Marriage Actually

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Marriage Actually, performed on October 15, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

The musical language of late Romanticism, its rhetoric and vocabulary, were inspired in part by the 19th century’s fascination with what music as an art form could accomplish relative to other art forms. The 19th century witnessed the development of the realist novel and of historical and genre painting; art was being used to evoke idealized versions of an imagined past, a threatened present, and real and familiar objects and events. It was inevitable that the nature of music would be interrogated with a view to finding out whether music too could weave its own illusions of realism, tell a story, and communicate emotions. Could music be used as a form of narrative, or were its beauty and content simply formal in character? Could music actually illustrate or portray something, or was it purely an abstract art form?

These philosophical musings occupied the first generation of Romantic composers, particularly Mendelssohn and Schumann. Mendelssohn famously argued counter-intuitively that music was more “precise” than language. These issues became contentious in the 1850s and 1860s as a rift grew between the defenders of the formalist traditions of the 18th century and the practitioners of “program” music, composers who rejected forms such as the quartet and traditional symphony in favor of instrumental “tone poems” with literary titles, and, predictably, music with words, notably opera. Liszt and Wagner, the leaders of the “New German” school, were characterized by the formalists as debasers of the high art of music, apostates who abandoned the unique formal possibilities of music and turned it into a cheapened illustrative medium.

But this division was more ambiguous than it appears. Wagner’s grandiose theatrical ambitions inspired him to use repetition and musical signature motives to generate a clear narrative arc in his music. But at the same time, Wagner’s love of myth and philosophical pretentions led him to ascribe a metaphysical dimension to his music, idealist properties beyond its purely descriptive function. In this sense he was much closer to Mendelssohn and Brahms in his recognition of the special power of music than the surface of the conflict suggests. And Mendelssohn and Brahms, for their part, may have worked within the traditional framework of forms such as chamber music and symphony, but they had no doubt as to the collective emotional power of music, which worked by evoking musings and memories, sensations and experiences, just as poetry and painting did.

Of the composers of the generation after Wagner and Brahms, Richard Strauss was the most representative of a synthesis of the two opposing camps. Strauss was, for a composer, among the most sophisticated of readers and the keenest of observers. Influenced by Nietzsche, he had little use for religion. As much as he admired Wagner, he eventually became disenchanted by Wagner’s mythic and philosophical claims on behalf of music. Strauss was suspicious of grandiose metaphysical and political dreams, in which music was required to play a role, though at the same time, he was never in doubt about the power of the Classical and Romantic traditions to depict and illuminate the human experience.

Strauss began his career as a young composer sympathetic to Brahms. He then turned to opera and embraced the Wagnerian. But ultimately the composer he most revered throughout his career was Mozart. Of Strauss’ contemporaries, the most distinguished was Gustav Mahler, who was, for much of his career, an avowedly confessional composer whose symphonies had specific programs, some drawn from his personal life. Tonight’s program reveals how Strauss used the personal, but, in contrast to Mahler, not in a confessional, psychological sense. The “characters” in Symphonia Domestica may be his own wife and child, but in Strauss’ hands the experience of daily life, from the quarreling to the lovemaking, are rendered believable but accessible and familiar through music to the audience; they are human archetypes built out of the detail of Strauss’ everyday life. In this sense, the predicaments that unfold in Symphonia Domestica resemble, as a source, the universal sensibilities that are evoked by Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Using a huge and highly differentiated orchestra, Strauss manipulates every sonority and technique available to a symphonic composer. A Liszt-like illustrative strategy is integrated with traditional formal procedures of thematic development, as was the case in many of Strauss’ famous tone poems. But in Symphonia Domestica Strauss reveals his sense of humor. He pokes fun at all those who seek to elevate music as an abstract, profound experience “above” the mundane. What he desires to show instead is that music, like all great art, must (in the late Arthur Danto’s words) “transfigure the commonplace” in its own way. The ordinary life of people can be the basis of art, because real human life is the only subject worth examining through art. The work contains triumph, heartbreak, love, remembrance, aspiration, and suffering within its epic proportions. Strauss makes it plain that a composer does not have to resort to gods and heroes to ascend to the height of meaning. No wonder the radical realism of Strauss’ writing in Symphonia Domestica infuriated Charles Ives, among others, who found it brash and vulgar.

