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Lieder and choral music

Strauss's career as a composer of lieder spans the later decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, a time when the lied underwent important transformation. His more than 200 songs reflect these changes, from the early lieder firmly in the German Romantic tradition to the later orchestral Gesänge, which show the influence of opera. Nonetheless, most were composed before the turn of the century, during which period separate phases may be distinguished. The youthful songs of the 1860s and 70s are grounded in an early 19th-century style, whether strophic or through-composed and ballad-like. These were written mainly for family soirées, and many were dedicated to the composer's aunt, Johanna Pschorr.

1885 marked a significant breakthrough for Strauss as a composer of lieder. During this first year of independence from his family he wrote his op.10 songs, works that reveal unprecedented musical maturity and include several mainstays of the recital repertory (e.g. Zueignung, Allerseelen). From now until 1891, when he became preoccupied with completing Guntram, he produced a lieder opus every year (opp.15, 17, 19, 21 and 22). The texts are all by lesser-known poets who flourished around the middle of the 19th century: Herrmann von Gilm, Adolf Friedrich von Schack and Felix Dahn. Strauss did not so much need poems of high literary quality as texts with striking expressive images or situations that could ignite his imagination. There was another vital catalyst as well: Pauline. Indeed, the three-year lull after 1891 was broken by the important op.27 (Ruhe, meine Seele!, Cäcilie, Heimliche Aufforderung and Morgen!), written in celebration of their marriage. Richard and Pauline performed lieder recitals all over the world, and their programming readily demonstrates that, unlike other composers, Strauss usually did not intend a particular opus to be performed as a unit.

The post-1891 lieder suggest a greater interest in contemporary poets, such as Karl Henckel, John Henry Mackay, Otto Julius Bierbaum and Richard Dehmel, and beyond the numerous love songs of the 1890s (Traum durch die Dämmerung, Ich trage meine Minne, Ich liebe dich) were songs of social criticism, such as Der Arbeitsmann and Das Lied des Steinklöpfers. Near the turn of the century Strauss's literary interests embraced earlier poets, including Rückert, Goethe and Heine, and he also composed some orchestral songs (generally labelled Gesänge) that adumbrate his interest in opera: the 14-minute Notturno (1899) could have been a model for any number of his future operatic monologues. More evidence for that connection is the fact that, shortly after his second opera, Feuersnot (1901), he seems to have lost interest in lieder composition, though Pauline's retirement from singing in 1906 no doubt contributed.

His return to the lied in 1918 brought him into a very different postwar world, where Romantic song had become something of an anachronism. Among his works from that year was a collection of songs very much in the cynical spirit of the time, Die Krämerspiegel (1918), which is the only legitimate song cycle he wrote, using biting, satirical texts by his contemporary Alfred Kerr, highly critical of the music-publishing industry. But during these postwar years he again became equally interested in the works of earlier poets. Shortly after Krämerspiegel he composed his op.67, which includes three songs of Ophelia and three from Goethe's West-östlicher Divan. All these, with their coloratura, reflect his experience as an opera composer, experience even more evident in the Drei Hymnen (1921) of Hölderlin for voice and orchestra.

Strauss occasionally orchestrated his piano lieder, generally writing arrangements for specific performances. In 1897 four songs were orchestrated for a concert with his wife in Brussels; a few years later three more were arranged for a performance in Berlin. Other singers (such as Elisabeth Schumann) inspired him to orchestrate; for her he arranged five songs in 1918, as well as the newly composed Brentano Lieder op.68. He continued to orchestrate songs off and on until 1948, when he arranged Ruhe, meine Seele! from his wedding songs. At that time he was also composing what was later to be called his Vier letzte Lieder; it has been suggested that the earlier song might well have been intended as part of this orchestral group, which sets poems by Hermann Hesse and Eichendorff. Whatever his original intention, these autumnal, luminescent late songs, which contemplate the meaning of death, are among Strauss's finest works in any genre.

His significant choral output remains the least-known part of his repertory, much of the neglect due either to the requirements of vast musical forces or, in the case of the a cappella music, extreme technical difficulty. The Wandrers Sturmlied (1884), on a text by Goethe, belongs in the category of large-scale works. Scored for six-part chorus and orchestra, it was inspired in part by Brahms's six-part Gesang der Parzen, a connection noted by Hanslick in a review of 1892, where he lauded aspects of the work but ultimately judged it inferior to its model. The work also reveals the importance of Wagner's growing influence during Strauss's ‘Brahmschwärmerei’, for the ending betrays distinct echoes of Parsifal. 13 years separate this work from his next choral undertaking, the Zwei Gesänge for mixed chorus a cappella, followed two years later by two sets of folksong-inspired men's choruses, the Zwei and Drei Männerchöre.

Strauss returned to the large-scale with Taillefer (1903). Scored for an orchestra of over 140 players, a mammoth chorus and soloists, this 15-minute work is only rarely heard, as is the Bardengesang for male voices and orchestra, composed only two years later. One of the most impressive of his a cappella pieces is the Deutsche Motette of 1913. Based on a Rückert text, this work, with its extended range and intricate chromatic part-writing, is one of his most difficult, and requires a professional ensemble of the highest skill. The bombastic Olympische Hymne (1934) is famous for its association with the 1936 games in Berlin, but around this time Strauss was composing his lesser known but far better Drei Männerchöre as a conscious antidote. These brief and rarely heard a cappella works, again to texts by Rückert, reject heroic bombast and address themes of peace and nature.

Strauss, Richard

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