JOHANN STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Overture to Die Fledermaus
Johann Strauss the younger was born in Vienna on October 25, 1825, and died there on June 3, 1899. Die Fledermaus (The Bat) premiered in Vienna on April 5, 1874. The score of the overture calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, chime, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, and strings. Duration is about 9 minutes.
The most famous of Strauss’s stage works and a highpoint of Vienna’s Golden Age of operetta, Die Fledermaus (The Bat) is filled throughout with the same effervescence as the champagne that gets everyone utterly confused at a glorious all‑night party in which things are not quite what they seem. Adele, the chambermaid, has come to the party in a dress borrowed (without permission) from her mistress, only to run into that lady disguised as a mysterious Hungarian countess so that she won’t be recognized by her husband, who is having one last fling before starting a week’s jail term. It all turns out to be an elaborate practical joke, a mild revenge for a trick that the husband played on his best friend—getting him royally drunk at an earlier party and forcing him to make his way home by daylight in a bat costume, to general ridicule. The married couple decides that it would be simpler to blame everything on the champagne than to get a divorce. Ever since the operetta was first performed, it has remained the quintessential Viennese operetta, a perpetual reminder of a seemingly carefree world of waltzing and romantic intrigue.
The popular overture is largely made up of passages from the show itself, including a weepy, crocodile-tears lament when the husband says farewell to his wife, supposedly to start his eight-day stretch in jail for some misdemeanor, but actually to attend the party, to dance, drink, and flirt before arriving at the jail. The couple sing lamenting figures, but the husband can’t resist slipping into a lively polka (even while singing the words, “Oh God, how moved I am!”) as he anticipates the frolic to come. The other most famous passage in the overture is the “Du und du” waltz, in which everyone at the party toasts their friendship and agrees to embrace and call one another by the familiar form “du,” as they are all now “brothers and sisters.”
RICHARD STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Four Last Songs
Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on September 8, 1949. These songs were written in 1948 in the following order: Im Abendrot (May 6), Frühling (July 18), Beim Schlafengehen (August 4), and September (September 20). Kirsten Flagstad sang the first performance on May 22, 1950, at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. The instrumentation varies from song to song; as a wholethe set calls for three flutes (one doubling piccolo) and an additional piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, harp, celesta, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 24 minutes.
Richard Strauss had just turned 80 when World War II finally came to an end, and there seemed to be little for him to do in the musical world as it was constituted. His final opera, the luminous Capriccio, had been produced three years before. He composed a few small orchestral works, including the delicious Duet‑Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with strings and harp, and a handful of tiny works including two easy pieces for violin written for his favorite young exponent of that instrument, his teenage grandson Christian. But the one‑time bad boy of German modernist music, whose orchestral tone poems made extraordinary new demands on the technique of players and whose operas Salome and Elektra brought scandal at every performance, had long since mellowed and become, for many young musicians, not a grand old man, but a backward‑looking one, writing conservative music that, to many, seemed out of place in the middle of the 20th century.
Yet Strauss had a final masterpiece in him, and it took the form, appropriately enough, of a set of songs. The appropriateness lies in the fact that his earliest works were songs, and he first achieved renown with the Opus 10 Lieder. He continued writing in that genre for many years especially for his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, for whose voice he had imagined many of his songs and even perhaps operatic roles. They were in the fifty‑fourth year of a difficult but enduring marriage when Strauss happened upon a poem by Eichendorff, Im Abendrot. Eichendorff was one of the great masters of German lyric poetry, and his work had been set by any number of earlier composers, but Strauss had never composed a song to his words. Im Abendrot seemed too much to the point not to make an immediate impression: it describes an old couple who have endured joy and sorrow, hand in hand, and who now feel a weariness that may portend death.
The composer took Im Abendrot as a personal vision for himself and Pauline, and he set it to music that was clearly to be his farewell to the world. But he also wanted to make a group of songs. While he was vacationing in Switzerland in 1948, an admirer sent him a selection of poems by Hermann Hesse, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature two years earlier. Here Strauss found what he was looking for. He chose three of the poems to complete the group that comprises his musical testament. A year after writing them he died a peaceful death (commenting to his daughter‑in‑law Alice that the experience was very much as he had composed it sixty years earlier in Death and Transfiguration). He did not live to hear the premiere of the Four Last Songs, the title of which (and the performing order) was supplied by Strauss’s publisher and longtime friend Ernst Roth.
