Today is the birthday (1864) of Richard Georg Strauss, major German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. He is known for his operas, which include Der Rosenkavalier and Salome; his lieder, particularly his Four Last Songs; and, especially, his tone poems Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra, An Alpine Symphony, and other orchestral works, such as Metamorphosen. Strauss was also a prominent conductor throughout Germany and Austria.
Strauss was born in Munich, the son of Franz Strauss, who was the principal horn player at the Court Opera in Munich. In his youth, he received a thorough musical education from his father. He wrote his first composition at the age of six, and continued to write music almost until his death. During his boyhood Strauss attended orchestra rehearsals of the Munich Court Orchestra (now the Bavarian State Orchestra), and he also received private instruction in music theory and orchestration from an assistant conductor there. In 1872 he started receiving violin instruction at the Royal School of Music from Benno Walter, his father’s cousin.
In 1874 Strauss heard his first Wagner operas, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. The influence of Wagner’s music on Strauss’s style was to be profound, but at first his musically conservative father forbade him to study it. Indeed, in the Strauss household, the music of Richard Wagner was viewed with deep suspicion, and it was not until the age of 16 that Strauss was able to obtain a score of Tristan und Isolde. In later life, Strauss said that he deeply regretted the conservative hostility to Wagner’s progressive works. Nevertheless, Strauss’s father undoubtedly had a crucial influence on his son’s developing taste, not least in Strauss’s abiding love for the horn.
In early 1882 in Vienna he gave the first performance of his Violin Concerto in D minor, playing a piano reduction of the orchestral part himself, with his teacher and cousin Benno Walter as soloist. The same year he entered Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he studied Philosophy and Art History, but not music. He left a year later to go to Berlin, where he studied briefly before securing a post as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow, who had been enormously impressed by the young composer’s Serenade for wind instruments, composed when he was only 16 years of age. Strauss learned the art of conducting by observing Bülow in rehearsal. Bülow was very fond of the young man and decided that Strauss should be his successor as conductor of the Meiningen orchestra when Bülow resigned in 1885. Strauss’s compositions at this time were indebted to the style of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn, true to his father’s teachings. His Horn Concerto No. 1, Op. 11, is representative of this period and is a staple of modern horn repertoire.
Strauss married soprano Pauline de Ahna on 10 September 1894. She was famous for being irascible, garrulous, eccentric and outspoken, but the marriage, to all appearances, was essentially happy and she was a great source of inspiration to him. Throughout his life, from his earliest songs to the final Four Last Songs of 1948, he preferred the soprano voice to all others, and all his operas contain significant soprano roles.
Some of Strauss’s first compositions were solo and chamber works. These pieces include: early compositions for piano solo in a tonally traditional style, many of which are lost; a string quartet (opus 2); a cello sonata; a piano quartet; Violin Sonata in E flat major.
After 1890 Strauss composed very infrequently for chamber groups, his energies being almost completely absorbed with large-scale orchestral works and operas. Four of his chamber pieces are actually arrangements of portions of his operas, including the Daphne-Etude for solo violin, and the string Sextet which is the overture to his final opera Capriccio. His last independent chamber work, an Allegretto in E major for violin and piano, dates from 1940.
Strauss’s style began to truly develop and change when, in 1885, he met Alexander Ritter, a noted composer and violinist, and the husband of one of Richard Wagner’s nieces. It was Ritter who persuaded Strauss to abandon the conservative style of his youth, and begin writing tone poems. He also introduced Strauss to the essays of Richard Wagner and the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer. Strauss went on to conduct one of Ritter’s operas, and at Strauss’s request Ritter later wrote a poem describing the events depicted in Strauss’s tone poem Death and Transfiguration.
The new influences from Ritter resulted in what is widely regarded as Strauss’s first piece to show his mature personality, the tone poem Don Juan (1888), which displays a new kind of virtuosity in its bravura orchestral manner. Strauss went on to write a series of increasingly ambitious tone poems: Death and Transfiguration (1889), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1895), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), Ein Heldenleben (1898), Symphonia Domestica (1903) and An Alpine Symphony (1911–1915). One commentator has observed of these works that “no orchestra could exist without his tone poems, written to celebrate the glories of the post-Wagnerian symphony orchestra.”
For analysis of Strauss’s mature style I am going to focus on the tone poem Till Eulenspiegel. Here it is conducted by Lorin Maazel from memory.
