Richard Strauss, 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 1902–03
Premiered on March 21, 1904, at Carnegie Hall with Strauss conducting the Wetzler Symphony Orchestra
Performance Time: Approximately 45 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 oboe d’amore, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 D clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 1 soprano saxophone, 1 alto saxophone, 1 baritone saxophone, 1 bass saxophone, 4 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 9 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum), 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 double basses

Fairy tales often end with the wedding of two lovers and the phrase ‟happily ever after.” We who live in the real world, however, sometimes wonder what happens after the fairy tale has ended and the hero and heroine have settled down to make a home, have children, and (we hope) lead an exemplary life.

This part of the story is usually left untold in the fairy tales, and it is surprising how few artists have chosen family life as their subject matter. Richard Strauss, married and the father of a young son himself, took up the challenge.

As an opera composer who was especially celebrated as an interpreter of Wagner’s works, Strauss must have thought a great deal about Hans Sachs’s beautiful lines from Act III of Die Meistersinger:

Mein Freund, in holder Jugendzeit,
wenn uns von mächt’gen Trieben
zum sel’gen ersten Lieben
die Brust sich schwellet hoch und weit,
ein schönes Lied zu singen
mocht’ vielen da gelingen,
der Lenz, der sang für sie.

Kam Sommer, Herbst und Winterszeit,
viel Not und Sorg im Leben,
manch ehlich Glück daneben,
Kindtauf, Geschäfte, Zwist und Streit:
denen’s dann noch will gelingen
ein schönes Lied zu singen,
seht: Meister nennt man die!

My friend, in the lovely days of youth,
when our breasts are filled
with the powerful desire
of blissful first love,
many might have succeeded
in singing a beautiful song:
spring had sung for them.

But come summer, autumn and winter,
much trouble and turmoil in life,
along with some marital happiness,
christenings, business, quarrels, and fights:
those who, then, will still be able
to sing a beautiful song,
see: they are called Masters!

It seems that in Symphonia Domestica, Strauss wanted to be the mastersinger of family life, treating it the same way he had treated more abstract literary and philosophical topics in his earlier tone poems.

The Symphonia Domestica is, in a sense, a companion piece to Strauss’ previous major work, Ein Heldenleben (‟A Hero’s Life”); the hero, instead of confronting his critics and his enemies, spends a quiet evening at home with his wife and son. In Heldenleben, the various episodes were arranged according to traditional symphonic patterns and may be seen as the primary and secondary areas, development and recapitulation of a gigantic one-movement sonata form. Symphonia Domestica follows the form of a four-movement symphony with opening movement, scherzo, adagio, and finale. But the flow of the music is never interrupted, so the work is really a single 45-minute-long movement. Moreover, the thematic material is the same throughout. Therefore, while Symphonia Domestica is closer to a traditional symphony than are any of Strauss’ orchestral works, it also continues the series of tone poems that had established Strauss’ international reputation.

For the first Berlin performance, Strauss spelled out the symphony’s program as follows:

I. Introduction and development of the three chief groups of themes.
The husband’s themes:
a) Easy-going;
b) Dreamy;
c) Fiery.

The wife’s themes:
a) Lively and gay;
b) Grazioso.

The child’s theme:
Tranquil.

II. Scherzo.
Parents’ happiness. Childish play.
Cradle song (the clock strikes seven in the evening).

III. Adagio.
Creation and Contemplation. Love scene.
Dreams and cares (the clock strikes seven in the morning).

IV. Finale.
Awakening and merry dispute (double fugue).
Joyous conclusion.

Strauss marked the three themes of the Introduction as ‟Theme I,” ‟Theme II,” and ‟Theme III.” This is not usually done in a score; the numbering is clearly a substitute (one might say a disguise) for calling the themes ‟father,” ‟mother,” and ‟child,” which is really the intended meaning. The ‟father” theme, first heard in the cellos in F major, is answered by the ‟mother” theme, played by flutes, oboes, and violins in B major—the most distant key from F. The second theme is the inversion of the first, containing a descending major sixth instead of an ascending one. The ‟child” theme, in a slower tempo, is a tender melody played by the oboe d’amore (a double-reed instrument pitched between the oboe and the English horn). The powerful off-key trills in the woodwinds and the violins’ wild runs may find their explanation in a remark made by Strauss in a letter written soon after his son’s birth: ‟The boy is screaming like hell.”