For a composer who made his reputation on music of extraordinary complexity and busyness, the Four Last Songs clearly represent a mellowing, a simplification, a directness that recommends the set even to listeners who find Strauss’s earlier work not much to their taste. The orchestra is luminous throughout, and the soprano (no other voice is thinkable in these songs, written as a final tribute to Pauline) soars and vocalizes in the ecstasy of unconstrained lyricism. Three of the texts deal with evening, nightfall, or autumn—all images connected with our sense of mortality. Strauss composes music of autumnal warmth that echoes the poems; words and music alike draw the listener in. And for the listener who knows Strauss’s earlier music, there is a special poignancy when the singer asks at the end, “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (“Could this perhaps be death?”), and the answer comes in the distant melody on the horn (the instrument played by Strauss’s father and first teacher), sounding a theme composed six decades earlier for Death and Transfiguration.
In dämmrigen Grüften
Nun liegst du erschlossen
Du kennst mich wieder,
In twilit vaults
Now you lie disclosed,
You know me again,
Der Garten trauert,
Der Sommer schauert
Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
Lange noch bei den Rosen
Langsam tut er die [grossen]
The garden mourns,
The summer shudders,
Leaf after golden leaf drops
Summer smiles, surprised and weak,
Yet long among the roses
Slowly he closes his [large]
Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
Hände, lasst von allem Tun,
Und die Seele unbewacht,
Now that day has made me weary
Hands, leave off all your toil,
And the soul, unobserved,
Wir sind durch Not und Freude
Rings sich die Täler neigen,
Tritt her und lass sie schwirren,
O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde—
‑‑Josef von Eichendorff
In Evening’s Glow
We’ve traveled through pain and joy,
Around us the valleys are waning,
Step close and let them fly,
O broad, silent peace!
So deep in sunset glow.
How travel‑weary we are‑‑
German texts set to music by Richard Strauss copyright Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.,
© 1950, renewed 1977, and reprinted here by permission.
English translations by Steven Ledbetter
RICHARD STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Opus 59
Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch- Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on September 8, 1949. He composed Der Rosenkavalier to an original libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1909-1910 and conducted the premiere at the Court Theater in Dresden on January 26, 1911. It is not clear who assembled this suite of selections from the opera, but it may have been the conductor Artur Rodzinski. The suite is scored for three flutes (including piccolo), three oboes (including English horn), four clarinets (including bass clarinet and E-flat clarinet), three bassoons (including contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and five percussionists, one or two harps, celesta, and strings. Duration is about 22 minutes.
The most popular of all Richard Strauss’s operas was his collaboration with the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal on Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier of the Rose), first performed in Dresden early in 1911. The “comedy for music” told a bittersweet tale of love mixed with farce in the 18th‑century Vienna of Maria Theresia. In the course of the story, a middle‑aged, unhappily married princess, the Feldmarschallin (that is, wife of the Field Marshall) graciously renounces all claims on her young lover, Octavian, when he encounters an innocent young woman (Sophie) whom he desires to marry, after saving her from the unwanted attentions of a boorish country cousin, Baron Ochs.
One of the delights of the opera is the rich tapestry of waltzes that Strauss composed—quite anachronistically—for his Classical-era Vienna. At the time in which the opera takes place, the waltz was a peasant dance that would never be allowed in the distinguished ballrooms of the capital. And even when it finally made its way into Vienna in the early decades of the following century, it was for a time regarded as scandalous, because it was the first social dance accepted in high society in which the partners danced in a close physical embrace. This, coupled with the twirling that was part and parcel of the dance, particularly horrified the fathers of young girls, who regarded the waltz more an aid to the seduction of their innocent daughters than as a social grace. But within a few years the waltz became popular at all levels of society until it became, ironically, the favored dance of the older generation. (Almost every dance that young people have taken up since then has followed a similar course.)
Richard Strauss was not in any way related to the family of the two Johanns, father and son, who made the waltz an international craze, but he felt that his waltzes would at least demonstrate his claim to the Strauss name, and in that he was surely right. The waltz music of the opera ranges widely in character, from the smugly self‑satisfied waltz song of the coarse Baron Ochs (convinced that he is about to get a rich and beautiful young bride and a charming mistress to boot, propping up his ego with the confident assurance—today it would be called affirmative self-talk—”With me, with me—no night is too long!”) to the most delicate suggestions of the young love of Octavian and Sophie, and not forgetting the poignant central figure of the opera, the Marschallin, and her gentle act of self-abnegation.
