The Remains of Romanticism

By Leon Botstein

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

Musical romanticism is, like most descriptive categories, elusive. Its existence is shaped by an implied chronological contrast. At the beginning of its historical spectrum, it is juxtaposed in opposition to eighteenth-century classicism which it succeeded. At the other end of its history, romanticism is understood as coming to an end with the advent of modernism, which is itself defined by its rejection, in the twentieth century, of the external markers of romanticism. In this way it has become standard to characterize the nineteenth century as the era of romanticism. But when we try to identify the features of the romantic in music beyond neat chronological boundaries, we find that though romantic elements make their appearance most famously in middle-period Beethoven, they may also be found in Mozart. Romanticism also did not lose its hold after its “era” had supposedly ended; well into the twentieth century, “conservative” composers continued to write in the romantic tradition, and the familiar conventions of late nineteenth-century romanticism inspire film music well into our own time. Since the mid-1970s, a more conscious revival of romanticism in musical composition has flourished.

Having said that, a set of interconnecting characteristics stand out in the music on today’s program, all of which was composed in the twilight years of the romantic tradition. Carl Czerny alleged that his teacher Beethoven claimed he always had some kind of story or plot in mind when composing instrumental music. Once the composition was finished, needed to be forgotten. It at best should be regarded by the listener as the external, temporary scaffolding necessary for the composer to construct the enduring edifice. In this sense Beethoven retained an old classical bias that musical discourse operated self-referentially and made its case to the listener through the interplay of musical events: themes, counterpoint, development, rhythmic contrast, and harmonic pathways. These became structural devices that delivered to the listener a sense of architecture and organization. The image of scaffolding around this structure is apt, because the scaffolding was made up of what we might call “extra-musical” elements: stories and vistas. For example, consider Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (1808). It is a sublime experience of listening and a magical example of how musical elements seem to operate autonomously without the help of words and pictures. But that achievement was accomplished through Beethoven’s use of music to narrate the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is precisely the connection between music and language, between musical time and narrative time, and by extension music and the initially non-musical experience of life, that romanticism took its inspiration. For the generation of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Chopin, who are deemed masters of “early” romanticism, the Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral” (1808), was the quintessential proto-romantic work. In this symphony Beethoven famously described how he used music to express the impact of external events and experiences, the “storm” and the “bubbling brook,” rather than the events themselves. In that work, he conceded an inspirational relationship that would be essential to all romantic composers. Form and structure were no longer defended exclusively by expectations set up by purely musical logic. Nature defines the inspirational elements. In Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (1830/2), it is the visual experience of nature that informs the classical logic of the instrumental composition. In Robert Schumann’s early piano pieces, literary models and characters create novel musical forms.

Romanticism took patterns of musical expression and uses of time developed during the classical era and transformed them so that something implicit was made explicit: the connection between music and the visual and linguistic or literary. It is in romanticism that the associative conventions to which we are accustomed between emotion and certain musical patterns became standardized. One can hear them in many a film and television score. The first generation of nineteenth-century romantic composers used music to express and describe the subjective experience of life. Unashamedly, they borrowed and adapted the seemingly self-contained logic of classicism to narrate and expand the player’s and listener’s poetic sense of the inexhaustible expanse of the human imagination. There is no more evocative title to depict the agenda of romanticism in the first part of the nineteenth century than Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words (1834).

Not entirely coincidentally, along with these romantic developments came a dramatic expansion of the musical audience. Literacy in music, now an art form to which it was easier to relate given the elaboration of its connections to the subjectivity of life, grew with great rapidity during the nineteenth century and created a massive concert audience. Listeners consumed music as a means to escape from the quotidian and increasing utilitarian if not drab dimension of contemporary economic and social life. The attraction of music, particularly instrumental music with its seemingly unique abstract character, was how it refreshed the imagination with the infinite possibilities and sanctity of human life at a time when the harsh realities of modernity seemed to threaten both nature and humanity. For this reason, romanticism in music took on the characteristic of idealistic nostalgia. New instrumental music, pioneered especially by Liszt, was inspired by stories taken from the pre-modern past, from mythology and antiquity. The past, both imagined and real, far removed from the listener’s actual circumstances, became the object of fascination for the romantic musical imagination. Ultimately, romantic music became a thrilling dramatic and emotional experience, but its musical logic became increasingly subordinate to an imaginary desire in human experience, dependent on words and pictures. The scaffold described by Beethoven itself became the musical substance and structure. It goes without saying that the master of this inversion was Richard Wagner.

This concert explores the music of composers whose names (with one exception) may not be immediately recognizable. Yet all were prominent during their lifetimes in the nineteenth century. They were chosen for today’s program because they demonstrate the many different ways originality and a distinctive voice can emerge from a conflicted relationship with tradition and conventional expectations. These composers lived at least part of their lives aware that they must be at the end of an enormous tradition. Some of them lived to cross the threshold of the romantic transition. If the generation of 1809-10 struggled with the legacy of Beethoven, the burden of history felt by Robert Fuchs and Hermann Goetz, the two earliest composers on today’s program, was even more intense. Younger than Wagner and Brahms, the formative composers for them were Schumann and Mendelssohn. Next in line chronologically are Ludwig Thuille and Richard Strauss, close friends born three years apart in the early 1860s. Following closely after them is Siegmund von Hausegger who was only eight years Strauss’s junior. By the time this second group came of age as composers, they had not only the looming figures of Beethoven, Schumann, and Mendelssohn to contend with, but Brahms and Wagner.

Strauss’s Second Symphony (1884) was written a year after Wagner died. Brahms admired this work. Along with Bruckner, Brahms was one of the last living masters of a tradition of composition dating back to Mozart. Brahms certainly felt the burden of being the last exponent of a great tradition. Strauss was only twenty when he wrote this symphony, struggling even then to find a new voice for his generation. But Strauss’s symphony is not, in fact, an example of an inexperienced composer early in his career, engaged with imitation. Rather it is a brilliant example of how history is referenced and how allusion and stylistic suggestion can become the means by which conventions are overturned. After this symphony, Strauss set the form aside for many years, only returning to it later with his own unmistakable stamp in Symphonia domestica (1903) and the Alpine Symphony (1915). Like Mahler, here he used the external convention of the symphonic form to rethink the premise of romanticism. In the work on today’s program, Strauss resisted the Lisztian idea and Wagnerian path of organizing music along a literary narrative. At the same time he holds on to the notion that a piece of music is more than itself and that it must trigger some aspect of human self-reflection. In this case the human reflection is about history, the tradition of music making itself. The habit of allusion, stylistic incongruity, and quotation that are audible in this work became the hallmark of Strauss’s later work, with its increasing dose of irony and philosophical distance.

Similarly, Hermann Goetz’s Violin Concerto has its own nostalgic quality, embodied in the way it reflects the composer’s turn away from writing for the stage and the voice in an attempt to recapture the innocence of the early nineteenth century. Robert Fuchs adapts a form associated with Haydn and Mozart in an attempt to achieve something original. He picks up a thread that Brahms abandoned early in his career, a multi-movement work that has no pretension to symphonic coherence. This Serenade is his most famous work, and like his wonderful set of violin duets, it instills an intensity of feeling with a self-conscious effort to evoke a neo-classical clarity of musical form and technique. Siegmund von Hausegger’s work seeks to extend Liszt’s idea of narration through music by using a subject discarded by Wagner. Composed after Strauss’s daunting set of tone poems, it resists the ironic distance which Strauss mastered and seeks to rekindle, late in the career of romanticism, the heroic and the monumental by setting a pre-modern tale in the garb of post-Wagnerian, late romantic rhetoric. There is only one work on the program that has the term “romantic” in its title, Thuille’s Romantic Overture. Like Fuchs, Thuille was a gifted teacher whose textbook continued to be used well into the twentieth century. Although inspired by Wagner, this overture seeks to redeem a conceit lost on Wagner, but one which all the composers on today’s program shared. That conceit held that even when tied to words and pictures, music alone could communicate something that words and pictures never could, and that music opened up an expanse of feeling and experience that seems boundless and resistant to any fixed image or meaning. For Thuille, Hausegger, Fuchs, Goetz, and Strauss, all late romantic music was an effort to open the infinite in the experience of the listener, for whom life in the modern world might seem increasingly limited by the harsh realities of time and space.

