Richard Strauss, Parergon on Symphonia Domestica

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
Composed from 1924–25
Premiered on June 10, 1925 in Dresden by Paul Wittgenstein with the Berlin Philharmonic
Performance Time: Approximately 23 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, harp, 24 violins, 9 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, and solo piano (left hand)

In 1924, Richard Strauss received a commission from Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who lost his right arm in World War I, to compose a work for piano left hand and orchestra. The pianist, older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, came from a prominent Viennese family; their father, Karl, was a steel magnate, arts patron, and host of a salon where many of the greatest luminaries of the time, including Brahms, were regular guests. Strauss had known the Wittgenstein family before the war, and he used to play piano duets with Paul when the latter was a child.

The commission reached Strauss at a time when he had just finished his autobiographical opera Intermezzo. In the opera, Kapellmeister Storch and his wife had a young son named Franz, just as the Strausses did in real life. But the opera captures a much earlier moment in the Strausses’ lives; by 1924, Franz Strauss was a grown man. Recently married, he contracted typhus on his honeymoon in Egypt and for a while his life was in danger. Under these circumstances, Strauss’ thoughts naturally turned to his Symphonia Domestica, written two decades earlier, also inspired by his family life. Franz was a child then, and he was given a lyrical theme that, along with the themes of his parents, formed the basis of much of the work. Elements of the child’s theme, now ‟grown up,” inform the Parergon (the Greek word means ‟addendum” or ‟supplement”), which, as Strauss’ sketches attest, was based on the ideas of illness and recovery.

The conflict between those two opposite emotional poles generates the entire structure of the work, as an extensive, brooding, and chromatically complex introduction gives way to a more upbeat, faster section with a soaring, energetic theme. Yet this material is abruptly cut off and the uncertainties return with some more agitated and dissonant music. After a meditative interlude culminating in a cadenza, the woodwinds intone a peaceful song which symbolizes the simple world of the child. This hymn-like tune turns out to be a variant of the soaring theme we heard before; it returns in its original form and is given a dazzling development. The peaceful version of the theme reappears, now sounding more lyrical in a richer orchestration, before the grandiose and triumphant ending.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.