Brussels Philharmonic | programme notes

Strauss: Don Juan & Ein Heldenleben

programme notes


Richard Strauss Don Juan, op. 20 (1888)
Richard Strauss Serenade for Winds in E-flat Major, op. 7 (1881)
Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben, op. 40 (1898)

[read also: What defines a hero?]
[read also: O Superman]
[read also: Soundscapes]
[read also: Photographic Hero]
[all programme notes]


30.09.2023 FLAGEY

‘I am not a hero. I don’t have the strength for it. I’m not fit for the battle. I prefer to stay in the background, in a quiet place.’

Strauss: A Hero’s Life

Richard Strauss (1864–1949) is known as the composer of the symphonic poem — a romantic genre composed of a single movement for symphonic orchestra, in which the composer depicts a story in musical form. At the end of the 19th century, Strauss developed this genre into a stand-alone composition that no longer required any external text or explanation. One of the innovative things about his approach was the overarching dramatic tension and organic structure, which unfolds as the story unfurls.

Strauss composed more than nine Tondichtungen (tone poems), of which Don Juan was the one that heralded his breakthrough as a composer in 1889. With this work, he also broke away from his youthful, more classically inspired style and focused on modern compositions, with Wagner and literature as his greatest sources of inspiration. Debussy, no less, called Ein Heldenleben, Strauss’ penultimate symphonic poem, ‘a picture book, even cinematography’. So eloquent was Strauss’ imagery, that he claimed a programme was not necessary: ‘It is enough to know that it is a hero battling his enemies.’ The work reads as the composer’s artistic life story, but dig deeper and behind the ironic layer you will discover a universal theme: the individual's struggle for freedom in the face of a complex external and internal world.

Breaking with tradition

Strauss was barely eighteen years old when he composed the Serenade Op.7 for thirteen wind instruments in 1881. The influence of his father, first horn in the orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera, is clearly audible: not only does the music evoke fragments of the music the young Richard grew up with, but the horn as an instrument also plays a prominent role. Based on own Strauss’ words, his father's musical tastes were quite conservative: ‘His musical trinity was Mozart (above all), Haydn and Beethoven. To these were added Schubert, as songwriter, Weber, and, at some distance, Mendelssohn and Spohr. To him Beethoven's later works, from the Finale of the Seventh Symphony onward, were no longer “pure” music (one could begin to scent in them that Mephistophelian figure Richard Wagner).’

Strauss modelled his serenade on the classical sonata form as in Mozart’s Gran Partita, but was already casting a glance into the future in the vocals and melodic lines. The rich timbres, lyrics and passionate melodies that are so characteristic of his later works start to surface here. The work premiered on 27 November 1882, under the direction of Franz Wüllner (who conducted, among other things, the premieres in Munich of Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Die Walküre), and was immediately picked up by the influential conductor Hans Von Bülow. He liked Strauss’ serenade so much that he put the work on the programme for the European tour of the Meininger Hofkapelle and a few years later even asked the young composer for a new composition for the same combination of instruments.

Tragic fate

From 1885, Strauss took a different approach. After meeting Alexander Ritter, a well-known composer and violinist and the husband of one of Richard Wagner’s nieces, he focused on composing large-scale works with literature as one of the main sources of inspiration. Between 1886 and 1888 he composed the four-part Aus Italien and Macbeth, only to break through one year later with Don Juan. Tondichtung (nach Nicolaus Lenau) für großes Orchester, op.20.

The Don Juan that Strauss evokes in his eponymous tone poem is not the unscrupulous skirt chaser in the popular imagination. Strauss found his inspiration in the unfinished poem by Nikolaus Lenau, which he had come to know during a performance of the play Don Juans Ende in 1885, in the company of Von Bülow. In Lenau’s poem, the main character is driven by a desire for the feminine ideal. However, when he realises that this desire will never be completely fulfilled, he sees death as the only solution. The music in Strauss’ composition evolves from confident and romantic melodies to a lamenting and tragic finale with a wave of brass and percussion. At the end, three pianissimo chords resound: Don Juan’s fate is sealed.

