By Bryan Gilliam

Richard Strauss
Born June 11, 1864, in Munich, Germany
Died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

An den Baum Daphne (Epilogue from Daphne)
Composed in 1943
Text by Joseph Gregor (1888-1960)
Premiered on January 5, 1947 in Vienna, Austria by the Vienna State Opera Chorus with the Vienna Boys’ Choir conducted by Felix Prohaska.
Performance Time: Approximately 16 minutes

Daphne: Bukolische Tragödie in einem Aufzug
(Bucolic Tragedy in One Act), Op. 82

Composed in 1936-37
Libretto by Joseph Gregor (1888-1960)
Premiered on October 15, 1938 in Dresden at the State Opera House by Semperoper Dresden conducted by Karl Böhm and directed by Max Hofmüller with Margarete Teschemacher as Daphne, Torsten Ralf as Apollo, Martin Kremer as Leukippos, Helen Jung as Gaea, and Sven Nilsson as Peneios.
Performance Time: Approximately 104 minutes


Today’s opera, Daphne: A Bucolic Tragedy, was conceived as a one-act double bill with Friedenstag (Day of Peace), peace in nature and peace among nations, respectively. The celebration of peace in both works was to take the form of a chorus ending each work, but, as we shall see, the plan fell through. The addition of the chorus An den Baum Daphne (To the Daphne Tree), in a sense, restores the original intent, a first here in the United States.

Daphne premiered in 1938 and was preceded by his only other one-act Greek tragedy, Elektra, three decades earlier. But we might argue that there is another one-act mythological opera in between, if we ignore its “opera-within-an opera” status, and that is the second part of the Prologue-Opera pair, Ariadne auf Naxos (1912/16). Though separated by more than two decades, with texts by two dissimilar librettists, Ariadne and Daphne are linked in three ways: 1) by the vital presence of Bacchus (whether on stage or as an integral part of the narrative), 2) by the extensive use of a light Heldentenor as the central male role (a rarity for Strauss), and 3) by the fact that both operas are centered around the theme of transformation.

Yet for Hofmannsthal, the librettist for Ariadne, transformation meant something quite different from what Joseph Gregor intended for his Daphne text. In the former, transformation was a process of becoming at one with the society, with civilization, and the community of humanity, assuring the continuity of life. For Daphne, transformation involved the very act of leaving that human community and joining nature. The humanity that young Daphne saw around her was one of deceit; Apollo came to her as a brother and yet seduced her. Realizing the wrongness of his transgression, he asks Zeus to transform Daphne from human form to an object of nature—the laurel tree. 

Around the time of Daphne, it was not difficult for Strauss to see deception and corruption on a regular basis in Nazi Germany. Indeed, the decade of the 1930s was the most turbulent in the composer’s life. It began with the loss of his treasured librettist Hofmannsthal, who died in 1929, it saw the rise of National Socialism and, thus the emigration of his next librettist, Stefan Zweig (a Jew), and the beginning of his troublesome relationship with his next librettist, Joseph Gregor, the author of Daphne. 

Daphne was Gregor’s only original libretto, and it is arguably his best. The preceding Friedenstag (1936) was based on a scenario by Stefan Zweig, and Die Liebe der Danae (1940) originated from an earlier sketch by Hofmannsthal. Gregor wrote a two-page scenario to Daphne in June 1935, and in overall shape it is not far from the final version, save the inclusion of the character Zeus, an unwieldy pantomime, and, most importantly, a final choral hymn to the transformed Daphne tree. Gregor’s general proposal interested the composer who received a completed draft three months later. 

But now that Gregor’s broad ideas had been spelled out in the specific terms of practical theater, its inherent flaws became alarmingly clear. At bottom, it lacked focus, human conflict, and a sense of shape that would suggest felicitous musical possibilities. Gregor sent the composer a second draft in January 1936, but Strauss was still dissatisfied with the characterizations of Daphne, Apollo, and Leukippos. After some prodding and outside consultation, Gregor submitted a third draft in April. Now the opera had an opening monologue for Daphne, a dialogue with her mother (Gaea), and a monologue for Apollo at the end. Strauss was delighted, and he began composing. 