Till Eulenspiegel is an impudent trickster figure originating in Middle Low German folklore. His tales were disseminated in popular printed editions narrating a string of lightly connected episodes that outlined his picaresque career, in Germany, Denmark, the Low Countries, the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy. He was commonly found in English-speaking culture late in the nineteenth century as “Owlglass” (English version of Eulenspiegel), but was previously mentioned in English literature by Ben Jonson in his comedic play The Alchemist, and even earlier – Owleglasse – by Henry Porter in The Two Angry Women of Abington (1599).
The full title of Strauss’s piece is “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche nach alter Schelmenueise in Rondeau form fur grosses Orchester gesetz” (Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks, after the old rogue’s tale, set for large orchestra in Rondo form).It chronicles the misadventures and pranks of the folk hero who is represented by two themes. The first, played by the horn, is a lilting melody that reaches a peak, falls downward, and ends in three long, loud notes, each progressively lower. The second, for D clarinet, is crafty and wheedling, suggesting a trickster doing what he does best. Sometimes these two themes are known as “the adventurer” and “the trickster.”
Strauss keeps the piece moving by casting it as an extended rondo in which this pair of repeating themes is contrasted against separate motifs meant to represent Till’s various adventures. Strauss did not claim the music represented any particular chapters in the Eulenspiegel tales, though when pressed he conceded that the musical episodes include Till riding through a marketplace and upsetting the goods, then poking fun at the clergy, flirting with girls, mocking university academics, and finally being hanged for blasphemy.
In music criticism a piece of music that “describes” a non-musical form such as a story, poem, or image, is called “program music,” as opposed to classical forms such as the sonata and the symphony – music for music’s sake – which is usually called “absolute music.” The brilliance of Till Eulenspiegel lies in the fact that it is neither fully program music nor absolute music either, hence Strauss’s reluctance to nail down each section to a specific story. He felt that one ought to be able to listen to the piece without any reference to an external narrative and, therefore, view it as absolute music even though it had a programmatic side.
Strauss called the piece a rondo, a classical form, but it is not a rondo in the conventional use of the term. Typically a rondo has one principal theme (sometimes called the “refrain”) which alternates with one or more contrasting themes, generally called “episodes,” but also occasionally referred to as “digressions” or “couplets.” Common patterns in the Classical period include: ABA, ABACA, or ABACABA. The number of themes can vary from piece to piece, and the recurring element is sometimes embellished and/or shortened in order to provide for variation. In Till Eulenspiegel the two themes carry equal value and alternate in extraordinary ways with variations in tempo, orchestration, harmony, and syncopation. He wrote to Franz Wüllner, who conducted the first performance, “I really cannot provide a program for Eulenspiegel. Any words into which I might put the thoughts that the several incidents suggested to me would hardly suffice; they might even offend. Let me leave it, therefore, to my listeners to crack the hard nut the Rogue has offered them. By way of helping them to a better understanding, it seems enough to point out the two Eulenspiegel motifs [Strauss here jots down the two themes], which, in the most diverse disguises, moods, and situations, pervade the whole up to the catastrophe when, after being condemned to death, Till is strung up on the gibbet. For the rest, let them guess at the musical joke a Rogue has offered them.” Strauss did not want to have detailed program notes describing the various incidents in the piece because he did not want the audience to be distracted by being glued to the program, figuring out which musical section belonged to which incident. He wanted them to just listen to the music.
In 1905 he tried to explain his theories to a French writer and critic, in a letter he wrote “a poetic program is exclusively a pretext for the purely musical expression and development of my emotions.” The program was not, Strauss emphasized, “a simple physical description of precise facts of life. For this would be contrary to the spirit of music.” But Strauss never felt dependent on Classic forms in his series of tone poems either. “New ideas must search for new forms,” he kept on insisting. For the most part he was successful in his formal structures. Whatever the intrinsic value of the musical materials, Strauss put them into well-integrated free forms – modified sonata, variations, rondo. He was a superb technician.
The work is scored for a large, complex orchestra allowing for extraordinary richness and variation, which Strauss takes full advantage of:
woodwind: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in B-flat, D clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon
brass: 4 horns in F and E, 4 horns in D, 3 trumpets in F and C, 3 trumpets in D, 3 trombones, tuba
percussion: timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, large ratchet
strings: violins I, II, violas, violoncellos, double basses
Many critics argue that the tone poem reached its pinnacle in Strauss’s oeuvre. Although technically highly sophisticated, his tone poems remain accessible to the general public as seen in the opening bars of Also sprach Zarathustra which Stanley Kubrick famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. After Strauss the tone poem quickly waned in popularity with composers, as if the master had perfected the form and there was nothing left for his followers to accomplish.
