final duel with his adversary, is fatally wounded, and his soul slips away in a harp glissando.
Perfection in a magnificent guise: Tod und Verklärung
After his year in Meiningen, Strauss returned to Munich as third conductor in 1886. There he made a draft of the tone poem Tod und Verklärung(Death and Transfiguration). He completed work on the condensed score in spring of 1889, before spending the summer in Bayreuth as musical assistant. The following season he went to Weimar as musical director to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, where he finished the fair copy of the score on 18 November 1889.
The gestural nature of Strauss’s music can heard with graphic clarity in Tod und Verklärung: the shallow breathing of the sick man and the irregular beating of his weakened heart, depicted by an identical rhythmic motif in the muted middle strings and timpani, the moaning of the sick man in a typical “sighing motif”, the struggle of the pain-wracked body, with upbeat motifs of the orchestra in a sudden fortissimo. The deliberate arrangement of the themes is apparent in the details, for example, when the approach of death in the fast section retains the rhythmic structure of the pulse beat from the opening but takes on a completely different character with the new tempo. The moment at which the soul leaves the body is also precisely captured in the music. It is a brief run in thirds, accelerating from quaver triplets to semiquavers and semiquaver quintuplets, ending abruptly in a tonal vacuum; only a pedal point on low C can be heard. Gradually this soundscape is again filled with the earlier childhood theme until the crucial turning point is reached. The actual main theme of the work is not heard until towards the end of the first third of the score: symbolic of the ideal which does not fully reveal itself to the artist until death.