Symphonia Domestica premiered in 1904 in New York during Strauss’ tour of the United States (which also permitted the photographer Edward Steichen to make a stunning portrait of the composer). It also received two performances a month later in Wanamaker’s department store in New York, which somehow seems fitting, given its domestic subject matter.

This work, one of Strauss’ last major orchestral compositions, forms the basis of tonight’s concert. When it was written, Strauss and his wife were still a youngish couple with an infant son; thus the narrative draws its episodes from the daily life of a young family. The Intermezzo interludes and the parergon were written much later, in the 1920s. By then Strauss was already regarded as an old master and possibly an outdated one. He resented this bitterly. He was shunned by a new generation of modernists because he never lost faith in tonality and in the possibilities of the grand musical tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Like Brahms before him, Strauss developed a bittersweet nostalgia about the world in which he lived. He thought of himself as a witness to a dying golden age. He came to suspect that he was the last exponent of a grand tradition.

Strauss was unusually consistent, productive and disciplined as a composer. He hated the social delusions and pretensions of “artsy” bohemian artists. He portrayed himself explicitly as an unapologetic bourgeois who was shamelessly absorbed with making money, copyrights, card playing, and his comfortable life at Garmisch. He made no apologies for his egotism and had no doubt about his own superior talent.

One aspect of his domestic life that never ceased to puzzle his friends and followers was his deep devotion to his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, whom very few people seemed to have liked. She badgered and criticized him, was imperious and thought herself socially superior to her husband, the descendent of a brewer. She was offended by Intermezzo. But something worked between them; Strauss and Pauline were married for 55 years, and she survived him by only 8 months. That Strauss was truly a family man, devoted to Pauline and to his son and daughter-in-law, there can be no doubt.

But behind this veneer of unremarkable middle class respectability—Strauss’ mask—was a perceptive and deeply solitary man whose happiest moments were not playing cards but when he was composing or reading. Strauss was the heir to Mozart, who also displayed wide contrast between his visible social self-presentation and the complexity, subtlety, and humanity audible in his music. There are indeed few composers who have written instrumental music that illuminates and penetrates the contradictions, shortcomings, and sufferings of the human condition as consistently and persuasively as the music of Strauss and Mozart.

In this concert we hear Strauss’ reflections over a twenty-year period on marriage, love, family, human frailty, and jealousy, as well as the fear of death. The music is personal and becomes personal for the listener. But it betrays no intimacies. Rather, Strauss’ personal experience inspired him to create a musical commentary on life. Through music Strauss transcends his mask by using it and pays tribute to the woman he loved and the relationship that gave him the stability to realize his genius to the fullest extent.

Richard Strauss, 4 Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Marriage Actually, performed on October 15, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born June 11, 1864 in Munich
Died September 8, 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Intermezzo composed from 1918 to 1923 and premiered on November 4, 1924 at the Dresden Semperoper, conducted by Fritz Busch
Symphonic suite compiled in 1929
Performance Time: Approximately 24 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (triangle, snare drum, cymbals), piano, harp, 24 violins, 9 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

Strauss had written his own lyrics to his first opera, Guntram, but later on always enlisted the help of professional librettists (his long collaboration with the celebrated Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal was legendary). He departed from this established practice only in Intermezzo, where he offers a portrait of himself and his wife Pauline that no other librettist could possibly have attempted. The conductor Robert Storch and his temperamental wife Christine are thinly disguised stand-ins for the Strausses. The opera was based on a true incident in the couple’s lives, when a very friendly note from a young woman, intended for another musician, was addressed to Strauss by mistake and ended up in Pauline’s hands. She was ready to file for divorce before the misunderstanding was cleared up.

