Richard Strauss, Feuersnot

by Christopher Gibbs

Written for the concert Strauss: Self-Portrait of the Artist, performed on Dec 15, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Strauss born Jun 11, 1864 in Dresden, Germany; died Sep 8, 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Feuersnot composed from 1900–1; Premiered Nov 21, 1901 in Dresden, Germany
Approximate performance time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Instruments: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (2 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, castanets, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel), 1 harmonium, 2 harps, strings, chorus, children’s chorus, and vocal soloists

“It is, in its way, a kind of prelude.” So the 85-year-old Richard Strauss commented in a diary entry a few months before his death concerning Feuersnot (In Need of Fire), his second opera, which had premiered, nearly a half century earlier, in 1901. His first opera, Guntram, had bombed badly in 1894, yet Strauss’ career was nonetheless thriving on account of his daring orchestral works. He hit operatic stride in 1905 with the premiere of Salome. Haunting this trio of early operas is the ghost of Wagner, “Richard the First.” (Strauss referred to himself as “little Richard the Third,” noting that conductor Hans von Bülow said there could be no Richard the Second.) Allusions and outright quotations from Wagner are sprinkled throughout Feuersnot, which Strauss planned as an attack on the bourgeois provincialism of Munich, his hometown and a city he felt had failed to recognize either Richard the First or the Third.

Strauss had been raised in a musical household where Wagner was perceived as poison. His father played principal French horn in the Munich Court Orchestra and often performed his operas, including some premieres, but could not stand the music. He steered his talented son in more conservative directions, toward such “Classical Romantics” as Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Amidst the fraught musical politics of the time, the allegiances of the Strauss family were clear, as was the enemy: the New German School epitomized by Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner. Then Strauss had what he called his “conversion.” Alexander Ritter, a composer and musician who had known both Liszt and Wagner, became like a second father, as well as an artistic mentor. Largely under his influence, Strauss began writing symphonic “Tone Poems” and with works like Don Juan (1888–9) emerged as the most progressive figure in orchestral music.

While the failed premiere of Guntram in Munich was a setback, his orchestral successes and notoriety continued with Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1894–5), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), and Ein Heldenleben (1897–8). Strauss, like his slightly older friend and rival Gustav Mahler, was simultaneously building a career as a prominent conductor that included leading Wagner operas in Bayreuth. He would eventually emerge as Wagner’s great operatic heir. His fifteen operas, written over a period of nearly fifty years, vary greatly in subject matter and style, yet there remain fairly consistent Wagnerian affinities in his use of leitmotivs, colorful deployment of large orchestras placing substantial demands on singers, and in his abiding attraction to mythology. Strauss also had a terrific sense of humor (something Wagner cannot be accused of), even if the “in jokes” now sometimes fall flat in Feuersnot.

By 1900, after an interval of six years during which he declared he “lost the courage to write for the stage,” Strauss was ready to try his hand again at opera and collaborated with librettist Ernst von Wolzogen on a project he hoped would extract justified revenge on Munich. Feuersnot is based on a bawdy old Flemish legend about a young man who, after being humiliated by the girl he loves, meets a magician who casts a spell that puts the town in complete darkness—the “famine of fire” that gives the opera its title. Only once the girl is made to strip naked can people light their fires from flames that spring from her behind. This colorful old story, need it be said, poses considerable challenges for a librettist. Wolzogen sanitized the tale somewhat, although it still proved too scandalous for some opera houses and audiences. He explained his adaptation to Strauss: “The young hero lover is himself a magician, and the Grand Old Master, his mentor, who was once expelled by the people of Munich, never appears in person. The wicked young girl is forced to sacrifice her virginity at the conclusion, to end the town’s fire famine.”

Strauss loved working autobiographical allusions into his music and in Feuersnot he identified with the young lover Kudrad while Wagner is clearly the unseen master magician. Strauss also weaved in several folk songs connected to his native Munich together with the various quotations from Wagner. The opera proved a considerable success when it premiered in Dresden in November 1901 and Mahler presented it in Vienna two months later. The American premiere was given in Philadelphia in 1927 with the lead sung by Nelson Eddy a few years before he won fame in Hollywood films. The one-act Feuersnot is rarely performed these days, although the marvelous love scene that ends the opera is sometimes programmed separately as an orchestral excerpt.

At the start of the opera Kunrad is infatuated with the maiden Diemut, daughter of the town mayor, and steals a kiss. That evening he serenades her beneath her balcony window and they sing an over-the-top love duet. Diemut, however, is just pretending to be interested in Kunrad, angered as she is by his actions earlier that day. She says she will hoist him up to her room in a basket, but in fact pulls him up only half way and leaves him hanging there all night. Kunrad retaliates by causing the blackout and eventually all the town folk want Diemut to submit to him so as to end the fire famine. The concluding love scene lets us listen and imagine what is happening behind closed doors. As the music reaches its climax there is a grand pause and the fires of the town are suddenly reignited. This all owes a lot to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, except in this case everyone ends up living happily ever after. For listeners who know and love Strauss’ later operas, his second one does indeed seem “a kind of prelude” to his brilliant career.

Christopher Gibbs is James H. Ottaway, Jr. Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music and Co-Artistic Director of the Bard Music Festival.