AOM Logo September 1998

A Hero's Life (by wife's permission!)

Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben; Die Frau ohne Schatten Suite, arr. Leinsdorf

Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue

Reference Recordings RR 83CD

David Aspinall

Record Cover Image

Let us begin by noting that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the composition of Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) and that I am writing these words forty-nine years to the day after Herr Strauss's death, September 8, 1949. A tribute, even a celebration, seems to be in order. But inasmuch as the composer has already celebrated his own heroic life in Heldenleben (yes, even the German musical establishment had to swallow twice), our throwing a party would be comically anti-climactic.

While we are in the mood to toss a few wreaths of tribute, let me pay the ultimate compliment to this new Eiji Oue CD - listening to it several times over the past weeks has left me feeling much more warmth toward Heldenleben than twenty-five years of prior acquaintance had accumulated. And after listening to other performances over the same few weeks for comparison's sake, I am pleased to report that it is not merely closer acquaintance with A Hero's Life that has warmed me to it, but the very passion of the Minnesota Orchestra's performance. To put over this work, which is at the same time the transfiguration and the death of the romantic movement, conviction is everything. Oue does not invite us to think but to feel. Despite very considerable competition, (Beecham, Barbirolli, Karajan, Reiner, Ormandy, Blomstedt and Kempe), my ears and heart tell me this is a performance to measure others by. All six of its movements flow white hot - the only way to go with this work so we don't have too much time to analyze the legitimacy of our reactions. This Oue understands, as did Reiner - the performance clocks in at less than 46 minutes; compare Reiner 43:36 and Barbirolli 50 flat. Even the cacophonous Hero's Battlefield, plopped most perversely in the middle of some ravishingly beautiful pages, didn't fatigue me this time (though I still much prefer the battle hymns of Strauss's disciple, Erich Wolfgang Korngold).

The recording is quite exceptional, as have been all the Reference/Minnesota recordings I have heard. Check the gripping opening of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Certainly we must pause to admire the achievement of the engineers in capturing with deafening clarity the clatter of the 'kitchenware'1 in Battlefield, and the even more sensational effect of an entire orchestra simultaneously breaking wind in Frau! I suspect that Strauss was at his most gleeful when thumbing his nose (or some other part of his anatomy), notation-wise.

The Strauss of '98 was as much a child of Nietzsche as of Wagner. The raucous and brief rants that poked through at moments in many of the early tone poems, had, by Salome and Elektra, become the dominant voice. But whereas Wagner and Strauss marched to the edge of the abyss of atonality, looked down, then pulled back abruptly, Wagner a fair distance with Parsifal, Strauss all the way with Der Rosenkavalier, Nietzsche had marched right on over the rim into nihilism. Unlike the latter, who resented Wagner's compromise with Christianity, Strauss hedged his bets. Death and Transfiguration, even Salome, give at least a grudging nod to metaphysics and the religious urge, though critics have always carped that Strauss is much less convincing sketching God and good than evil and perversity. Salome's Jokanaan (John the Baptist), even Strauss admits, has nobility. In Strauss's world John's not really interesting 'til he's a head on a platter. George Marek, in his enlightening study Richard Strauss: The Life of a Non-Hero, makes the point that his subject "lacked involvement with God. He felt none of the passion of faith". But the religious instinct, when distorted, bears monstrous offspring. Wagner may have been, as Strauss was bold to proclaim publicly, 'the Almighty'2, but those who greeted the first performances of Ein Heldenleben had no doubt who Strauss's 'hero' was. In its second section, The Hero's Adversaries, he didn't bother to hide the identity of the garrulous winds and brazen horns, so complete was his contempt for those who dared criticize his work. Yet in comparison to the critical sneer that greeted both Berlioz and Wagner early in their ascent, Strauss was politely, even enthusiastically received. But this was post-Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and Ubermensch the new Deity would not be blasphemed. As the composer confided to Romain Rolland, Richard Strauss was at least as worthy a subject for hero-worship as Napoleon or Alexander. George Marek notes that Strauss found an even clearer mirror in the title character of his opera Guntram, who confesses "my life is governed by my spirit's law; my God speaks to me through myself!".

If God really spoke to Strauss, it was more often through the larynx of his wife Pauline. Those who knew the couple intimately marveled at Supermensch's timidity around his spouse. Once Pauline interrupted the composer while he worked on Elektra to send him to the village for milk - the maid was too busy! The Germans have a word for a henpecked husband -- pantoffelheld, "hero of the slipper". But Strauss never seemed to mind being Untermensch around his own house, so that much of the beauty of Heldenleben owes its inspiration to the woman who was, according to most accounts, a shrew. Her voice was doubtless seldom as mellifluous as the solo violin which stands in for her in Heldenleben, and, to the composer's credit, assumes such prominence in his heroic self-portrait.

In his old age, whether due to connubial attrition, or perhaps the humbling spectacle of the destruction of the 'master race', Strauss seems to have found peace, even as he had predicted half a century before in the autumnal last movements of Heldenleben. In the sunset glow of late works like the Oboe Concerto and particularly the Four Last Songs we witness a new humility and melancholy which add poignancy to Strauss's last musings. This Superman, unlike his mentor Nietzsche, left this mortal coil not in defiance but resignation.

1'kitchenware' was the description of Strauss's father, who preferred "Death and Transfiguration" to much of his son's other output because it contained less percussion.

2The dedication on the last page of Strauss's opera "Feuersnot", inscribed on Wagner's birthday, reads: "Completed on the birthday of and to the greater glory of the Almighty ...".
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