“Macbeth”, Symphonic Poem, Op. 23 (1888)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

During the 1880s the enormously gifted young Richard Strauss underwent a musical transformation that drew him away from the more classical traditions favored by his father, the great French horn player, toward what often has been termed the “New German” movement. This school of composition took its inspiration from Liszt and Wagner. The individual most responsible for Strauss’s new direction was Alexander Ritter, a musician and composer who became a kind of second father to Richard Strauss. The result was that after writing two symphonies, Strauss turned to the medium of the symphonic poem in direct emulation of Franz Liszt. The most famous of the tone poems that date from the late 1880s and early 1890s are, of course, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, and Till Eulenspiegel. Strauss’s first foray into this new and different kind of symphonic music was Aus Italian. The second venture was Macbeth. Macbeth gave the composer the most trouble in terms of its composition, and it has remained the least-performed of Strauss’s tone poems. Hans von Bülow criticized the first version because it ended without any musical or dramatic reference to the tragedy of Macbeth. Rather, it celebrated the triumph of MacDuff. But this dispute about the ending was merely a reflection of what Strauss articulated to von Bülow in the summer of 1888, when he wrote that there was “an ever-increasing conflict between the musical poetic content that I want to convey and the three-part sonata form that has come down to us from the classical composers.” This statement, written while Strauss was struggling with the composition of Macbeth, mirrors the contradictions between the demands inherent in Liszt’s vision of music (which called on music to follow poetic and dramatic logic) and the seemingly purely musical structure inherent in the work of Mozart and Brahms. As James Hepokowski has argued in a recent article on Strauss’s Macbeth, Strauss viewed Macbeth as a musical statement of independence– a modernist “manifesto” that asserted the primacy of the literary and dramatic logic aver the formal, classical compositional strategies. However, matching the story line of Macbeth and the musical content of the tone poem has proven difficult. There have been widely divergent claims. Hepokowski finally has found a way to reconcile the musical structure with the dramatic narrative of the play. This program note closely follows his argument. Macbeth opens in a way reminiscent of Wagner and Beethoven. The first sustained musical thought mirrors the idea of power and monarchy. The next section, which is the exposition, presents themes representing Macbeth, prophecy, ambition, Lady Macbeth, and her successful effort to persuade Macbeth to commit murder. The center section is divided into two episodes. In the first, many listeners have located a love motive, but Hepokowski considers this as a continuation of Lady Macbeth’s process of persuasion. In any event, the murder of Duncan is clearly marked in the first episode. The second episode, according to Hepokowski, signals the crowning of Macbeth. In musical terms one can hear in 3/4 time a B-flat-major march. Following these two sections there is a brilliant adaptation of sonata form. A recapitulation ensues, which actually describes the madness that overcomes Macbeth, who fails in his search for redemption. The end of this recapitulation depicts the final battle and the death of Macbeth. The tone poem ends with a coda, which reflects Strauss’s revision. In the original it ended with the music of Macduff’s fanfare, which is heard near the very end of this final version. The sense of triumph contained in Macduff’s music quickly dissolves into a musical reminder of the ambition, madness, and greatness that characterize Macbeth. The work closes with a flourish in D minor. When compared with its rival poems, this Strauss work sounds every bit as convincing It has been unjustly neglected in the concert hall.