Strauss was from Munich, the capital of Bavaria. Historically the everyday cuisine of the citizens of Munich differed somewhat from that of the rural people of Bavaria, especially in the greater consumption of meat. In the city, more people could afford beef, and on festival days, roast veal was preferred. From 1840 to 1841, with Munich having a population of about 83,000 citizens, 76,979 calves were slaughtered, that is, approximately one calf per citizen per year. The number of slaughtered cows was about 20,000. Bratwursts of beef were especially popular. In the 19thcentury, potatoes were also accepted as a part of Bavarian cuisine, but they could still not replace the popularity of Dampfnudel, steamed yeast dumplings.
One author wrote in 1907, “The ‘Munich cuisine’ is based on the main concept of the ‘eternal calf’. In no other city in the world is so much veal consumed as in Munich. Even breakfast consists mainly of veal in all possible forms mostly sausages and calf viscus! The dinner and evening meal consist only of all sorts of veal. And still the Munich innkeepers speak of a ‘substantial selection of dishes’ without realizing that the one-sidedness of the ‘Munich veal cuisine’ cannot be surpassed any more!”
Bavaria is sometimes nicknamed the “Weisswurst Equator.” The Weisswurst was created in Munich on February 22, 1857, and has since become a very important part of Bavarian cooking. The Weisswurst is so important there that a number of “rules” and taboos have been created around this popular dish. Those who don’t follow these rules are quickly labeled as “foreigners” (i.e. non-Bavarian).
1. The Weisswurst must never be eaten with fork and knife. Instead, one is supposed to cut it in half, and with the hands, pick up one of the halves and dip it in sweet (and only sweet) mustard. The Weisswurst is to be eaten only with the hands.
2. The Weisswurst is to be eaten only with a roll or pretzel and sweet mustard – no other side dishes are acceptable.
3. The Weisswurst cannot be eaten after 12:00pm. This rule actually goes back to the 19th century when the wurst was first invented. Back then, there was no way to preserve or refrigerate fresh, uncooked wurst. Because of this, all Weisswurst that was made had to be eaten quickly, so the rule was created that the wurst could not be eaten after 12:00pm to avoid any food-borne illnesses.
With the right equipment it is easy enough to make Weisswurst at home. You need a meat grinder with fine blades, and a sausage nozzle. The wurst can be cooked in plain water, but I prefer to use a good Munich beer. It really lifts the taste.
5 feet natural hog casing
1 tablespoon white vinegar
3 ½ lb veal shoulder, trimmed, cut into ½ inch cubes
½ lb pork fat cut into ½ inch cubes
1 ½ cups onion, finely chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
4 tsp lemon zest, grated
1 ¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Munich beer (optional)
Place the casing in medium bowl. Cover generously with cold water and stir in the vinegar. Allow casing to soak 30 minutes.
Drain the casing. Fit one end of the casing over mouth of faucet and holding it in place run a thin stream of cold water slowly through length of casing, untwisting as the water passes through. Increase water flow slightly to stretch casing to full width. Allow water to run through the casing for 2 minutes and then return casing to a bowl of cold water.
Pass the veal through a meat grinder fitted with a fine disc a bowl; grind pork fat into same bowl. Sprinkle onions, parsley, lemon zest, salt, and pepper over the meat mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until evenly distributed. Pass the mixture through the grinder at least twice, then beat the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon until creamy and light.
Remove the blade and disc from the grinder and attach a sausage funnel. Drain the sausage casing thoroughly. Run your fingers gently down the length of casing, pressing thumb and forefinger together, to remove water. Pass the forcemeat through the grinder until even with end of funnel in order to prevent an initial air pocket. Fit one end of the casing over mouth of funnel. Pull the rest of the casing up on to funnel, leaving 4 inches hanging. Tie the unattached end of the casing into double knot to seal.
Pass the veal mixture through the funnel into the casing, easing the casing off the funnel gradually as the casing fills out. Work at a steady pace, making sure the casing is evenly and firmly packed. If any air pockets form in the casing, pierce them with needle. Continue filling the casing until all veal mixture is used. Tie the top end of the casing into a double knot. To form smaller sausages, tie the casing tightly at 4-inch intervals with short pieces of butcher’s twine.
Heat a large kettle or stockpot with salted water or Munich beer over medium heat to boiling. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting. Form the sausages into coil and place in large flat plate. Slip sausages into water; cook, covered, until firm, about 20 minutes. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon to a warmed serving platter. Serve with pretzels or rolls and a good Munich beer.
Yield 4 lb.