Heroic Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
This evening on Symphony @ 7, we continue a short series of several of the big tone poems German Late-Romantic composer Richard Strauss with Ein Heldenleben, “A Hero’s Life,” a grand work first performed in 1899.
Last night, we had An Alpine Symphony, inspired by the magnificent view from the window in his study and by memories of an actual daylong climb up and back down an alpine mountain he made in his youth.
Tomorrow evening it’s Don Quixote, another big one, inspired by literature and based on Cervantes early 17th century novel about the “knight of the woeful countenance,” who longs for noble adventures in an age of chivalry that has already long passed.
In Ein Heldenleben, Strauss himself seems to be the subject, and some critics at the time thought it was a pretty egotistical form of self-aggrandizement. After all, some the music accompanying the titled sections appears to refer to Strauss himself.
After the opening section, “The Hero,” with its uplifting theme, “The Hero’s Adversaries” seems to be a musical portrait of the sniping of critics who disapproved of Strauss’ music.
“The Hero’s Companion,” a beautiful interlude for violin and orchestra, appears to be a musical portrait of his wife, Pauline, and their life together.
After “The Hero’s Battlefield,” “The Hero’s Works of Peace” has direct quotations from some of Strauss’ own earlier compositions. Finally, “The Hero’s Retirement From the World and Consummation” was felt by some to suggest that Strauss saw himself from a lofty height as a self-satisfied, successful composer who had overcome all adversity and criticism.
Another way to understand A Hero’s Life is to see it as a musical portrayal of the universal human urge to overcome adversity of all kinds and the struggle to achieve that goal. As a favorite theme of much Romantic music, the achievement of victory by heroic struggle of the individual (think Beethoven), paradoxically, invites all of us to see ourselves as the hero of our own lives, but hopefully not in too narcissistic a manner. After all, we are all going through the journey of life at the same time. Interestingly, in later printed editions of the score the composer asked that the titles of the sections be removed.
This evening, join me for A Hero’s Life by Richard Strauss on Symphony @ 7. Here’s a sample: