Last season, Severance Hall was transformed into a prankster’s den and a charming country home. This season it will be even busier as Nietzsche’s superman descends, a fierce musical battle rages, and the Alpine mountains break through the stage floor. Who to blame for this? Richard Strauss and his symphonic poems.
The symphonic poems of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) have been ubiquitous in the world of the symphony orchestra ever since he wrote his first major one, Don Juan (after the legend of the same name) in 1888. Whenever Strauss’s music was premiered somewhere, it created a huge sensation and made its home in the repertory of that city’s orchestra from then on.
Cleveland was no exception to this. Adella Prentiss Hughes, prior to founding The Cleveland Orchestra in 1918, was a musical impresario. Starting in 1901, she began the Symphony Orchestra Concerts Series, and brought to Cleveland many of the leading performers, conductors and composers of the day, including Strauss. Invited by Hughes, Strauss visited Cleveland with the Pittsburgh Orchestra during the third season of the Concerts Series, and conducted a sold-out concert on March 10, 1904. The program featured two of Strauss’s symphonic poems, as well as performances of six of his songs with his wife Pauline Strauss-de Ahna, an operatic soprano, as soloist with Strauss himself accompanying her.
The enthusiasm for Strauss’s visit wasn’t expressed only through applause. After the concert, excited local German groups collected three hundred singers to perform for Mr. and Mrs. Strauss at dinner. Public reception was rapturous, and as Mrs. Hughes said later of the event, “Cleveland knew its Richard Strauss from then on.” Since then, The Cleveland Orchestra has performed at least one or two of Strauss’s symphonic poems almost every season.
However, this leaves one unanswered question: what exactly is a “symphonic poem?” A symphonic poem (also called a “tone poem”) is programmatic music — it has some sort of text or idea that the music represents. Sometimes these can be an evocation of a specific place and/or people, like Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica (1903), which depicts Strauss’s household. Other times, they can render elaborate stories into music that you can practically follow note for note, such as Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1895), which describes Till Eulenspiegel (a notorious prankster from German folklore) and his madcap high jinks. Ultimately, a great way to think of a symphonic poem is as “film music without the film”; Instead of having the images supplied for us, we the audience must use our imaginations to more freely recreate them.
Oftentimes, to aid the listener, the program notes will provide additional details about the piece’s story and music. As we listen to some of The Cleveland Orchestra’s past performances of Strauss below, look at how differently over time the stories behind these symphonic poems are talked about.
This season we have three of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems: An Alpine Symphony (1915), Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), and Ein Heldenleben (1898). Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) tells the story of an unnamed hero — his character, his enemies, his battles, his love, and his retirement. While not directly stated in Strauss’s own program notes to the symphony, the hero in this symphonic poem is actually Strauss himself (Strauss quotes much of his previous music in association with “the hero”) fighting against his musical foes. The musical excerpt below is the “Hero” theme and the program notes come from 1928.
The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, conductor, January 14, 2011
“Hero’s Theme” from Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben
Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is based on Nietzsche’s philosophic novel of the same name from the 1880’s, wherein Nietzsche expounds on his idea of the “Superman” – someone who has freed themselves of the shackles of superstition and traditional morality and possesses complete self-control. An influential book, Strauss was inspired to represent it in music only about a decade from its publication. He loosely adapted the events of the novel and focused his attention on one of the themes of the book, the intense longing to find order and meaning in the world. The musical excerpt below is the famous opening, and the program notes are from 1937.
The Cleveland Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, conductor, April 5, 1973
“Sunrise” from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra
An Alpine Symphony (Eine Alpensinfonie) was Strauss’s last symphonic poem. A superficially simple story, it describes the ascent and descent over a day by the listener through the Alps. The musical excerpt below is taken from one of the most famous moments of the piece, when a massive waterfall is reached and a strange apparition encountered. The program notes this time are from recent history — 2009.
The Cleveland Orchestra, Aldo Ceccato, conductor, July 29, 1972
“At the Waterfall” and “Apparition” from Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony
Be sure to catch The Cleveland Orchestra in performances of Also Sprach Zarathustra October 8 and 10, 2015, and Ein Heldenleben April 28, 29 and 30, 2016.
Alex Lawler is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.
He is a PhD student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University.
Want to know more? Check out these books, websites and recordings!
The Life of Richard Strauss, by Bryan Randolph Gilliam
Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma, by Michael Kennedy
Selected Recordings with The Cleveland Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, London, 1989: An Alpine Symphony, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche).
George Szell, Sony, 1990: Don Quixote
Vladimir Ashkenazy, London, 1990: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung)
Vladimir Ashkenazy, London, 1991: Don Juan, Aus Italien
Christoph von Dohnányi, London, 1993: Ein Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks
All photographs and audio clips courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.