When the score was published, Strauss included three fragments from Lenau’s poem. However, he himself never foresaw a clear plot description; he preferred to leave that to the listener’s imagination. And although a number of lines from Lenau’s poem are explicitly erotic, that was not what Strauss cared about. What did matter was the philosophical idea behind the story of this tragic hero: the pursuit of ideal love.

A human hero

In the programme notes for the premiere of Ein Heldenleben, op. 40, Strauss indicated that the subject of his tone poem ‘sketched not a single poetical or historical figure, but rather a more general and free idea of a great and manly heroism’. Strauss penned the first sketches of this large-scale work as early as 1897, while still composing his earlier symphonic poem Don Quixote. He described these first fragments as ‘a desire for peace after the struggle with the world; refuge in solitude: the idyll’. He completed the work at the end of 1898 and dedicated it to conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouworkest (although the premiere took place in Frankfurt on 3 March 1899). Ein Heldenleben consists of six parts, which are played consecutively without a break. Strauss originally gave the parts a title, only to remove them again before the publication of the score. Consecutively, they are as follows: the hero – the hero’s adversaries – the hero’s female companion – the hero at battle – the hero’s works of peace – the hero’s withdrawal from the world and fulfillment.

The reactions of the public and the press after the premiere were mixed. Those who read it as an autobiographical work found the composer conceited. According to Strauss, it was ‘only partially true’ that he identified himself with the hero. In a letter to Romain Rolland, he admitted that he found himself ‘no less interesting than Napoleon’. But beneath this self-confident layer are also indirect links to the philosophy of Nietzsche and his concept of the Übermensch, an idea that very much preoccupied Strauss. He saw his two symphonic poems Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben as counterparts of each other, only to be fully understood when placed in juxtaposition. Whereas the heroism in Don Quixote is purely fictional, it is human and worldly in Ein Heldenleben. It reflects the eternal inner and outer struggle of the individual, who seeks solace in love. Strauss said, ‘I am not a hero. I don’t have the strength for it. I’m not fit for the battle. I prefer to stay in the background, in a quiet place.’

Mockup featuring three mupis placed at an underground station s wall 2852 el1 1

What is a hero?

What defines a hero? Who are they or how do you become one? Is a hero by definition heroic? Or do they have the same flaws as everyone, do they make the same human mistakes? Can one call themselves a hero?

Together with a multidisciplinary team, the Brussels Philharmonic explores the concept of heroism from various angles in relation to the concert Ein Heldenleben. The heroes depicted in Strauss’ music are surely not anymore the heroes we admire today - or are they?

Brussels Philharmonic Kazushi Ono DREAMS 2023 c Wouter Van Vaerenbergh 81

Heldenleben: soundscapes

In the concert Ein Heldenleben poetic soundscapes designed by Stef Van Alsenoy and Fanny Gilbert-Collet resonate between the three works of Richard Strauss. Together with a veil of misty light, they create a unique sonic world that adds new depth to the concept of a 'hero.'

These soundscapes draw inspiration from Pablo Neruda's poem Muchos Somos. The proximity shared by the spoken voice with the audience provides an opportunity to delve deeper into the subconscious. Furthermore, the haikus of the Japanese poet Natsume Soseki bring to life the four stages of human existence, like subtle brushstrokes on the canvas of the evening.

Oh Super Man

O Superman

Since 2021, Brussels Philharmonic has been collaborating on and off the stage with contemporary music ensemble Ictus. For Ein Heldenleben, Jean-Luc Plouvier from Ictus provides the dramaturgical context. Especially for this concert, which focuses on Richard Strauss and the theme of (anti)heroes, he created a unique cover of Laurie Anderson's worldwide hit, O Superman.