Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Myth & Magic: Part 2 - Strauss' "Death & Transfiguration"

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony take place Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. Called “Music of Myth and Magic,” the program consists of four works, three I'd already written about in an earlier post – Paul Dukas' “Sorcerer's Apprentice,” a work most famous for its use in a film, and two scores originally composed for films: Prokofiev's “Lt. Kije,” and “On the Waterfront” by Leonard Bernstein.

This post presents a little background to Richard Strauss' “Death and Transfiguration,” which will conclude the first half of this concert conducted by Stuart Malina.

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It might seem odd for a guy who's turning 25 to be contemplating the End of Life. But that's how old Richard Strauss was (see photo, left, taken at that time) when he wrote his fourth tone poem, “Death and Transfiguration” (Tod und Verklärung), completing it in 1889 (Mahler had been working on his 2nd Symphony, the “Resurrection” at the same time, a different approach to a similar program or story).

A “symphonic poem” or “tone poem” is basically a musical work that describes the action of a story in an orchestral composition but without a text. While many compositions may imply a story or some dramatic event or mood – Beethoven's “Eroica” or his 5th Symphony – these are more abstract (see earlier post). Even though Beethoven and Vivaldi both depicted singing birds and thunderstorms in their music and Clement Janequin used singers to imitate the sounds of bugles, drums, cannons and gunfire in his madrigal “The Battle of Marignan” (published in 1531), the idea of taking a literal story – specifically, a literary one – and turning it into a musical score as realistically told as you might with a movie was something you could say Franz Liszt invented. At least he's usually given credit for it though more for the term than for the concept.

Composers had used symphonies to “tell stories” before – Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique is a good example – but Liszt (who himself wrote two symphonies, one inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy, the other by Goethe's Faust) was thinking about something on a less expansive scale where the story could be told in a single movement. In the past, they would've been called “concert overtures,” not to be confused with overtures that helped raise the curtain on a staged work with music (either an opera or incidental music for a play, the 19th Century equivalent of a film-score). But since these theatrical overtures often told or implied the story in condensed form, they usually only took these ideas and converted them into themes representing characters or emotions or concepts in the story which were developed along symphonic lines. Though one could get the gist of the story from this material, it wasn't a literal translation of the plot into a logical musical format (or even a musicological one). The music could give you the sense of the story but it might not necessarily follow the course of the action, perhaps the difference between reading the Clift Notes or a Reader's Digest condensed version than reading the original story that inspired the music.

Liszt's idea was to take a poem or a play or a short story or novel and transform it into music, even though in many cases his tone poems are little different from other composers' “concert overtures.” Rather than telling a story with a plot line, Liszt's most famous symphonic poem, Les Preludes, is more about abstract philosophy and the emotional reactions it inspired, so it's really an exception to whatever “rule” he may have had in mind. Musical terms, of course, are never precise and it's pointless to argue about the niceties of these differences.

Usually, there's a work, let's say, Nikolas Lenau's poem about Don Juan, a favorite literary subject even before the 19th Century, though Lenau isn't re-writing the same Don Juan (or Don Giovanni) story that inspired Mozart. A composer likes this work and is inspired by it, feeling it's suitable for musical treatment. That's how Richard Strauss, at 24, composed his first major tone poem, Don Juan.

His next poem, already in the oven when he conducted the premiere of Don Juan, had a different inspiration. A few years later, the composer wrote that he wanted
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“ present in the form of a tone poem the dying hours of a man who had striven towards the highest idealistic aims, maybe indeed those of an artist. The sick man lies in bed, asleep, with heavy irregular breathing; friendly dreams conjure a smile on the features of the deeply suffering man; he wakes up; he is once more racked with horrible agonies; his limbs shake with fever–as the attack passes and the pains leave off, his thoughts wander through his past life; his childhood passes before him, the time of his youth with its strivings and passions and then, as the pains already begin to return, there appears to him the fruit of his life’s path, the conception, the ideal which he has sought to realize, to present artistically, but which he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to be able to accomplish such things.  The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things which could not be fulfilled here below.”
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Like a typical composer who has both abstract and emotional interests in what might inspire him to write a particular piece, he also told a friend in another letter, that
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"It was an idea like any other... Probably the musical need, after Macbeth [which begins and ends in D minor] and Don Juan [which begins and ends in E minor] to write a piece that begins in C minor and finishes in C major!"
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He took this dramatic idea – not about someone watching a man die but of describing death as a process of living told from the perspective of the dying man – and set it to music, section by section as he outlined it.

Maybe because symphonic poems were supposed to be based on some pre-existing literary work, he felt the need to ask a friend of his, Alexander Ritter, to take his idea and turn it into a poem. It's important to note that the story-outline came first, then the poem was tailor-made to fit Strauss' musical conception. The poem was printed as the preface to the score when the work was published.

The choice of Ritter for this task is significant.

Strauss had grown up in a time when Wagner was writing what today we'd call “contemporary music” and his controversial aesthetic concepts were all the rage. But there were those who, like many people who dislike their time's brand of “contemporary music,” were very much opposed to Wagner and his music. One such person was Franz Strauss, Richard's father, who was one of the leading horn-players in Munich who often had to play Wagner's operas with all those great horn solos. Even though Strauss grew up listening to the orchestra's rehearsals, he was forbidden to hear Wagner's music until he was “old enough.” He was 16 when he first saw the score of Tristan und Isolde even though his father had played its world premiere in Munich 15 years earlier.

