On Richard Strauss and this 1894 Concert

By Linda B. Fairtile, New York University

Written for the concert Berlin 1894: A Concert Recreated performed on Dec 11, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In December 1894, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and its new conductor, Richard Strauss, were each just beginning to enjoy widespread fame. The twelve-year-old orchestra and the thirty-year-old conductor/composer both owed a large measure of their early success to Hans von Bülow. As the Philharmonic’s music Director from 1887 to 1892, Bülow led the orchestra to prominence by teaching it discipline and a mastery of the symphonic repertoire. He exercised absolute authority over programming, going so far as to ban works that he considered musically insignificant. The Philharmonic’s manager, Hermann Wolff, also had an influence on the orchestra’s repertoire. It was Wolff, rather that Bülow, who chose the soloists that performed with the orchestra. Since some of these guest performers were also composers, their appearances offered the opportunity to present contemporary music alongside Bülow’s revered “three B’s.”

Strauss, meanwhile, had been Bülow’s assistant conductor with the Meiningen Court Orchestra before moving on to similar auxiliary positions in Munich and Weimar. When Bülow took over the Berlin Philharmonic in 1887, he invited Strauss to conduct his own compositions on several occasions. At the conclusion of the 1891-92 season, Bülow resigned from the Berlin Philharmonic and recommended Strauss as his successor. After two seasons of guest conductors such as Hans Richter, Ernst Schuch, and Strauss himself, Hermann Wolff engaged the young conductor/composer for the Philharmonic’s entire 1894-95 season.

The programs of Strauss’s eleven concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic suggest a desire to assert his own musical tastes without deviating substantially from earlier formulas. Both Bülow’s and Strauss’s Philharmonic concerts usually opened with either a symphony or an overture, and almost all concluded the same way. The majority also included concertos or operatic arias with guest artists, and some added solo selections by these featured performers. While Bülow’s programs centered on the compositions of Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, Strauss’s increased number of works by contemporary composers, particularly those of Slavic origin such as Dvorák and Tchaikovsky.

Strauss’s concert of December 10, 1894, his sixth with the orchestra, was typical of his programs with the Berlin Philharmonic. Three of the five major pieces were written by living composers, while a fourth, the Meistersinger Overture, came from the pen of Richard Wagner. The participation of two soloists was not in itself remarkable, since it was apparently Wolff’s practice to engage an instrumentalist as well whenever a vocalist was scheduled to appear. Strauss’s December 10 program seems to exhibit an underlying tonal plan. Both the first piece, the Rubinstein Symphony, and the last, the Meistersinger Overture are in the key of C major. Since the last Philharmonic concert to begin with Rubinstein’s Second Symphony – conducted by Raphael Maszowski on December 12, 1892 – concluded with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, also in C major, it is likely that this symmetry was more than a coincidence.

Anton Rubinstein’s Second Symphony, the first selection on Strauss’s December 10 concert, was one of the compositions that Bülow had banned from the orchestra’s repertoire, on the grounds that it was an “antiquated atrocity.” It was probably Rubinstein’s tendency to underdevelop his melodic material that alienated Bülow, an ardent follower of Brahms. Nonetheless, the Ocean Symphony was an extremely popular work, reflecting Rubinstein’s eagerness to be as successful a composer as he was a piano virtuoso. Although the symphony was revised twice, ultimately expanding to seven movements by 1880, Strauss performed only the original four movements in Berlin.

The second piece on the program, Mozart’s “Ch’io mi scordi di te” K. 505, is a well-known concert aria that makes use of a text from the composer’s tenth opera, Idomeneo. It is possible that Strauss selected this particular aria, with its piano obbligato, in order to give the evening’s piano soloist, Wilhelm Stenhammar, another performance opportunity. Idomeneo‘s sea imagery may also have struck the conductor as symbolically connected to Rubinstein’s Ocean Symphony. Such thematic programming is not without precedent in Philharmonic’s concerts of the 1890s.

Several compositions by Eugen d’Albert appear in the Berlin Philharmonic’s early programs. Besides the overture that closed the first half of the December 10 concert, the orchestra also performed his Symphony in F, a piano concerto, the Overture to Hyperion. Both d’Albert and his wife, Teresa Carreño , also frequently performed as piano soloists with the Philharmonic. d’Albert ‘s reputation as a Brahms and Liszt specialist cemented his relationship with the orchestra during Bülow’s tenure, while his unique compositional voice, no doubt, appealed to Strauss’s contemporary sensibilities. The Overture on the Philharmonic’s December 10 concert is from d’Albert ‘s Der Rubin, a fairy-tale opera set in the Middle East. Its C-major opening provides a tonal link to both the first and last pieces on the program.

Wilhelm Stenhammar is another composer who probably owed his Berlin Philharmonic debut to Strauss’s interest in contemporary composers outside Germany. While he was influenced by Wagner, Liszt, and Brahms, Stenhammar’s compositions exhibit a specifically Nordic color. It is possible that Hermann Wolff engaged the Swedish composer/pianist to perform with the Philharmonic knowing that his recently-completed concerto would appeal to Strauss. The first Berlin performance of the work had originally been scheduled for November 26. Its postponement until the December 10 concert suggests unanticipated difficulties encountered during the rehearsal period.

The three Lieder sung by Selma Nicklass-Kempner were probably chosen only shortly before the concert. Frequently, advertisements for upcoming concerts did not identify solo selections, suggesting that the guest artist plucked them from his or her repertoire during the rehearsal period. Nicklass-Kempner’s choices are all ingenuously endearing. Rubinstein’s “Gelb rollt mir zu Füssen ,”from the composer’s Persian Songs, suggests a spiritual kinship with d’Albert ‘s exotic Der Rubin, while Strauss’s “Ständchen” represents a tribute to the evening’s conductor.

Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger, the final piece on Strauss’s December 10 program, was a Philharmonic standard. Since a major theme of Die Meistersinger itself is the conflict between artistic tradition and innovation, no piece could better symbolize the Berlin Philharmonic in 1894, steeped in the classics by its first great music Director, Hans von Bülow, and pointed toward the future by Richard Strauss.