Richard Strauss, Symphony No. 2 in F minor

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert The Remains of Romanticism, performed on Nov 15, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Toward the end of his life, Richard Strauss communicated in his string orchestra piece Metamorphosen his deep sense of nostalgia for a world now forever gone. Like his colleague Gustav Mahler, Strauss returned again and again to nostalgia as a root cause of the gnawing dissatisfaction of modern life. Strauss lived much longer than Mahler, so examples of his reminiscing about the great classical music tradition abound.

Strauss felt himself an organic part of that tradition, to the manor born. His father, horn player Franz Strauss, was the handpicked choice of Wagner – despite a rather marked personal enmity – to give the premieres of the virtuoso parts in Tristan, Meistersinger and Parsifal. At seventeen, Richard published his Five Pieces for Piano, which included an homage to the most familiar theme of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Just three years later, on December 13, 1884, his reverence for the masters of the past received a singular honor as his fledgling Symphony in F minor was given its world premiere right here in New York, with Theodore Thomas leading the Philharmonic at their Academy of Music on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Irving Place. A decade later, Strauss returned the favor, traveling to Chicago to conduct Thomas’s new orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, in his Symphonia Domestica before it had ever been heard in Europe.

Although Strauss thought the F minor symphony perhaps a little too daring – “Papa won’t like it” he wrote in a contemporary letter – audiences had a somewhat different reaction. No less a personage than Johannes Brahms was there for an early European performance, although he much preferred Johann Strauss. The work showed great promise and was generally received favorably, however in retrospect its composition was a significant turning point for the young composer. He began to think of the symphonic form as “giant’s clothes…in which a thin tailor is trying to comport himself elegantly” and abandoned the genre to plunge into a decade of febrile tone poetry.

The piece begins with a passage eerily similar to the ending subject of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, written 31 years later. Subsequent themes undergo an extended contrapuntal development.

The Brucknerian scherzo is so delightful that both times when the composer conducted the symphony in Milan in 1887, the crowd made him repeat the movement.

The andante cantabile – begun first but finished last – expresses the most noble sentiments of the music, creating an airy and, arguably, pantheistic vision of humanity and its place in the universe.

Strauss takes the function of the finale seriously, returning to themes from the earlier movements, a device later employed very effectively by Mahler in his middle symphonies, to neatly frame his youthful essay in formally strict, but brashly expansive, terms. On the whole, the symphony colors within the lines, but stretches the imagination to lofty and rarely explored heights.

The compositional career of Richard Strauss has always been a bit enigmatic. How could such a fluent speaker of bold harmonic language as is evidenced in Elektra and Salome end his days writing aural vignettes such as Arabella and Capriccio in a style the Viennese call “beautiful dirt”? A visit to his home at Garmisch reveals more than a hint of burgomeisterism and calls into question his artistic proclivities. The Symphony in F minor provides at least a clue to his formative years: it looks simultaneously forward and backward.