Richard Strauss - Ein Heldenleben, Tone-Poem, Opus 40
( Originally Published 1935 )
"Ein Heldenleben" — "A Hero's Life" — like Strauss's "Symphonia Domestica," contains provokingly good material. Provoking because this is a case of aggressive egotism, because its hero is Strauss himself, who hymns in a fifty-minute tone-poem his own greatness and the pettiness of his enemies. Who are they? Presumably the critics! It is a sweet revenge, since, if fair-minded, they must praise at least the major part of this tonal autobiography. It is not Strauss's first attempt at self-glorification, for his second opera, "Feuersnot" (Need of Fire), has in transparent guise a certain Richard, a magician, for its hero, who brings a backward community to heel by the fires of his genius. The opera strutted an unsuccessful hour, but i the tone-poem survives, and makes one of the brilliant pages of modern music. "Heldenleben," a regular Pickelhaube rhapsody, brags and swaggers to such warm and virile melody, such rhythmic energy, such vitality and splendor of counterpoint, that the listener must cry "Kamerad" before it is over, and ,confess that this, the most conceited of all the Strauss scores, is by and large a compelling achievement. "Ein Heldenleben" has six main divisions, labeled in the scores as follows:
1. The Hero. The Hero's theme mounts superbly from the registers of the orchestra. It is a broad, sinewy theme, developed with polyphonic magnificence for many pages. This is Strauss's delineation of a heroic character—written, as it turns out, in the same key as Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony. Whether a hero with less self-esteem would perceive a less gratifying image in the mirror is a question, and if we were discussing the heroism of Beethoven's "Eroica" we would be talking of something else again. Strauss's hero is of grosser fiber, and it is of himself and not human destiny that he sings. But here is an astonishing amount of sheer music, sure-footed if not eagle-winged. The first part of the symphonic poem comes to an end on a great reverberating chord--that of the "dominant seventh"—as the hero sets out on his ad-ventures to the sound of trumpets and banners flung to the breeze.
2. The Hero's Adversaries. They are a petty, snarling, malicious crew. The instruments squeak and gibber. The hero theme is heard, as in lofty rebuke, and for a moment the foe is silenced.
3. The Hero's Courtship. The hero's helpmeet, whom he woos, is capricious. She is pictured by the solo violin. To her coquetries there are grave replies. The dialogue between the solo violin and other instruments becomes more tender as the orchestra with sweep of the harp releases the song. The world is for-gotten until the spell is broken by the gibbering of the foe without, and the hero, his paradise disturbed, girds his loins for battle.
4. The Hero's Battlefield. Fanfares resound. Struggle is waged without quarter. The whole percussive battery announces the onslaught. The hero theme and the theme of the adversaries clash. Not the least amazing feature of this tonal frenzy is the ingenuity with which Strauss contrives that the theme of the Beloved shall shine through the terrific din and the assault of choir upon choir and motive upon motive. The air is filled with mutilated fragments of motives. No such noisy and brutal thing had been done before in orchestral music, and it is extremely questionable whether anyone wants to see it done again. The din of conflict gives place to songs of triumph as the enemies are routed and run, howling like dogs, squealing like rats, their cries submerged in the chant of victory.
5. The Hero's Works of Peace. What are they? What but the earlier scores of Richard Strauss. Sailing along side by side, as effortlessly as cockleshells on a stream, are motives from the tone-poems "Death and Transfiguration," "Don Quixote," "Till Eulenspiegel," "Macbeth," "Thus Spake Zarathustra"; the first opera that Strauss wrote, "Guntram"; and one of the most poetical of* all his songs, "Dream Through the Twilight." And it is serene, lofty, superbly coordinated music.
6. The Hero's Release from the World. Again the voices of the adversaries are heard, snarling in the tubas. There is orchestral remonstrance, and a change to a happier and more serene mood. The hero has reanounced life and the illusions men hold dear. The voice of the Beloved--the solo violin—is heard again. The ending sounds the motive of the sunrise music of "Zarathustra." The hero has glorified himself after the indisputable fashion of genius.