Robert Fuchs, Serenade No. 1, Op. 9

By Byron Adams

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

In the seventh edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by the late Nicholas Slonimsky, an invidious comparison is made between the achievement of the Viennese composer Robert Fuchs and that of his more famous pupils: “[A]mong his students were Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Schreker . . . His own compositions are, however, of no consequence, and there is no evidence that he influenced his famous pupils stylistically or even technically; the only pieces that were at all successful were his 5 serenades for String Orch[estra].” Considering this entry in light of the facts will have one crucial result: the reader will learn once and for all to approach such declarations with a healthy skepticism. In point of fact, the fourth of Fuchs’ five serenades, op. 51 is scored for two horns and strings, while the fifth, op. 53, is not for string orchestra at all, but uses a small orchestra of winds and strings. Far from being inconsequential in their day, Fuchs’s cores were praised sincerely by Brahms, a notoriously severe and often dismissive critic of the music of his contemporaries. Indeed, Fuchs composed successfully in a variety of genres, making particularly distinguished contributions to the chamber music repertory.

Furthermore, a careful study of the early work of one of Fuchs’ famous pupils, Jean Sibelius, demonstrates decisively the vast importance of the Viennese pedagogues’ technical instruction on the young Finnish composer’s artistic maturation. Compare, for example, the awkward music Sibelius composed before his studies with Fuchs with the infinitely more accomplished scores he produced after submitting to his teacher’s strict tutelage. (For his part, Fuchs retained a distinct affection for his unruly Finnish pupil, writing glowing letters of recommendation on Sibelius’ behalf; indeed, Sibelius was offered his teacher’s position at the Vienna Conservatory upon Fuchs’ retirement in 1912.)

Putting aside inaccurate and dyspeptic dictionary entries, Fuchs was a polished and fluent composer whose attractive and often touching music struck a civilized compromise between fervid romanticism and poised classicism. Brahms has often been rightly cited as an influence upon Fuchs’ style, but Fuchs’ pellucid orchestration derives from Mendelssohn while his harmonic practice is often reminiscent of Schumann’s inimitable idiom. Furthermore, Fuchs’ counterpoint is extraordinarily elegant: the subtle interplay of his textures is invariably expert and assured. If anything, Fuchs’ music is too beautifully made: the surface perfection is so seductive as to obscure the romantic heart that beats beneath the exquisitely tailored vest.

Composed in 1874, Fuchs’ Serenade no. 1 in D major for strings, op.9, evinces the many virtues of his technical mastery while enlivening them with an winsome freshness. Dedicated to one Nicolaus Dumba, the Serenade is cast in five concise movements. After a lyrical opening prelude, the second movement is a graceful minuet that recalls the antiquarian spirit of the third movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. During the playful third movement, Fuchs directs the players to make extensive use of tricky style of bowing known as spiccato; this little scherzo is replete with piquant modulations to distant keys. The slow fourth movement is the heart of this enchanting score, a contemplative adagio in which Fuchs’ innate romanticism is allowed to come to the fore. Fuchs unexpectedly begins his finale in D minor; his formal mastery is much in evidence throughout this high-spirited sonata that ends with a coruscating flash of D major.

Hermann Goetz, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

By Peter Palmer

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

From his early teens onwards, Hermann Goetz’s life was overshadowed by the tuberculosis which ended it in December 1876, four days short of his 36th birthday. Born and raised in the northern Germany city of Königsberg, he trained as a musician in his home town and Berlin, where his teachers included Hans von Bülow for piano. When the latter moved to Switzerland several years later, contact was renewed. On 6 December 1866 Bülow wrote to Joachim Raff in Germany commending his former pupil’s compositions: “A string quartet, piano trio, and sonata for four hands that he brought to me appear very mature, healthy, independent, and rich in sound.” A performance of the Trio in Basel was followed in early 1867 by an airing of Goetz’s Symphony in E minor, later destroyed.

Goetz embarked on a Swiss career for the sake of his health, but this was only postponing the inevitable. As the disease progressed, he showed considerable tenacity in carrying on as a performer, teacher and composer. He succeeded Theodor Kirchner as organist of the Stadtkirche, Winterthur, in 1863. Besides performing with the amateur players of the resident Musikkollegium, he established his own mixed choir, although it soon foundered for want of male voices. During his last years Goetz enjoyed the everyday support of Laura Wirth, his Swiss bride. They were married in 1868, the composition date of his posthumously published Violin Concerto. In 1870 the couple moved to Hottingen just outside Zurich, where Goetz was teaching piano privately. Two years later he resigned from his organist’s post. Goetz maintained a public profile through music journalism (he penned a thoughtful critique of Brahms’s Schicksalslied) and by appearing as a soloist with the Tonhalle Orchestra under Friedrich Hegar.

Joseph Viktor Widmann, the officiating clergyman at the composer’s wedding, played an important part in Goetz’s career. This highly cultured man was a friend of Brahms, whom Goetz met in 1865, and to whom he dedicated his Piano Quartet, opus 6. Widmann wrote the text for Goetz’s first dramatic composition, a New Year’s piece on the subject of the Magi. Subsequently – some ten years before Wagner began work on his final music drama – they discussed the idea of a Parsifal opera. In the end, however, the two decided on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew. The resulting comic opera was to keep Goetz’s name posted on German billboards for the rest of the nineteenth century and beyond. He lived long enough to witness the successful première of Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung in Mannheim, collapsing from exhaustion after the last curtain-call. Further productions were mounted in Leipzig, Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere. The work reached the London stage in 1879 and New York in 1886. Critics down the years have noted traces of Wagnerian harmony, but this is hardly a predominant feature of Goetz’s musical style.

After returning from Mannheim, Goetz began work on an unfinished Francesca da Rimini opera that would be completed by the conductor Ernst Frank. Apart from his Zähmung, major products of Goetz’s Zurich period were a Symphony in F, a piano quintet, and Nenie for chorus and orchestra – thought to have inspired Brahms’s setting of the same Schiller text. Modern times have seen the occasional revival of the Piano Concerto which Goetz composed in Winterthur. This work reveals a spontaneous melodic gift which is also evident, within a tighter structural frame, from the Violin Concerto in G major. In spirit, the latter piece harks back to the early Romanticism of Weber and Mendelssohn. Headed Allegro vivace, the concerto is in one continuous movement lasting some 15 minutes, the soloist entering dolce after four measures. There is a central Andante in the parallel minor key (G minor). The final section is prefaced by a short recitative for the violin, and a cadenza ushers in the 2/4-time conclusion (Vivace scherzando). Goetz’s idiomatic writing for the solo instrument owes its fluency to early violin lessons received from the concertmaster Georg Japha.

In the mid-1920s, at a time when Hermann Goetz was remembered solely by his comic opera, the Violin Concerto was introduced to New York by the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. A modern American printing was edited by Louis Kaufman, who played the solo part in a recording of the work.