Franz Strauss was hired to play principal horn for the world premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882, his 18-year-old son going along. (Keep in mind, Richard Strauss had already written his first horn concerto the year before, very much inspired by the classical ideals his father had raised him in.) Wagner's music both fascinated and revolted the young composer. After his first encounter with Siegfried, the third opera of Wagner's Ring, he wrote to a friend,

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I was bored to tears... it was dreadful... not a trace of connected melodies... chaos... Wagner even uses a trumpet mute to make it all absolutely and unspeakably dreadful. My ears were buzzing with those ugly chords, that revolting wailing and howling... words fail me to describe to you just how frightful it all is.”
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Two years after Parsifal, the 20-year-old composer and, by now, employed conductor, met Alexander Ritter, a composer and violinist (also married to a niece of Wagner's) who, basically, “turned him on” to the music of Liszt and Wagner, the whole “Music of the Future” movement that embroiled German Music in the last half of the 19th Century and which his father had so hated. Suddenly, this composer of conservative abstract works both in traditional chamber music and symphonic genre began to think of lavish tone poems in a Lisztian style, writing tone poems almost exclusively over the next twelve years: Aus Italien (completed in 1886), Macbeth (1887-1888), Don Juan (1888), Death and Transfiguration (1889), Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (1895), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), Ein Heldenleben (1898) before turning his attention primarily to opera by 1900.

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In these three video clips, you can hear Richard Strauss' complete tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic:
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Death and Transfiguration is in several sections, paralleling the sections Strauss had outlined in his description quoted above.

The irregular rhythms of the opening clearly show the dying man’s halting breaths and heart-beat – and whether consciously or not, very similar to the music Wagner composed for the dying Tristan in Act III of Tristan und Isolde

The man rouses himself with his childhood memories (in the video, at 2:30) with a series of lyrical woodwind and violin solos above luminous horns and strings. But the pain intrudes again with a strike from the timpani and low brass (at 5:04) beginning a tumultuous battle scene as he fights for life (c.6.05).

As Ritter wrote in his poem: “But Death grants him little sleep or time for dreams.  He shakes his prey brutally to begin the battle afresh (at 6:47). The drive to live, the might of Death. What a terrifying contest!” 

At the end of this battle, the brass briefly announce a rising, triumphant theme (at 7:55) that will represent his eventual transfiguration and the realization of his ideals. 

Exhausted but wakeful after this battle (c.8:14), the artist’s life passes before his mind’s eye. This music continues into the second video clip.

A friend of mine once complained that all Strauss did here was rip off Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony which has a similar kind of "program." I pointed out two simple facts:

Strauss conducted the premiere of Death and Transfiguration in 1889.

Tchaikovsky composed his Symphony No. 6 (the Pathetique) in 1893.

It might also remind you of Sir Edward Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, an oratorio about the death and transfiguration of a dying old man, but Elgar composed his work in 1900.

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Part 2

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At 0:20 we hear more youthful memories, including something a little more playful (at 0:59). This turns into a series of struggles and triumphs, the longest section of the piece which begins at 1:53.  

The Transfiguration Theme rings out periodically during this struggle as does the intermittent recurrence of the heart beat, but at 4:38, after a determined statement of the Transfiguration Motive, he once more subsides, with weakening heartbeats portrayed by the timpani.

Death finally triumphs with an angry proclamation from the brass (at 8:10) — what Ritter called “the final iron hammer-blow.”  Annoying as editing on YouTube can be, the resolution of this dramatic moment is CUT OFF AT THE MOMENT OF DEATH (arrrrgh)!

(This reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague of mine at UConn, also a former professor of mine in grad school, who was talking about some of Bruckner's motives being like a “memento mori” which I inadvertently referred to later as a “mOmento mori.” He laughed and said, “no, a MEMento mori is a reminder that Death is always with you; MOMento mori,” he said leaning forward with his hands about to grab me around the neck, “is the exact moment of death!” and then he laughed. So here is a fine example of the momento mori...)

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Part 3

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What follows, moving now to the 3rd clip which rudely cuts off that climactic chord, is Strauss’s evocation of “everlasting space” – shimmering chords building gradually from the initial upward leap of the Transformation Theme to a full and rapturous statement of it at 2:09, first in winds and strings, then triumphantly in the full orchestra at 4:52, building the tension to a heart-rending resolution at 5:36 where one could say the Transmigration of the Soul has now been completed. The work closes in a mood of quiet exaltation.

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There is, in a sense, an epilogue. Let's skip ahead 60 years to 1949. Strauss is now 85 and lying in his villa in Garmisch, having survived a tumultuous career as well as the recent challenges of World War II with his on-again/mostly-off-again relationship with Hitler's Nazi government (one more of mutual toleration than political fervency). The grand old man of German music is old, sick and close to death.

Near the end, he told his daughter-in-law, “It's a funny thing, Alice, but dying is just as I composed it in 'Death and Transfiguration'...”

It was not a coincidence that in his final work, the “Four Last Songs,” he includes the Transformation Theme in the epilogue to “Im Abendrot (At Sunset)” with its last lines,

“How weary we are of journeying: is this, then, Death?”

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