Thanks to Strauss, the libretto is remarkably concise and compellingly organized into four parts:

Exposition (of the characters): 

Complication (betrayal): 
Apollo’s and Daphne’s illicit love scene

Leukippos’ death

Daphne’s transformation

By early spring 1937, Strauss had got as far as the final scene when he reached a serious creative impasse, and the trouble, not surprisingly, lay with Gregor’s text. Gregor consulted Stefan Zweig, who recommended a gradual build-up to the choral finale, reaching a climax at the completion of Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree: “The sky will fill with stars—lovers come to pay homage before the Daphne tree—Daphne herself becomes a symbol of purest love—a great myth is created.” As moved as Strauss was by Zweig’s suggestion, he needed something more than pageantry. Without informing his librettist, Strauss consulted his friend, Clemens Krauss. “Just read through it once,” the composer implored, “I can’t get on with the ending.” Krauss replied that the idea of bringing people on stage to sing to a tree “was absurd,” and suggested that Strauss “close the piece with the visible transformation [of Daphne] and the gradual transition of human language into the voice of nature.”

The impasse was broken, and an elated Strauss wrote Gregor within days. The letter epitomizes their working relationship, for what Strauss offered his collaborator was lesswa suggestion than a direct order: “No other human beings should be on stage except Daphne, no solo voices, no Peneios—no chorus—in short, no oratorio.” He added:

“In the moonlight, but still fully visible, the miracle of transformation is slowly worked upon her: only with orchestra alone! During the transformation Daphne still speaks, at most a few words, which dissolve into wordless melody! Perhaps not even that! In any case, right at the end, when the tree is fully transformed, she sings—as a voice of nature—eight more bars of the laurel motive.”

By rejecting the choral finale and embracing the instrumental realm, he eliminated words and found a deeper, inward mode of expression. This famous passage, with its soaring melodies, seemingly effortless contrapuntal interplay of returning motives, skillful harmonic pacing, and mastery of orchestral sound is at once rich and refined. This culminating miniature tone poem, with vocal obbligato, is the most magical finale of any late opera by Strauss.

Stefan Zweig, as a Jew in exile, committed suicide in 1942. Strauss was devastated, and he may well have thought of the unused choral finale so nicely recast by the great Austrian writer when he was asked to compose a work for the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus. Whatever the case, that year Strauss informed Gregor that he would like to compose the chorus after all, but as a separate a cappella work—a secular motet—for nine-part mixed chorus of some 20 minutes duration. 

Like many of his a cappella works, An den Baum Daphne is extremely difficult and usually performed by professional choral ensembles. It exploits a full range (especially the upper), it is highly chromatic, and the sometimes-thick textures have tricky melismatic voice leadings. But Strauss weaves these vocal lines in an astoundingly beautiful sonic, vocal web of radiance and luminosity. This work is a culmination of the composer’s a cappella vocal writing, beginning with the unaccompanied men’s choruses of the late 19th century through the famed Deutsche Motette (1914), his greatest a cappella work, through the Drei Männerchöre of the mid 1930s, which serve as a lead up to Friedenstag and Daphne. 

The original plan was for the chorus characters to surround the transformed Daphne tree and sing her praises. Today’s offering allows us to experience both the final version of the opera (as premiered in October 1938) and, in a 

sense, the original concept with chorus after the opera ends with the transformed tree. It should be noted, however, that this chorus is far longer, and more complex, than the original one. Strauss asked his librettist, Joseph Gregor, for new text, now in seven stanzas (introduction, five stanzas, and a coda). The coda is most notable for its blissful melismas and, finally, vocalizing in Daphne’s voice in tandem with another soprano voice, which had been the voice of the oboe (paired with Daphne) in the original opera. They sing a song:

Stronger than the songs of mortals
A song of love,
Of eternity.
Daphne, tree divine
Beloved tree!

Bryan Gilliam is a Professor Emeritus of Music at Duke University.

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