Born in Cornwall, Ontario, Louise-Andrée Baril obtained a master’s degree in piano at the University of Montreal in 1983. She then went on to study with Maria Curçio in London, England, and attended [...]
They spoke about it
Richard Strauss was born in 1864, the year before Richard Wagner composed Tristan and Isolde, and was active until his death at the age of 85 in 1949, the year after Pierre Boulez composed Soleil des eaux. Strauss thus lived though a long period of both social and artistic upheaval. He witnessed both world wars and, in music, the radical challenge of the entire tonal tradition by the triumvirate of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. But Strauss did not succumb to such disillusionment, developing instead in his symphonic poems and monumental operas a lyric sensuousness and lush orchestration that made him the last of the great romantics.
Throughout his life, however, Richard Strauss cultivated the lied in addition to his large-scale works. His very first piece, “Weihnachtslied,” composed at the age of 6, and his very last, “Malvern,” written nearly 80 years later, are both lieder for voice and piano. Between them lie a substantial corpus of songs—some two-hundred in all—that can be split into three periods.
By the time he reached the age of 20, Strauss had already written forty-odd songs. Though barely stretching the aesthetic limits set out by his father and mentor—a musician who swore by the classics or at most early romantics such as Schubert or Mendelssohn—these pieces nevertheless reveal a certain Brahmsian influence. But when, in the early 1880s, young Strauss discovered in Wagner his true spiritual father, a profound metamorphosis took place. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, the compelling melodic style for which Strauss became renowned started to take flight in all its dizzying, ornate glory, winging its way toward a harmonic language that would continuously push the expressive boundaries of tonality. “Rote Rosen,” which dates from 1883, marks the end of this first period.
Over the next two decades, in parallel with the series of great symphonic poems that started in 1885 with Aus Italian, Strauss also composed a hundred other songs, most published in some twenty collections. The first of these, Opus 10, comprised songs on eight poems taken from Letzte Blätter by a certain Hermann von Glim. Often criticized for not choosing the best poets, Strauss’s reply was that “a perfect Goethe poem doesn’t need any music; precisely in the case of Goethe, music weakens and flattens out the word.” Instead, Strauss felt that certain lesser works, though not lacking in charm, could nevertheless benefit from the addition of music to intensify their meaning. In the four poems of Opus 22 by Felix Dahn, a well-known historian and academic who published some twenty collections of poetry in addition to his scholarly works, he praises the virtues of four young women, making abundant use of floral metaphors and an assumed sentimentality. Perhaps Strauss recognized in this cycle, entitled Mädchenblumen, an echo of the mythical “flower maidens” in Wagner’s Parsifal.
But his predilection for the works of lesser poets did not prevent Strauss from taking on classics by poets such as Klopstock (Op. 36, no. 1) or Bürger (Op. 43 no. 2) from time to time, nor, at the urging of his friend Gustav Mahler, popular tales from the famous collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) (Op. 36, nos. 2 & 3). He also took an interest in contemporary authors, among them Richard Dehmel, the author of “Weigenlied” (Op. 41, no. 1 ), is today considered an important precursor of the Expressionists. Indeed, Arnold Schoenberg in 1899 used one of Dehmel’s major poems as the basis for one of this movement’s musical masterworks, Transfigured Night.
After the success of Salome in 1905, Strauss directed most of his energies toward opera, which, combined with an estrangement in 1906 from the publisher of his lieder, kept him away from the genre for a dozen years.
By the time he returned to the lied in 1918, his approach to text had been transformed by his experience with opera and his association with men of letters like librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal, who led him to deeply examine the motivations, either explicit or secret, of the characters whose words and actions he set to music. In the three decades preceding his death, Strauss contributed another 50 gems to the lieder genre, works set to texts of more important poets, including Goethe, but also von Arnim (Op. 69) and Brentano (Op. 68). He even dared to set Shakespeare, composing music for the famous ballads sung by Ophelia when she falls into madness after her harsh treatment by Hamlet and after learning that he killed her father (Op. 67, nos. 1, 2 & 3).
In addition to some 200 lieder for voice and piano, Strauss set sixty or so with rich orchestral accompaniment, some being original works and others arrangements of his songs with piano accompaniment. Thus did the genre popularized by Schubert enjoy a magnificent finale that lasted until the middle of the 20th century.
© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen