Richard Strauss Choral Works

By Bryan Gilliam

Written for the concert Richard Strauss Choral Works, performed on April 17, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Richard Strauss’s compositional career of nearly eight decades was as varied in genre as it was long, and though he is best known for his tone poems, opera, and songs, his legacy of choral music is undeservedly less known. Indeed, his choral music—both a cappella and with orchestra—forms a body of work representing every period of his artistic life. Surely part of this neglect may be attributed simply to the requirements of vast musical performance forces or, in the case of the a cappella works, the extreme difficulty of vocal execution in these virtuosic pieces that are both highly elaborate in musical lines and, at times, extremely chromatic, where only the most expert intonation can properly realize the score.

Biographies of Strauss cite 1885 as a watershed year in Strauss’s artistic development, for in that year the 21-year-old composer got his first independent job as conducting assistant to the famed Hans von Bülow in Meiningen. He was chosen for the position over another young applicant, Gustav Mahler. But the far more practical conducting duty that young Strauss was expected to undertake was as music director of the Choral Society. The repertoire included works of Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and others. His immersion in the German choral literature at Meiningen was a direct catalyst for his early interest in composing choral music, and the experience of conducting large vocal ensembles informed his technique in this genre. Indeed, Strauss’s Wandrers Sturmlied [The Wanderer’s Song in the Storm], which was published in 1886, was based specifically on Brahms’s Gesang des Parzens [Song of Parzen] (1882), which Strauss conducted during his Meiningen period.

The Sturmlied is the first milestone in Strauss’s growth as an artist. Both the Brahms and the Strauss works set texts by Goethe, and the portion of text that Strauss chose from Goethe’s lengthy Sturmlied reveals the composer’s developing religious-philosophical views at the time, beliefs that wove their way through his entire life. Goethe’s poetic imitation of a Pindaric ode abounds with classical imagery and flashes of insight. It is significant that the poet, who wanders through a storm thinking of his beloved, asks not God but rather his Genius to protect him from that storm. According to the young Strauss’s Weltanschauung, the divine is not to be found in a doubtful hereafter but in human deeds, in artistic inspiration, and the work that is produced from it. He held to that view until his death in 1949, and it may be traced in some of the other choral works on today’s program.

Taillefer and Bardengesang were inspired less by text or inner themes than by specific occasions. Though large in scale, neither work is long in duration. The mammoth piece Taillefer calls for an orchestra of some 140 instruments, not to mention an arsenal of percussion, which contributes to a sonic battle with chorus and soloists. Indeed, Strauss stipulates that, given the size of the orchestra, the work should be performed in a very large hall with as many choral voices as possible. The text is by the nineteenth-century Swabian poet Ludwig Uhland, whose poetry Strauss had already set in the form of both song and melodrama. The purpose of this feststück [festival piece] was to celebrate Strauss’s honorary doctorate bestowed at the University of Heidelberg in 1904. The setting is medieval, extolling the brave deeds of a singer-knight, Taillefer, who fought bravely for William of Normandy in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

No less warlike is the Bardengesang by Friedrich Klopstock for men’s chorus and orchestra, a work linked to a piece of the same name (but now lost) composed during Strauss’s short period in Meiningen. Though Strauss personally disliked overtly nationalistic or military themes, he exploited them here in an effort to solidify his position with the Kaiser, the titular head of the Berlin Court Opera. The military marches of the time should be understood in this context. In fact, Strauss initially sought to dedicate the work to the Kaiser, but the German emperor refused the honor. Bardengesang is based on the old patriotic theme of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, in which the German chieftain, Arminius, triumphed over the Romans in 9 A.D. Like Taillefer, the spirit of battle continues in the sonic realm of the concert hall.

The remaining choral works, Austria (1929) and Die Tageszeiten (1928), are paired by time and place in Vienna, which had been Strauss’s main residence since 1919. The former is an occasional piece for male chorus and orchestra based on a poem by Anton Wildgans, an Austrian writer and nationalist who asked Strauss to compose a choral work to be a kind of unofficial national anthem. Originally titled Österreichisches Lied [Austrian Song], Strauss thought better of Wildgans’s title and suggested simply, Austria, preferring the non-Germanic spelling. Strauss managed to weave into the texture Haydn’s famous Kaiser Hymn of 1797. However, Austria never quite caught on.

On a higher level of musical inspiration is the beautiful “Song Cycle for Men’s Chorus and Orchestra,” Die Tageszeiten [The Times of Day]. Viktor Keldorfer, a choral conductor and head of the Schubert Society (a choral group), asked Strauss to compose a choral piece, perhaps on texts by Joseph Eichendorf. After some negotiating, Strauss agreed. Divided into four sections (setting four poems by Eichendorff), it depicts morning (“When the rooster crows upon the roof”), afternoon (“Over mountains, river, valleys”), evening (“Silent now man’s loud rejoicing”), and night (“How lovely, here to dream away”). These pieces are splendid late Strauss. Gone are bombast and overwrought counterpoint; instead, we are left with a melodic simplicity, harmonic luminescence, and a sonic serenity (especially in the final nocturnal number) that seem to foreshadow another poem by Eichendorff, the autumnal Im Abendrot [At Sunset] of the Four Last Songs.