To readers of the score, the meaning of the themes is revealed when the trumpets play the first theme in the key of F immediately followed by the second theme in B, played by horns and trombones. Strauss wrote above the first theme: Die Tanten: ‟Ganz der Papa!” (‟The aunts: ‛Just like Papa!’”), and above the second theme: Die Onkels: ‟Ganz die Mama!” (‟The uncles: ‛Just like Mama!’”). The two German phrases could be sung to the music; we may imagine the relatives cooing over the newborn baby, arguing over which of them it resembles most.

The baby and its musical theme take center stage in the scherzo, whose Ländler-like tone is reminiscent of Mahler. Strauss biographer Norman Del Mar notes that it was during the first years of the century that Strauss and Mahler were closest to each other, ‟this being the only time in their careers that the two important figures had the occasion to work on and hear each other’s music, while at the same time meeting regularly in the course of their professional activity.” (Mahler conducted the first Viennese performance of Symphonia Domestica in November 1904). One of the scherzo’s high points is the passage in which two variants of the ‟baby” theme are heard simultaneously in different meters and tempos. The child’s antics are ended by Mama’s stern reminder that it is time for bed. Soon we hear a lullaby based on a theme from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words (‟Song of the Venetial Gondoliers”); Papa and Mama bid goodnight to their child with their respective leitmotifs. The glockenspiel imitates the seven strokes of the clock, indicating the exact time when baby goes to sleep.

The next section, which Strauss called Schaffen und Schauen (‟Creation and Contemplation”), represents, in Del Mar’s words, the ‟paterfamilias in his capacity as creative artist.” Papa sits in his study working and reflecting, as a dreamy oboe theme, already heard early in the first movement, reappears and is considerably expanded. The mother’s entrance is announced by her theme, and the peaceful contemplation soon gives way to a love scene of uncommon passion and intensity. Papa and Mama are transformed into Tristan and Isolde before our very eyes as their themes become entwined in a lush hyper-Romantic orchestration. (In addition to some Wagnerian echoes, the music also strongly anticipates Strauss’ next work, the opera Salomé, the most audacious of all his scores.) At last, their passion spent, the couple fall asleep until they are awakened by the clock striking seven—this time, seven AM.

The finale opens with a grandiose double fugue—that is, a fugue with two themes (his and hers), first introduced in succession, then combined. The quarrel becomes quite heated and a tremendous climax builds up, with high trills in the woodwind and startling dissonances in the brass and strings. Then the argument is—at least temporarily—resolved and the parents turn their attention to their child. Do they take time out of their busy morning schedule to play with little Franz? It certainly seems that way, judging from the simple and peaceful quasi-folksong that the winds begin to play in a slower tempo. But there isn’t much time for games, and a more turbulent form of family activity is resumed. The two themes undergo their final development; more than once one is led to believe that the piece is over, but Papa and Mama are not done asserting their rambunctious personalities so soon. Finally, after a protracted section full of brilliant orchestral writing, repeated climaxes, stops and new starts, the work ends with a fortissimo rendition of Papa’s theme. He has the last word in the symphony, although we are told this was not how things usually went in real life at the Strausses’. (As Strauss once remarked to Gustav and Alma Mahler, ‟My wife is a bit rough at times, but it’s what I need, you know.”) But composers are luckier than most other people: they can have their way, at least in their music.

The Symphonia Domestica has been one of Strauss’ most controversial works ever since it was first performed. Strauss was widely criticized for immodestly foisting his personal life on the audience, sometimes with a frankness that many found disconcerting. Critics also pointed out what they saw as a glaring incongruity between the ‟triviality” of the subject matter and its grandiose elaboration.

As a result of this criticism, Strauss tried to downplay the importance of the program; he erased most references to it in the score and in written commentaries. But if we choose to ignore the program, it becomes hard to explain why the various themes are related to one another the way they are, or why the glockenspiel plays seven strokes on two different occasions. Strauss later stressed the universal appeal of the work as ‟a musical picture of married life” in general. What is disturbing to some in Symphonia Domestica are the same characteristics that endear it to others: the feelings of father, mother, and son, portrayed sometimes tongue-in-cheek and sometimes with the fervor of Also sprach Zarathustra.

The disparaging responses to the work raise a few interesting questions. Why did the critics think marriage was trivial and not worth singing about? Is the institution of marriage not as important and transcendent as some of the other subjects represented in Strauss’ tone poems? And why do we, in general, seem to be so unwilling to look beyond the ‟happily ever after” in a fairy tale?

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