Sigmund von Hausegger, Wieland der Schmied, symphonic poem

By Byron Adams

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

Siegmund von Hausegger was the son of a passionate Wagnerite who instilled into his child a lifelong devotion to the Master of Bayreuth. As Hausegger wrote in a biographical sketch, “My father, Dr. Friedrich von Hausegger, a lawyer, was highly gifted musically, and from his earliest youth had the ardent wish to devote himself completely to this art . . . [I]t was his special pride that he was one of the first in Austria to recognize the greatness of Richard Wagner and to exert himself to the uttermost in order to propagate his music.” Unsurprising for a Wagnerian devotee, Hausegger’s father admired Schopenhauer above all other philosophers; the elder Hausegger even went so far as to write a rebuttal to Eduard Hanslick’s Vom Musikalisch-Schönen. The Wagnerian predilections of both father and son were doubtless further confirmed when, in the midst of an unhappy meeting with Brahms in 1891, the young Hausegger shyly confessed his ambitions as a composer; Brahms’s characteristically sarcastic reply was “Alles schon besetzt.”—“All those jobs are taken.”

Hausegger was educated in a thoroughly Teutonic fashion: along with extensive musical training, he studied literature, philosophy, and art history. His first opera, Helfrid, was performed in 1890 at the Landestheater in his native town, the Austrian city of Graz. Hausegger’s first notable success was with a “romantic-comic” opera after a tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, Zinnobar. In 1898, Richard Strauss established Hausegger’s reputation throughout Germany by conducting a brilliant performance of Zinnobar in Munich. Hausegger settled happily in Munich for the next few years, becoming part of the circle around Alexander Ritter, a violinist, composer and littérateur who was married to Wagner’s niece Franziska. Ritter was a rabid Wagnerian who encouraged the young Richard Strauss to study Wagner’s music closely, and who proselytized the Wagnerian gospel—both racial and aesthetic– to Strauss and Ludwig Thuille. Hausegger, of course, needed no encouragement from Ritter in this regard, and became close to Ritter and his family, marrying Ritter’s daughter, Herta, in 1902. It could not have been lost on Hausegger that his happy union had allied him with the Master’s own bloodline.

In the same year, Hausegger accepted an influential position as a conductor in Franfurt, dividing his time between his duties there and his country house at Obergrainau in the Bavarian highlands, very near to Strauss’ villa at Garmisch. In 1920, Hausegger accepted the post of conductor of the Munich Philharmonic; shortly thereafter he befriended the brilliant young conductor Wilhelm Fürtwangler. The persistence of Hausegger’s peculiar brand of Wagnerian romanticism may well have left him particularly susceptible to the blandishments of the Nazis. Given his unwavering support of Wagner’s aesthetics and nationalism, it is unsurprising that Hausegger signed his name, alongside those of Strauss and other luminaries, to an strident article that appeared on April 16,1933 in the Müncherer Neueste Nachrichten pillorying Thomas Mann for a recent anti-nationalist attack on Wagner. Hausegger eventually recoiled from Hitler’s brutality, but his recantation came too late to save his postwar reputation: he died in 1948 a broken and impoverished man.

Written in1904 and dedicated to “Meiner geliebten Frau,” Wieland der Schmied (“Wieland the Smith”) is a symphonic poem after the expansive Straussian model, but devoid of the slightest hint of Strauss’ irony or self-conscious bravado. Hausegger could not have made his Wagnerian allegiance more overt, for he took as his inspiration the draft of a libretto sketched by Wagner between December 1849 and March 1850. In Wagner’s libretto, Wieland is a proto-Siegfried who saves the beautiful Swanhilde from the clutches of the evil Neidings. Hausegger aptly illustrates Wieland’s yearning for Swanhilde as well as the smithy’s creation of wings that allow for a magical Daedelus-like flight into the heavens. Hausegger’s refulgent music is poised between that of Wagner and Strauss, and the dramatic opening—a storm that distinctly recalls passages from the first act of Die Walküre—as well as the chromatic harmony and lavish orchestration attest to its composer’s fervent and Teutonic romanticism.

Ludwig Thuille, Romantic Overture

By Byron Adams

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

“Those whom the gods love die young.” With this familiar quotation from Menander, the composer Edgar Istel began a concise but perceptive article that was published in a 1934 issue of The Music Quarterly on the all-too-brief career of his teacher, Ludwig Thuille. As Istel relates, Thuille was born in the Tyrolean town of Bozon; orphaned at an early age, he was dispatched by an Austrian uncle to Kremsmüster, where he sang in the choir and received instruction in both piano and violin. Happily, the boy’s evident musical abilities brought him to the attention of a wealthy widow who paid for Thuille’s education. In 1877, Thuille met Richard Strauss in Innsbruck and the two young musicians became close friends. The letters that passed between the two testify to their enduring mutual affection and sympathy.

Two years after meeting Strauss, Thuille was admitted to the Royal Music School in Munich, where he studied with the organist and composer Josef Rheinberger. Rheinberger was a formidable pedant whose method was predicated on an exhaustive study of counterpoint. Perhaps Rheinberger’s conservatism led the young Thuille to harbor an initial distrust for Wagner’s compositional methods, which he dismissed as “fundamentally false.” At this time, Thuille was far more enchanted with the music of Robert Schumann, whose style had a lasting influence on Thuille’s own development as a composer; as Istel forthrightly declares, “Thuille was by nature a romanticist.”

Like Strauss, Thuille was converted eventually into a worshiper at the Wagnerian altar through the efforts of Alexander Ritter, a minor composer, writer, and violinist. Married to one of Wagner’s nieces, Ritter was an uncompromising adherent of Wagner’s music and theories and thus a highly effective proselytizer for the Master of Bayreuth. Thuille’s enthusiasm for the Mage of Bayreuth was further quickened by his marriage in 1887 to Emma Dietl, who was a passionate Wagnerite. Even so, Thuille retained a certain ambivalence towards Wagner; he once remarked approvingly to a student that “[T]he astonishing thing is that you have kept yourself entirely free from the Wagnerian influence!”

As with Schumann, the years following Thuille’s marriage prompted a burst of creative activity. Among the scores that Thuille completed during this joyous period is an attractive Sextet, op. 6, for woodwind quintet and piano, his only composition to secure a modest place in the current repertory. Premiered in 1889 at the Wiesbaden Festival, this Sextet exemplifies Thuille’s style at its most graceful, fluent, and polished. As Istel rightly observes, the Sextet is “facile in invention, remarkably clear in form”; as he also notes, “it affords the wind instruments a grateful opportunity without allowing the piano to overplay its role as accompanying instrument.”

Thuille’s charming Romantische Ouvertüre (“Romantic Overture”) was the result of a much more ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful project. Thuille’s first opera, Teuerdank, is hobbled by Alexander Ritter’s feeble libretto; most of the music is a pale imitation of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wisely declining to publish Teuerdank after its initial production in 1897, Thuille rescued its sparkling introduction by separating it from the opera and giving it a new title. In the rechristened Romantische Ouvertüre, Thuille casts an affectionate backward glance towards the more innocent pre-Wagnerian romanticism of his beloved Schumann.

In addition to his accomplishments as a composer, Thuille was a highly respected composition teacher at the Akademie der Tonkunst in Munich; his students included Ernest Bloch and Walter Braunfels. Istel bears eloquent testimony to Thuille’s gifts as a pedagogue: “Instead of rules and prohibitions [,] Thuille offered meticulous criticism, criticism that consisted solely of the composition at hand, so that each pupil was sure to receive what he needed . . . [A]ccordingly almost every one of his pupils has gone his own way.” Along with his widow and his friend Richard Strauss, Thuille’s students mourned their kindly teacher’s sudden death at the early age of forty-six on February 5, 1907.

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.