Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Suite Sounds: Richard Strauss and the Would-Be Gentleman

In September, Stuart Malina talked about this month's Masterworks Concert during a pre-season preview at the Midtown Scholar, describing (briefly) the phenomenon that is John Cage's 4'33'' which opens a concert called “Suite Sounds” (you can read more about the Cage, here) which includes a suite from Richard Strauss' music for a 17th Century French play, Le boursgeois gentilhomme, a suite of lute pieces from around 1600 revived by Ottorino Respighi in his Ancient Airs and Dances and the 5th of the “Brandenburg” Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach which features soloists the now officially full-time [no longer acting] concertmaster, Peter Sirotin, principal flutist David diGiacobbe and guest harpsichordist Arthur Haas.

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Well, that concert is this weekend, already, Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday at 3:00 at the Forum with Dr. Timothy Dixon offering the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. Tickets start at $12 and you can buy tickets at the door if you don't already have a Masterworks subscription.

Students & children receive a 50% discount off single ticket prices. (Students should present a valid student ID card.) Student Rush tickets are available on a limited basis 30 minutes before each Masterworks performance at a cost of $10.00 per student with a valid student ID card.

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The Would-Be Gentleman
The story behind Richard Strauss's music for Moliere's play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, is a long and complicated one. It was part of a large project that combined an adaptation of a play originally produced in 1670 (complete with incidental music and choreography) and a half-hour chamber opera that was the evening's culminating entertainment.

Unfortunately, it proved too long for the audience (a 45-minute reception between the play and the opera didn't help) which consisted primarily of people who were there either for the play or for the opera but who didn't seem to be interested in both. Rather than have the opera performed to a half-empty house, Strauss and his collaborator Hugo von Hoffmansthal broke it up into two separate pieces: one, an orchestral suite from the play; and, secondly, an opera that could be produced on its own.

The opera is Ariadne auf Naxos, based on a classic Greek myth (with humorous touches courtesy of Moliere's plot).

The incidental music for the play is not so well known and may not sound too much like the Strauss you're familiar with from the great tone poems of his youth – Ein Heldenleben or Also sprach Zarathustra – the blood-curdling operas of the first decade of the 20th Century, Salome and Elektra, or the lush beauty of Der Rosenkavalier's final trio (from 1910) or the “Four Last Songs” (from 1948) you might have heard last month with the Harrisburg Symphony and Janice Chandler-Eteme (you can read about - and hear them - here).

The play is a comedy about a man named Monsieur Jourdain whose father made a fortune as a cloth merchant: his own goal in life is to be accepted as an aristocrat, overcoming his middle-class background. The original French title is difficult to translate (so it usually isn't) since a gentleman cannot be bourgeois: to the class-oriented society of 17th Century France, the two are mutually exclusive. The best English translation would be “The Would-Be Gentleman.”

We follow M. Jourdain through his preparation for a great dinner complete with a fencing lesson, a fitting with his tailor (trying out the aristocrat's new clothes), the entrance of a middle-class young man whom his daughter is (unfortunately) in love with (disguised as the son of the Turkish sultan, Cleonte will later trick Jourdain into allowing her marriage), all interspersed with courtly dances suitable for a noble entertainment fit for a king.

(In fact, in Moliere's original, King Louis XIV would not have been just a member of the audience: he loved to dance and would have participated in the performance himself.)

The concluding dinner is replete with the bleating of sheep (quoting the appropriate moment from his earlier tone-poem, Don Quixote) when the lamb course is served (at 3:30 in the last clip, below), and bird-calls for some of the other dishes Jourdain's cook presents to impress his guests.

Here is a performance of Strauss' suite with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe:

The Overture:

M. Jourdain's Minuet:

The Fencing Master:

The Dance of the Tailors (in which M. Jourdain models his elegant new clothes):

M. Jourdain tries on his new clothes

Lully's Minuet:

The Courante:

Cleonte's Entrance (after Lully):


The Dinner:

You'll notice a number of things about this music. First of all, it's written for quite a small orchestra by comparison to the huge orchestras normally used by Strauss and his contemporary Gustav Mahler only years earlier, often exceeding 100 in number. This work is scored for pairs of winds, only three brass instruments, a few percussionists, and a relatively small string section plus a very prominent part for the piano. There are virtuosic solos for many of the instrumentalists, especially the concertmaster in the Tailors' Dance (which represents Jourdain trying out his new clothes), the trumpet and trombone in the previous movement's joust with the fencing master along with many other spotlights throughout the piece.

