Tuesday, March 7, 2017

WOW: the joy of youth

Keep true to the dreams of your youth.
~Friedrich Schiller

When we think of Richard Strauss, we are drawn to his early operas: Salome or Elektra, or his many tone poems, Don Juan and Til Eulenspiegel, among them. But none of these were Strauss's "breakthrough" compositions. That was something much briefer and steeped in a language and tradition much different than the direction that his compositional journey would take him.

Strauss was born in Munich (1864), the son of the principal horn player in the Court Orchestra. Like the modern day Vienna Philharmonic, the ensemble performed in both the opera and subscription concerts of the Musical Academy. The Munich Court Orchestra, under the leadership of its esteemed conductor, Hans von Bulow, offered the first performances of both Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. Richard's father, Franz--possibly the finest horn player of his day--despised anything to do with Wagner. And yet, this "Joachim of the Waldhorn" (as Bulow would call him) never performed anything without his conscientiousness and artistic perfection.

The young Strauss grew up--like Mozart--surrounded by music and showed his preferences for various instruments at an early age: the horn would bring smiles to his face, while he reacted to the violin with tears (maybe it was the player?) His earliest studies included the piano (from age four) and he began learning the violin when he was eight. And yet, he maintained forever his love for dad's instrument and would eventually compose two of the finest concertos for the horn.

He would be grounded in the classics, hearing Der Freischutz and Die Zauberflote when he was only seven. Attending a large number of concerts, he was drawn to the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, while he shared his father's intense hatred for Wagner. Of Mozart's music, he would state:

...The abundance of the ideas, the harmonic richness, and yet the sense of proportion, the marvelous, lovely, tender, delightful ideas themselves, the delicate accompaniment. Yet one can't play anything like that anymore! All you get now is drivel; either twittering or brash roaring and crashing or sheer musical nonsense. With Mozart, with few means, says everything a listener could desire to be refreshed and truly entertained and edified, the others use all the means at their disposal to say absolutely nothing.

Strauss's homage to Mozart is demonstrated by his first acknowledged masterpiece, the Serenade, Op. 7. In its instrumentation, it bears distinct resemblance to Mozart's Gran Partita, K. 370a. While basset horns were no longer in fashion, Strauss includes two flutes. The rest is the same: pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, four horns and a single bass instrument (string bass or contrabassoon.) While very little is known of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the Serenade, it was the first Strauss work performed in public. von Bulow, who led that premiere, stated at the time, "The Serenade, Op. 7 by Richard Strauss exhibits the virtuosity of our players in the most brilliant light. I make no qualifications regarding its acceptance." The conductor was more than willing to put his money where his mouth was, for he would perform the Serenade no fewer than seven times over the next two years.

The work is classical in its form, nearly a perfect example of sonata-allegro. Strauss demonstrates some of the orchestrational prowess that would bring him fame (and actually it did with the Serenade). But enough of my talk; here's the piece, performed by members of the Czech Philharmonic. There are lots of recordings to be found through a simple Google search, including a nice job by our own U. S. Marine Band. But for me, I like the earthy sounds of the Central and Eastern Europeans.

Need sublimity in your life? Here goes: