I’m feeling a little frustrated at my current blogging output- it is just that time of year when one has to answer emails or one doesn’t work in the year to come….
Oh yes, there is also music to learn….
I’ve already shared a few thoughts about Brahms 1 in expectation of this week’s Oregon East Symphony concert, but not much of anything about Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, a not-insignificant piece that is also on the program….
In fact D&T is my favorite Strauss tone poem- solely on musical merit. Of course, I consider Alpine Symphony as a symphony, and Don Quioxte as a cello concerto for purposes of that list. Still, even if they were in contention, I think D&T might win out. I think that musically, it is the richest and most inspired of all the tone poems, and that it is also the most perfectly constructed. I can scarcely think of a piece of romantic music where the form more perfectly suits the meaning of the music.
Strauss’s famous dying joke(“dying is just like I composed it in Tod und Verklarung”), which I’ve quoted often this week, as well as his refusal to behave as a “serious artist” throughout his life has, I think, led some musicians to overlook the musical seriousness of the piece. Fair enough, it works beautifully as a thrill ride, but I do think the piece has a certain honest spirituality that is powerfully apparent when it is well performed.
In fact, as I get older, I tend to respect Strauss’s tendency to express his deepest emotions through his music and not through his letters or through an angst-ridden public persona. Strauss seemed keen to puncture the accumulated grandiosity of romantic music- think of the nihilistic ending to Don Juan or the inherent ironic posture of Ein Heldenleben, and in doing so, he liberates the style to express real feeling more directly. Ein Heldenleben, simply by virtue of the title and the subject matter, comes into existence as an affront to romantic decency, and yet, much as we resent the egotism of his choice of “the composer” as heroic figure, in the end, the piece is deeply moving- he dismantles the ironic pose and makes us believe in the viability of author as hero by the end.
While Ein Heldenleben, Don Juan, Sinfonia Domestica and Till Eulenspiegel are largely ironic in their outlook, a piece like Death and Transfiguration (as well as Don Quioxte, which is both his most comic and most serious and least ironic piece) shows Strauss the composer revealing himself in a more vulnerable way. Where the hero of Heldenleben conquers all in his path before accepting death more or less on his own terms, in D&T, the protagonist is described as someone who, have spent all his life striving, is someone who has always been met with “no.” It is only in surrender to death that he finds that which he sought. This is an almost Mahlerian perspective.
In this sense, it is less a study in ironic triumphalism than in hope, an emotion that Strauss always treated with the utmost respect and delicacy.
In fact, you can look at the major tone poems as each connecting to one fundamental aspect of the human character- Heldenleben is a study in courage, Eulenspiegel in subversion through wit, Don Juan- nihilism, Also Sprach- will, and Quioxte a study in frailty and compassion. Strauss’s portrait of Quioxte as the demented Don is devastating in its realistic evocation of madness and dementia, and yet, for once, Strauss eschews all sense of superiority and condescention- Quioxte seems to have been the one protagonist Strauss truly loved and empathised with.
And then, in Tod und Verklarung, he abandons any pretense of superiority, writing of the protagonist “What he has sought all this time with his heart’s deepest longing, he still seeks while bathed in mortal sweat, seeks—but alas cannot find it.” In the end, Strauss recognizes the powerlessness of man– man cannot overcome all– and leaves us with hope:
“Then the last blow of death’s iron hammer rings out, breaks the earthly body in two and covers his eyes with the night of death.—But he hears mightily resounding from heaven that which he sought here longingly….”
c. 2008 Kenneth Woods