Strauss approached the subject with great brio, unfailing theatrical instinct, and a linguistic virtuosity that captures the everyday speech of the Storches as well as a panoply of secondary characters. He called Intermezzo a ‟conversation piece” in music—an equivalent to comedies about domestic life in spoken theater. In a preface to the score, the composer wrote at great length about his efforts to create an expressive form of musical declamation, and he had every reason to be proud of his accomplishment. Still, he felt the need, at several important junctures in the two-act opera, to let the conversation stop and purely instrumental music take over. These instrumental interludes (intermezzi within Intermezzo) represent some of the most glorious music within the opera, and Strauss later arranged them into an orchestral suite in four movements.

The first of these, ‟Travel Excitement and Waltz Scene,” shows the maestro’s hasty departure for a series of performances, following a heated argument with his wife. To console herself in her solitude, Christine goes to a toboggan party where she meets a handsome but not very intelligent young Baron with whom she later attends a ball.

In the second movement, we see Christine sitting by herself in the living room of her large apartment. She feels slightly attracted to the Baron, yet her thoughts soon turn back to her husband whom she loves deeply, despite all appearances to the contrary. The music is effusively lyrical, with lush harmonies and lavish orchestration.

In the meantime, Storch enjoys a post-performance card game with his friends; the cheerful score even evokes the sound of the cards being shuffled. It is during this card game that Storch receives word of the unfortunate mix-up that occurred at home—a situation whose happy resolution is celebrated in the final movement of the suite.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Richard Strauss, Parergon on Symphonia Domestica

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Marriage Actually, performed on October 15, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born June 11, 1864 in Munich
Died September 8, 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Composed from 1924–25
Premiered on June 10, 1925 in Dresden by Paul Wittgenstein with the Berlin Philharmonic
Performance Time: Approximately 23 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, harp, 24 violins, 9 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, and solo piano (left hand)

In 1924, Richard Strauss received a commission from Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who lost his right arm in World War I, to compose a work for piano left hand and orchestra. The pianist, older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, came from a prominent Viennese family; their father, Karl, was a steel magnate, arts patron, and host of a salon where many of the greatest luminaries of the time, including Brahms, were regular guests. Strauss had known the Wittgenstein family before the war, and he used to play piano duets with Paul when the latter was a child.

The commission reached Strauss at a time when he had just finished his autobiographical opera Intermezzo. In the opera, Kapellmeister Storch and his wife had a young son named Franz, just as the Strausses did in real life. But the opera captures a much earlier moment in the Strausses’ lives; by 1924, Franz Strauss was a grown man. Recently married, he contracted typhus on his honeymoon in Egypt and for a while his life was in danger. Under these circumstances, Strauss’ thoughts naturally turned to his Symphonia Domestica, written two decades earlier, also inspired by his family life. Franz was a child then, and he was given a lyrical theme that, along with the themes of his parents, formed the basis of much of the work. Elements of the child’s theme, now ‟grown up,” inform the Parergon (the Greek word means ‟addendum” or ‟supplement”), which, as Strauss’ sketches attest, was based on the ideas of illness and recovery.

The conflict between those two opposite emotional poles generates the entire structure of the work, as an extensive, brooding, and chromatically complex introduction gives way to a more upbeat, faster section with a soaring, energetic theme. Yet this material is abruptly cut off and the uncertainties return with some more agitated and dissonant music. After a meditative interlude culminating in a cadenza, the woodwinds intone a peaceful song which symbolizes the simple world of the child. This hymn-like tune turns out to be a variant of the soaring theme we heard before; it returns in its original form and is given a dazzling development. The peaceful version of the theme reappears, now sounding more lyrical in a richer orchestration, before the grandiose and triumphant ending.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Richard Strauss, Symphonia Domestica

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Marriage Actually, performed on October 15, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born June 11, 1864 in Munich
Died September 8, 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Composed from 1902–03
Premiered on March 21, 1904, at Carnegie Hall with Strauss conducting the Wetzler Symphony Orchestra
Performance Time: Approximately 45 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 oboe d’amore, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 D clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 1 soprano saxophone, 1 alto saxophone, 1 baritone saxophone, 1 bass saxophone, 4 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 9 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum), 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 double basses

Fairy tales often end with the wedding of two lovers and the phrase ‟happily ever after.” We who live in the real world, however, sometimes wonder what happens after the fairy tale has ended and the hero and heroine have settled down to make a home, have children, and (we hope) lead an exemplary life.

This part of the story is usually left untold in the fairy tales, and it is surprising how few artists have chosen family life as their subject matter. Richard Strauss, married and the father of a young son himself, took up the challenge.

As an opera composer who was especially celebrated as an interpreter of Wagner’s works, Strauss must have thought a great deal about Hans Sachs’s beautiful lines from Act III of Die Meistersinger:

Mein Freund, in holder Jugendzeit,
wenn uns von mächt’gen Trieben
zum sel’gen ersten Lieben
die Brust sich schwellet hoch und weit,
ein schönes Lied zu singen
mocht’ vielen da gelingen,
der Lenz, der sang für sie.

Kam Sommer, Herbst und Winterszeit,
viel Not und Sorg im Leben,
manch ehlich Glück daneben,
Kindtauf, Geschäfte, Zwist und Streit:
denen’s dann noch will gelingen
ein schönes Lied zu singen,
seht: Meister nennt man die!

My friend, in the lovely days of youth,
when our breasts are filled
with the powerful desire
of blissful first love,
many might have succeeded
in singing a beautiful song:
spring had sung for them.

But come summer, autumn and winter,
much trouble and turmoil in life,
along with some marital happiness,
christenings, business, quarrels, and fights:
those who, then, will still be able
to sing a beautiful song,
see: they are called Masters!

It seems that in Symphonia Domestica, Strauss wanted to be the mastersinger of family life, treating it the same way he had treated more abstract literary and philosophical topics in his earlier tone poems.

The Symphonia Domestica is, in a sense, a companion piece to Strauss’ previous major work, Ein Heldenleben (‟A Hero’s Life”); the hero, instead of confronting his critics and his enemies, spends a quiet evening at home with his wife and son. In Heldenleben, the various episodes were arranged according to traditional symphonic patterns and may be seen as the primary and secondary areas, development and recapitulation of a gigantic one-movement sonata form. Symphonia Domestica follows the form of a four-movement symphony with opening movement, scherzo, adagio, and finale. But the flow of the music is never interrupted, so the work is really a single 45-minute-long movement. Moreover, the thematic material is the same throughout. Therefore, while Symphonia Domestica is closer to a traditional symphony than are any of Strauss’ orchestral works, it also continues the series of tone poems that had established Strauss’ international reputation.

For the first Berlin performance, Strauss spelled out the symphony’s program as follows:

I. Introduction and development of the three chief groups of themes.
The husband’s themes:
a) Easy-going;
b) Dreamy;
c) Fiery.

The wife’s themes:
a) Lively and gay;
b) Grazioso.

The child’s theme:
Tranquil.

II. Scherzo.
Parents’ happiness. Childish play.
Cradle song (the clock strikes seven in the evening).

III. Adagio.
Creation and Contemplation. Love scene.
Dreams and cares (the clock strikes seven in the morning).

IV. Finale.
Awakening and merry dispute (double fugue).
Joyous conclusion.

Strauss marked the three themes of the Introduction as ‟Theme I,” ‟Theme II,” and ‟Theme III.” This is not usually done in a score; the numbering is clearly a substitute (one might say a disguise) for calling the themes ‟father,” ‟mother,” and ‟child,” which is really the intended meaning. The ‟father” theme, first heard in the cellos in F major, is answered by the ‟mother” theme, played by flutes, oboes, and violins in B major—the most distant key from F. The second theme is the inversion of the first, containing a descending major sixth instead of an ascending one. The ‟child” theme, in a slower tempo, is a tender melody played by the oboe d’amore (a double-reed instrument pitched between the oboe and the English horn). The powerful off-key trills in the woodwinds and the violins’ wild runs may find their explanation in a remark made by Strauss in a letter written soon after his son’s birth: ‟The boy is screaming like hell.”

To readers of the score, the meaning of the themes is revealed when the trumpets play the first theme in the key of F immediately followed by the second theme in B, played by horns and trombones. Strauss wrote above the first theme: Die Tanten: ‟Ganz der Papa!” (‟The aunts: ‛Just like Papa!’”), and above the second theme: Die Onkels: ‟Ganz die Mama!” (‟The uncles: ‛Just like Mama!’”). The two German phrases could be sung to the music; we may imagine the relatives cooing over the newborn baby, arguing over which of them it resembles most.

The baby and its musical theme take center stage in the scherzo, whose Ländler-like tone is reminiscent of Mahler. Strauss biographer Norman Del Mar notes that it was during the first years of the century that Strauss and Mahler were closest to each other, ‟this being the only time in their careers that the two important figures had the occasion to work on and hear each other’s music, while at the same time meeting regularly in the course of their professional activity.” (Mahler conducted the first Viennese performance of Symphonia Domestica in November 1904). One of the scherzo’s high points is the passage in which two variants of the ‟baby” theme are heard simultaneously in different meters and tempos. The child’s antics are ended by Mama’s stern reminder that it is time for bed. Soon we hear a lullaby based on a theme from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words (‟Song of the Venetial Gondoliers”); Papa and Mama bid goodnight to their child with their respective leitmotifs. The glockenspiel imitates the seven strokes of the clock, indicating the exact time when baby goes to sleep.

The next section, which Strauss called Schaffen und Schauen (‟Creation and Contemplation”), represents, in Del Mar’s words, the ‟paterfamilias in his capacity as creative artist.” Papa sits in his study working and reflecting, as a dreamy oboe theme, already heard early in the first movement, reappears and is considerably expanded. The mother’s entrance is announced by her theme, and the peaceful contemplation soon gives way to a love scene of uncommon passion and intensity. Papa and Mama are transformed into Tristan and Isolde before our very eyes as their themes become entwined in a lush hyper-Romantic orchestration. (In addition to some Wagnerian echoes, the music also strongly anticipates Strauss’ next work, the opera Salomé, the most audacious of all his scores.) At last, their passion spent, the couple fall asleep until they are awakened by the clock striking seven—this time, seven AM.

The finale opens with a grandiose double fugue—that is, a fugue with two themes (his and hers), first introduced in succession, then combined. The quarrel becomes quite heated and a tremendous climax builds up, with high trills in the woodwind and startling dissonances in the brass and strings. Then the argument is—at least temporarily—resolved and the parents turn their attention to their child. Do they take time out of their busy morning schedule to play with little Franz? It certainly seems that way, judging from the simple and peaceful quasi-folksong that the winds begin to play in a slower tempo. But there isn’t much time for games, and a more turbulent form of family activity is resumed. The two themes undergo their final development; more than once one is led to believe that the piece is over, but Papa and Mama are not done asserting their rambunctious personalities so soon. Finally, after a protracted section full of brilliant orchestral writing, repeated climaxes, stops and new starts, the work ends with a fortissimo rendition of Papa’s theme. He has the last word in the symphony, although we are told this was not how things usually went in real life at the Strausses’. (As Strauss once remarked to Gustav and Alma Mahler, ‟My wife is a bit rough at times, but it’s what I need, you know.”) But composers are luckier than most other people: they can have their way, at least in their music.

The Symphonia Domestica has been one of Strauss’ most controversial works ever since it was first performed. Strauss was widely criticized for immodestly foisting his personal life on the audience, sometimes with a frankness that many found disconcerting. Critics also pointed out what they saw as a glaring incongruity between the ‟triviality” of the subject matter and its grandiose elaboration.

As a result of this criticism, Strauss tried to downplay the importance of the program; he erased most references to it in the score and in written commentaries. But if we choose to ignore the program, it becomes hard to explain why the various themes are related to one another the way they are, or why the glockenspiel plays seven strokes on two different occasions. Strauss later stressed the universal appeal of the work as ‟a musical picture of married life” in general. What is disturbing to some in Symphonia Domestica are the same characteristics that endear it to others: the feelings of father, mother, and son, portrayed sometimes tongue-in-cheek and sometimes with the fervor of Also sprach Zarathustra.

The disparaging responses to the work raise a few interesting questions. Why did the critics think marriage was trivial and not worth singing about? Is the institution of marriage not as important and transcendent as some of the other subjects represented in Strauss’ tone poems? And why do we, in general, seem to be so unwilling to look beyond the ‟happily ever after” in a fairy tale?

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.