The Individual and the Masses
Works by Richard Strauss, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner
In the beginning, there was Beethoven. The pre-eminence of his oeuvre was already recognized in the early 19th century, compelling his successors, like it or not, to measure their own works by his standard. This led two of them, Franz Liszt and his son-in-law Richard Wagner, two years Liszt’s junior, to highly contrasted outcomes: the symphonic poem for the former, music drama for the latter – but both forms cultivated in the service of a philosophically grounded musical art. Finally, at the turn of the 20th century, Richard Strauss pursued both of these two trends within a comprehensive output that placed the symphonic poem on an equal footing with various forms of music theatre.
Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss
Strauss needed to follow various detours before arriving at the style that in 1890 took shape in his tone poem Macbeth: “New ideas must develop new forms for themselves: the basic principle that Liszt adopted for his symphonic works, in which the poetic idea also functions as the structuring element, then became the guiding principle for my own symphonic works.” Shortly afterwards, on a journey, he encountered Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: “When I became familiar with Nietzsche’s work while in Egypt, its polemic against the Christian religion was especially close to my heart, confirming and reinforcing the subconscious antipathy I had felt since my 15th year towards this religion which relieves the faithful of their own responsibility for all their actions (by means of the confession).”
Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, “freely based on Nietzsche”, which was sketched in 1894 and completed two years later, begins with a coup de théâtre, monumental and arresting: the sun rises in music symbolizing the Creation, as the primal note C is divested of its innocence and taken first into a minor, then into a searing major chord, which, after triumphal affirmation, quickly makes way for the “Backworldsmen” or “Afterworldly”. The type of edifice in which they reside is made clear by Strauss in a Gregorian melody on the horns, for whom he even writes out the text in the score: “credo in unum deum”. A bit later, the word “Magnificat” is entered in the organ part before “Joys and Passions” are represented with an appropriate surge of intensity.
The high point of Strauss’s musical polemic is the section that sends up “Science”, or erudition. An academic discussion unfolds in several keys and considers all aspects as Strauss develops the introductory primal interval C-G into a complex fugal subject containing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. In modified form, this theme also appears in “The Convalescent”, who is forced, as it were, to swallow it whole in order to be discharged as healed.
Strauss was fascinated by Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch (Superhuman) and its celebration of individualism and the struggle against mediocrity, but there is a derisive undertone in his musical treatment that cannot be ignored. In the “Dance Song”, Strauss invites the Übermensch to a Viennese waltz, which is difficult to associate with Nietzsche’s vision of the Persian mystic. And he foils the perfectly established B major that has emerged as the tonal goal of his entire work with a parting shot: the primal interval C-G resurfaces several times, delicately unsettling the tonality and finally taken to absurdity when the tone poem is ended by disconnected C pizzicati.
The First Piano Concerto by Franz Liszt
“In the evening, conversation about my father’s works; R. very concerned about the turn his intellect has taken... deplores the tiresome apotheosis fad and the use of the triangle”, noted Cosima Wagner in 1869 in her diary, one of the documents revealing the thorny relationship between “R.” Wagner and his father-in-law Franz Liszt. The “use of the triangle” reaches its peak in Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, which provides the little percussion instrument with a grand appearance. Critic Eduard Hanslick caricatured it as the “Triangle Concerto”, and even Liszt acknowledged: “As regards the triangle, I don’t deny that it may give offence if struck too strongly and not precisely.” Ironically, Liszt’s model here was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the finale of which adds to the orchestra not only a chorus but also a triangle.
It is surprising that the orchestration of a solo concerto at this time should have been a subject for discussion: many examples of the genre were completely tailored to virtuosos, accompanied by a more or less interesting background orchestra. Liszt’s were quite different. Although, as an idolized pianistic genius, he could have made things easier for himself, he spent a long time polishing the writing in his two big piano concertos. He began sketching them both in the 1830s but then continued to work on them for more than two decades, thus casting doubt on the widespread belief that the First Concerto represents no more than a showpiece for “eminent keyboard stallions” (to borrow an image from German comedian Heinz Erhardt): for each of its dazzling breakneck passages the work also offers an antithesis, for example, the splendid chamber music Liszt has written in a duet for piano and clarinet in the first movement. In the Quasi adagio that follows, the piano first accompanies itself in an unadorned “song without words” in B major, then supports the woodwind with a long chain of trills before the capricious, triangle-glistened finale runs its course in several surges.
The Rienzi Overture by Richard Wagner
The young Richard Wagner was also preoccupied with classical instrumental music before he set out on his long march through the institutions and genres of music theatre. In his first three stage works (not part of the Bayreuth canon), he explored the key operatic forms of his time. These were essential way stations leading him to music drama. Die Feen reflected early Romantic German opera, while Das Liebesverbot followed Italian and French models. Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen, finally, was a reaction to the development of French grand opéra, with mass scenes, ballet insertions, even a trousers role.
Wagner confronted the differentiated masterworks of that genre such as Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots with a colossus that in certain respects still needed some fine-tuning, and even by grand opéra standards, Rienzi’s playing time of six hours was too long. For the libretto, he drew on the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes. The five-act opera takes us back to medieval Rome – abandoned by the popes and terrorized by two noble families, who are promptly able to put aside their sworn enmity to unify against the plebeians.
The papal notary Cola Rienzi (Cola di Rienzo) seeks to break the power of these families and restore freedom and greatness to the people. At the end, however, he is buried in the burning Capitol because of his inability to overcome his delusions of grandeur and his vacillation, and because, apart from bombastic slogans and simplistic solutions, he has little else to offer.
Wagner’s D major overture assembles the most striking themes of this “grand tragic opera” into an effective potpourri: the solitary trumpet call acts as a signal to restore freedom to the “sons of Rome”; the lyrical theme presages Rienzi’s prayer in the fifth act; the jaunty march symbolizes the illusory jubilation of the masses in the second act.