Sunday, November 8, 2015

Richard Strauss: "Music is a holy art," sings Strauss's Composer -- plus Two (out of Four) Last Songs, part 1

"What is music then?"

The question is asked at 0:28 of this concluding clip of the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos -- asked and then answered by the composer of the about-to-be-performed "opera seria" (Sena Jurinac), as filmed at the 1965 Salzburg Festival, directed by Günther Rennert and conducted by Karl Böhm (with Paul Schoeffler, nearly 68, as the Music Master; in a moment we'll hear him 21 years earlier).
COMPOSER: What is music then?
[With almost drunken solemnity] Music is a holy art, which brings together all men of courage, like cherubim around a shining throne, and for this reason it is the holiest of the arts. Holy music!
[ZERBINETTA appears at the back and calls her partners onto the stage. HARLEKIN comes hastily out of the room on the right, buckling his belt as he runs onstage.]
What is that? From where?
[SCARAMUCCIO enters, like HARLEKIN finishing his dressing as he comes.]
These creatures!
In my holy sanctuary cutting their capers! Ah!
MUSIC MASTER: You allowed it!
COMPOSER [furious]: I ought not to have allowed it; you shouldn't have allowed me to allow it! Who told you to drag me into this world? Let me freeze, starve, die in my own!
[He runs off in despair. The MUSIC MASTER looks after him, shaking his head.]
-- English translation by Peggie Cochrane

Julia Varady (s), Composer; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Music Master; Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Kurt Masur, cond. Philips, recorded January 1988

Imrgard Seefried (s), Composer; Paul Schoeffler (bs-b), Music Master; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance in honor of Strauss's 80th birthday, June 11, 1944

Tatiana Troyanos (ms), Composer; Paul Schoeffler (bs-b), Music Master; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Nov. 29, 1967

[in English] Janet Baker (ms), Composer; Malcolm Donnelly (b), Music Master; Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Norman Del Mar, cond. Live performance from Glasgow's Theater Royal, 1977

by Ken

In last week's post, "Why won't everyone just let poor abandoned Ariadne die in peace?," as we focused on the two-part monologue of the title character of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos, one thing I was constantly on the verge of saying was: Just listen to the epic, unrestrained gorgeousness of this music. For sheer unrestrained gorgeousness, I'm not sure I know anything like it in all of music. Somehow, though, I managed to leave it to the music to speak for itself.

Last week we were stressing the "serious" side of Ariadne -- without, I hope, completely losing sight (or sound) of the comic side, because it's the combination of the two that make the opera, in its revised 1916 form, with the Prologue added, such a treasure -- treasured not least by its composer. It wasn't an accident that it was chosen to honor Strauss on his 80th birthday, via the performance from which we heard the whole Prologue in the October 11 post "Meet the composer, Richard Strauss-style."


I don't doubt for a moment that Strauss believed these words that he and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal put into the mouth of their over-the-top idealistic young Composer -- and I don't think his cosmically reverberant setting of these words leaves much room for doubt. At the same time, I seriously doubt that he would have been blunt enough to say so onstage if the saying weren't done by this lovingly but comically over-intense young man.

Meanwhile, the combination of thinking about the radiant beauty of Ariadne's monologue and rehearing for the first time in a long while Lisa della Casa's 1958 EMI studio recording of excerpts from Ariadne (which I don't think was ever actually released in the U.S.; I'm only aware of a German Odeon import LP, which I never actually owned) got me to thinking about Strauss's musical farewell, the four songs with orchestral accompaniment which he completed when he was 84, and which were performed and published posthumously as his Four Last Songs, of which della Casa made a recording that I was now curious to hear again.

So that's what we're going to do now without further ado. Well, only the two "easy" songs among them, the seasonal numbers, "Spring" and "September." And I wonder if it occurs to you that the musical settings at first seem backwards -- "Spring" seeming to carry a definite chill, while "September," which leads us from summer to fall, has a distinctly "greener" feel.

My plan was to play a little with these two songs, and we may yet do that, either in a "Part 2" post later today (I have things to do this afternoon!) or in a separate post next week, or some other week. For now, though, let's just listen to Lisa.

R. STRAUSS: Four Last Songs:
i. "Frühling" ("Spring")

ii. "September"

Lisa della Casa, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, cond. Decca, recorded June 1953

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