Symphonia Domestica, Op. 53 (1903)

By Timothy L. Jackson, University of North Texas

Written for the concert The Musical Romance of Childhood, performed on April 5, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

By 1902-03, the years in which Richard Strauss composed his Symphonia Domestica, the idea of composing a symphony about one’s own love-life was not new. Schumann in his Fourth Symphony (1841-51) had represented the trials and tribulations of his difficult courtship of Clara, Brahms in his First Symphony (1876) had composed out the problems of his “friendship” with Clara, and Tchaikovsky in his Pathétique (1893) had recreated his homosexual “grande passion pathetique” for his nephew “Bob” Davidov. But in all of these symphonies, the autobiographical erotic aspect had been idealized and thereby universalized; what was new with Strauss was the blatant realism of the “domestic” scena, the inclusion of the screaming child Franz, the fights with the wife Pauline, and the sheer realism of the “love scene” between composer and wife, which Romain Rolland decried as one of the most audacious challenges Strauss had “hurled against at [good] taste and common-sense.” Strauss was evidently touched by Mahler’s “utter condemnation” of the program (Mahler had conducted the Viennese premiere of the Domestica in 1904); when he decided to complete the Alpine Symphony (begun in 1901) as a requiem for Mahler in 1911, he transformed its original programmatic depiction of the real-life affair between Lydia Welti and Karl Stauffer into a cosmic rather than particularized amour.

The Symphonia Domestica is a multi-movement symphony in six continuous and motivically interlaced movements, which describes a twenty-four hour life-cycle in the Strauss famille. The first movement introduces the three main protagonists: first the Papa (Strauss), then the Mama (Pauline), and finally the Baby (i.e. the Bubi Franz) as both the mediating factor between disputatious parents and the hymnic incarnation of their love. The second movement, the Scherzo, depicts the Baby paraded before admiring relatives and resisting bedtime; it is linked to the third movement, the Pastorale-Lullabye (“Wiegenlied”), by a developmental transition in which the Baby screams vociferously at being put to bed. A further transition, in which the clock chimes seven o’clock at night (Bubi’s bedtime), introduces the fourth movement, the Adagio/Development. Here, the music portrays Strauss working in his study, the entrance of Pauline, and a passionate sexual encounter in which the Pauline-motive is aggressively placed “on top” of Strauss’s. At the climax of the love music, grinding dissonance, motivic superposition, and texture graphically differentiate male and female orgasms: Strauss’s unpublished note in the short-score calls attention to “the woman’s motive in very excited figuration, the man’s quickly subsiding” (“Das weibliche Motiv in sehr aufgeregter Figuration; das maennliche sich schnell beruhigend”). “Dreams and worries” (as described by Strauss in another note) cloud restless post-coital repose, which is interrupted by the clock chiming seven o’clock in the morning. The fifth movement, an enormously complicated triple fugue combining the Father, Mother, and Child themes, (which initiates the recapitulation within the overall form), represents a colossal family feud.

In concluding this analysis of form and program, I wish to call special attention to the new (“break-through”) theme–the stepwise descending melody in the high winds and violins in parallel thirds and sixths–that introduces the “love-scene” proper, whose deeper significance has too often been overlooked by performers and the public. This new theme is not developed in the love scene/Adagio but eventually becomes the main subject of the Epilogue/Sixth movement. Through this very special act of “blessing,” the work transcends mere crass description to become a metaphysical hymn to domestic love: in the Adagio, this melody both heralds and sanctifies the composer’s otherwise rather graphic self-depiction in the act of love; its “release” in the Epilogue embodies the redemptive oneness and unity of the family. Perhaps it is fitting to conclude these remarks with an observation concerning the ingenuity of Strauss’s often astonishingly transparent but sometimes heavy orchestration for approximately 110 players (including eight horns and five saxophones!). As the famous conductor Hans Richter quipped, not all the gods burning in Walhalla could make one quarter of the noise of a single Bavarian baby in his bath.