Last May, the latest in the Unlocking the Masters series was released: Richard Strauss! Below is author David Hurwitz’s preface to Richard Strauss – An Owner’s Manual. Be sure to check out the other books in the Unlocking the Masters series
Richard Strauss wrote a huge amount of music in every one of the major media of his day: symphonies, symphonic poems, choral works, operas, songs, piano solo, and chamber music. However, his reputation stands on the symphonic poems and operas of his maturity, and on his orchestral music more generally. For that reason, this survey will consider all of the major works with orchestra and many of the minor ones, including the operas and the orchestral songs. The songs with piano (approximately two hundred of them), chamber music, and choral works belong in a special category of their own (the songs), or are mostly early and/or atypical (the chamber music), or, in the case of the choral works, don’t tell us anything especially significant that can’t be found in Strauss’s other vocal works.
There are also some major works that are barely known, or so seldom recorded that to spend time on them here when you can’t purchase them to enjoy at home would be an exercise in frustration. So they will not be discussed, however much I might have liked to deal with them. As it is, I feel guilty—well, almost guilty—sending you off to find a piece with an unpronounceable name (even in German), such as Panathenäenzug for piano left-hand and orchestra, no matter how delightful and sadly neglected it is.
In this “owner’s manual,” as in others in this series, I have focused on strategies for listening. Strauss’ music is “easy” in the sense that almost all of it is programmatic. That is, it describes an extramusical subject, and if you know the story behind the work, then you know the work, at least on one level, and nothing more need be said about it. For me, though, much of the fascination with Strauss’ orchestral music resides in how he shapes and assembles his material into satisfy- ing wholes whether you know anything about the program or not. I hope that this guide will suggest helpful ways to approach the music at this deeper level.
Strauss’ operas and songs represent his lifelong attempt to find new, fresh, but always appropriate ways to tackle the issue of the relationship between text and music. Many of these works are little known, but all of them have something valuable to offer the listener, and it will be a very great pleasure to describe them to you. Operas and songs are even simpler to hear than programmatic symphonic music: you just follow the text or synopsis and enjoy the show. The only serious issue you might have is making sufficient time to get to know the music really well. That is a problem that no book can solve completely, but it can at least point your attention in the right direc- tion so that the time you do have to invest will be spent productively.
In most of my guides for this series, including this one, I have taken great care to provide full orchestration lists for all of the works described. This was a major project, as most of Strauss’ mature works employ very large orchestras with a notably complicated layout, and the actual scores are sometimes imprecise in giving complete lists of their instrumental requirements. The woodwind section, especially, contains a huge number of “doubling” parts—that is, a single musician plays multiple instruments. A flutist also plays the piccolo; the second oboe doubles on English horn, and the clarinets may take any member of that family. Strauss routinely calls for clarinets in A, B-flat, D, C, and E-flat, and bass clarinets in A and B-flat, plus basset horns, and so as not make things even more complicated, I have simplified the lists somewhat by sticking to raw numbers within each instrumental family—clarinets, for example—where the question is simply one of key rather than significant differences in range or timbre.
Aside from the fact that this is a book primarily about orchestral music, you actually can learn a great deal about a work before you even hear it simply by looking at its scoring. In particular, the relative numbers of woodwinds and strings quite often give a very strong indi- cation of how the music is going to sound, whether the work (if it is an opera) will be comic or tragic, and what the composer’s compositional strategy might have been. Does the lack of a part for contrabassoon signal a general lightness of texture? Does the huge brass section in
An Alpine Symphony anticipate the grandeur of the symphonic journey up the mountain before it even begins? Take a guess and see if your preconception turns out to be correct. Either way, it’s a useful strategy to focus your attention when listening.
As with all the books in this series, there is no reason that you need to go through it in order. You can dip in at your pleasure, though I would suggest reading the introduction first, since it sets the stage and puts Strauss in a helpful context. Other than that, you should feel free to follow your own interests wherever they lead.