Another thing you might notice is the style. And the name of Lully, the leading French composer of the 17th Century who wrote the original music for Moliere's play in 1670. Strauss incorporates some of Lully's music directly or imitates its style.

This evocation of a past and largely forgotten era is something fairly new, particularly considering the other direction modern music was taking at the time with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and works by Schoenberg breaking down the traditional tonal language of the 19th Century.

We tend to place anything that sounds old under the banner of the “neo-classic” school whether it sounds Classical or Baroque or Renaissance, evoking the clarity of Mozart and Haydn, the counterpoint of Bach and Handel or – as in the case of Respighi's “Ancient Airs and Dances” also on this program – even earlier music from around 1600.

But there's one thing to mention.

While the “first neo-classic piece” is usually said to be Stravinsky's resetting of music presumably by Pergolesi in his ballet Pulcinella in 1917, Strauss' score for Le bourgeois gentilhomme is originally from six years earlier. It's often dated 1917 because that was when he published the two separate pieces – suite and opera – but the original production of the play with its operatic finale was given in October of 1912, the music completed the year before!

So Richard Strauss, by being old-fashioned, created something completely new by delving back into the distant past for his inspiration whether he was aware it was “revolutionary” or not.

Eventually, the idea of trotting out old music in new ways became so common-place, one critic dismissed it as the “Grave-Robber School of Music.” Stravinsky had his Back-to-Bach moment with the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto (the opening sounds so much like Bach's 3rd “Brandenburg” Concerto), a Back-to-Handel moment with his opera, The Rake's Progress, and even a Back-to-Tchaikovsky moment with his ballet, The Fairy's Kiss.

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It's interesting to realize that once Strauss and von Hoffmansthal agreed to work on this original project in 1910, Strauss was impatient to begin on the opera. He was very busy with several new productions of his recently premiered opera, Der Rosenkavalier, which, compared to the biblical and Greek stories of his earlier operas, was Strauss's “take” on Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.

To keep himself occupied while Hoffmansthal worked on the opera's libretto, Strauss wrote his “Alpine Symphony,” a vast tone-poem (and only a symphony in name) complete with one of the great thunder-storms of music, written for a huge orchestra of over 100 players (not counting 12 offstage brass). He'd been thinking of this for years and had already begun writing it when he received the news that Gustav Mahler had just died in May, 1911. More or less complete, it wasn't ready for its premiere until after Le bourgeois gentilhomme had been completed, premiered and withdrawn.

It is difficult to imagine these two works occupying the same composer at the same time! (Check out the last five minutes of this video-clip – with a Venezuelan Youth Orchestra, no less!)

Richard & Pauline Strauss and their son, Franz: 1910
Also, this portrait of the composer at home: Strauss may have been an irascible man to deal with in rehearsals, but he was infamously meek in front of his wife, Pauline, a former opera singer. His life was dominated by her idea of domesticity: nothing was done without her direct supervision, from the cooking to the cleaning (guests were required to wash their hands and comb their hair before dinner) to the protection of her husband's schedule.

He would wake at 9am and be in his study to start composing at 10 following breakfast. Then, taking a break at mid-day, he would take a walk around their villa's grounds followed by lunch, then a half-hour nap, another shorter walk and then three more hours' work at his desk before dinner. However, this didn't stop Pauline from interrupting him one afternoon, while he'd been in the midst of his opera, Elektra, to tell him to walk into town "to fetch the milk as the maid was busy."

One time, in a cab, while Pauline was "systematically reproaching" her husband in her usual fashion, the cabby turned to him and asked, "Are you going to stand for that?" Strauss meekly shrugged his shoulders. The cabby recommended instead he should "throw the cow out." (There is no mention of the cabby's tip.)

To a friend, the composer wrote,

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I work in the summer, very coolly, without hurrying, without emotion, and slowly. Invention takes time, if it is to lead to something new and exciting. The greatest art in the inventive process is the art of waiting... I compose everywhere, taking a walk, driving [actually, the chauffeur is driving; he is riding...], during meals, at home or in noisy hotels, in my garden, in railway carriages. My sketchbook never leaves me.
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Shortly after writing this, his friend Hugo von Hoffmansthal, who had written the libretto for Der Rosenkavalier, suggested two new works - one, based on the myth of Ariadne abandoned by Theseus on the Isle of Naxos; the other, a fairy-tale that would eventually become the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow). Eventually, as Ariadne took shape, he suggested prefacing it with a comedy, something perhaps by Moliere...

- Dick Strawser

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