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.