The Trouble With Strauss
5 Oct 2011
Inside the Classics

I’ll be honest. It took me a long time – a very long time – to warm up to Richard Strauss. No, not because of the whole “Hitler’s favorite composer” thing, though he certainly didn’t help his own image much during the war years. And not because I don’t like big, romantic epic compositions that leave musicians and audience alike exhausted at the end of the evening – I’ve always loved Mahler, after all.

But there’s just something about Strauss and his impossibly dense, unapologetically brassy tone poems that used to leave me… well, I was going to say cold, but that’s the wrong way to put it. The way Strauss really used to leave me, at the end of a hard day spent up against my practice stand, was frustrated. Frustrated and unsatisfied.

Of course, I’m a string player, and the point at which I began to be able to appreciate Strauss was the point (and every string player other than most violinists gets to this point eventually) at which I realized that not every piece of music has to be about me. Because here’s the thing about Strauss’s string parts:

1. They are a hell of a lot of work to learn.

2. During nearly all of the most technically demanding sections, they will be inaudible during the performance.

I’m not kidding about this. We’re playing Strauss’s most epic of epic tone poems, Ein Heldenleben, this week, and my part is just chock full of stuff like this…

click for full size

…which, honestly? I can totally do that. I’m a highly trained professional musician, and I can play that garbage. I’m also totally willing to put in the time and effort it takes to get it under my fingers. I really am. But at the end of the day, once I’ve put in that time and effort, it would be really nice if someone in the audience might actually be able to hear me play it.

But all too often, in Strauss’s world, no dice. Most of the brutal string passagework he set down for the strings is inevitably obliterated by one of the seemingly endless Brassplosions™ going on behind us. In fact, you could boil my entire youthful distaste for Strauss down to a single-minded conviction that his music was nothing but an extended self-aggrandizement session for brass players with too much testosterone. Exhibit A: that passage I excerpted above. Go ahead and jump to around the 28:40 mark of this clip, and you’ll hear what it actually sounds like in performance.

Chicago Symphony under Daniel Barenboim, circa 1993.

Only wait, no, you won’t. Because not a single note I posted above is actually audible, is it? Oh, sure, you get a couple of good shots of the viola section scrubbing away around the 29-minute mark, but honestly, I could scrub away at a bunch of utterly random notes while the trumpets blast away behind me and get much the same effect without all the sweating over my practice stand at home, couldn’t I?

Well, as it turns out, no, I couldn’t, and this is the essence of Strauss’s music that I just didn’t get when I was 16, or 20, or even 25. Where Mahler created his soundscapes by giving nearly every instrument group highly detailed solo passages that often bleed into each other mid-phrase, Strauss used each section of the orchestra to create broad effects that are really only detectable from the audience. What sounds like a mass of hard-to-play notes under my ear becomes, from ten rows back, a small part of a rushing string texture that carries the melody along like a raging river. Remove that viola part I posted above from Ein Heldenleben, and no one in the audience will be able to tell you what’s missing, but something will be missing.

It’s the same in many other Strauss works. Don Juan, for instance, begins with a huge upward rush in the strings and winds. To me, that opening consists of a highly specific set of notes that I’ve spent my entire career struggling to master. (The ability to play it is actually considered the mark of a professional string player: it’s on literally every orchestra’s audition list.) But step back and listen from the hall, and it’s not a set of notes at all – it’s a whoosh, the string/wind equivalent of a brass fanfare announcing the arrival of the brash protagonist of the work. And the fact that I had to sweat over a bunch of notes that, technically, you can’t hear, is totally irrelevant to the effect Strauss was creating.

These days, I love playing Strauss, even if I do sometimes wish the trumpets were sitting just ever so slightly further away from my head. (Like, maybe in St. Cloud?) His orchestral style is as instantly recognizable as Mahler’s, and he was a musical storyteller like no other. When you get your head out of your own part and force yourself to listen for the bigger picture, it’s glorious, glorious stuff.

It also helped me get over my grudge when I was told a (possibly apocryphal) story about one of the most unplayable runs in Don Juan. According to the musician I heard the story from, Strauss began to be frustrated towards the end of his career with how good orchestra musicians were getting at playing his music – familiarity was leading to a high degree of accuracy in playing all those notes. So when the composer heard one orchestra nail every note of the downward tumble depicting the antihero’s final fall from grace, he snapped, “You know, when Don Juan fell down the stairs into hell, I don’t think he hit every step!”

Good point.

<October 2019>

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