Strauss’s suite offers a précis of many of the best-known moments from the opera: the energetic music heard in the orchestra before the curtain rises (which, as we learn only a few moments later, represents Octavian’s first experience of love-making, complete with a crowing climax in the horns), the magnificent arrival music for the Knight of the Rose (Octavian), who has been deputized to make formal the engagement of Baron Ochs (whom he has not met before and whom he thoroughly dislikes) to young Sophie, with whom Octavian promptly falls in love himself. Soon thereafter comes the smug self‑satisfied waltz song of the coarse Baron Ochs, convinced that no woman could resist him—or would ever want to. Then comes the aria sung by an Italian tenor to entertain the princess at her morning levée; and the poignant closing trio, one of the most touching moments in opera, in which the Princess yields her young lover to his future bride.
GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858-1924)
“Il mio babbino caro,” from Gianni Schicchi
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy, on December 22, 1858, and died in Brussels, Belgium, on November 29, 1924. He composed Gianni Schicchi as the third of a series of one-act operas that make up his Trittico (Triptych); the score was completed in April 1918. The premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on December 14, 1918. In addition to the soprano, the aria calls for two flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, harp, and strings. Duration is about 3 minutes.
How unlikely that a delicious romantic comedy should grow out of a casual reference in Dante’s Inferno! But that is indeed what happened in the case of Puccini’s delightful one‑acter Gianni Schicchi. Dante sentenced Schicchi to a very low place in Hell for having impersonated a corpse to dictate a false will, but Puccini’s librettist, Giovacchino Forzano, expanded the context to show that Schicchi’s trick allowed him, the cleverest man in Florence, to extract a little timely (and relatively harmless) revenge on the snooty Donati family and to provide a dowry for his daughter, Lauretta.
At first Schicchi refuses to take part in helping the Donatis (whose rich relative Buoso has disinherited them all), but Lauretta can wrap him around her little finger. The young woman’s plea to her beloved daddy that this will give her the opportunity to marry the man she loves softens his heart—especially when he sees a way to help himself as well.
O mio babbino caro,
Sì, sì, ci voglio andare!
e se l’amassi indarno,
Mi struggo e mi tormento!
O Dio, vorrei morir!
Babbo, pietà, pietà!
O, my dearest daddy,
Yes, yes, I want to go there!
And if I were to love him in vain,
I pine and I torment myself!
O God, I’d like to die!
Daddy, take pity, take pity!
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Song to the Moon, from Rusalka
Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves (Mühlhausen), Bohemia, near Prague, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He composed his best known opera, Rusalka, to a libretto by Jaroslav Kapil, between April 21 and November 17, 1900. The premier took place at the National Theater in Prague on March 31, 1901.
The romantic era saw a veritable explosion of stories about the difficulties of sustainable love-relations between mortal humans and creatures connected in some way to forces of nature, whether they were described as nixies, rusalkas, kobolds, mermaids, undines, or some other kind of creature. The libretto for Dvořák’s fairy-tale opera Rusalka draws elements from several of these, including Fouqué’s Undine (1811) and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. These and other similar stories involve some kind of non-human, immortal earth or water spirit who falls passionately in love with a human being and expresses a willingness to give up immortality in order to be with the object of love. Such is the situation at the very beginning of Rusalka, when the title character confesses to the water-gnome Vodník that she has fallen in love with a Prince who comes regularly to the lake that is her home. When Vodník descends into the lake to consult the witch Ježibaba on how to deal with this situation, Rusalka sings the most famous number in the score, in which she calls upon the moon to let the prince know that she is waiting for him.
Mesícku na nebi hlubokém,
Mesícku, postůj chvíli,
Rekni mu, stribrný mesícku,
Zasvet’ mu do daleka,
O mne-li, duse lidská sní,
O, moon high up on the deep, deep sky
O, moon stand still for a while
Tell him, please, silvery moon in the sky,
Light up his far away place
If he is dreaming about me
FREDERICK LOEWE (1901-1988)
“I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady
Composer Frederick Loewe was born in Berlin on June 10, 1901 and died in Palm Springs, California, on February 14, 1988. Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner was born in New York on August 31, 1918 and died there on June 14, 1986. The team composed My Fair Lady, closely based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, for a Broadway opening on March 15, 1956.
Shaw’s brilliant but talkative and waspish comedies would seem to be unlikely subjects for musicalization, but Pygmalion was turned into one of the triumphs of the American musical theater by Harvard-educated lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and the Berlin-born composer Frederick Loewe. The team had already produced Brigadoon (1947) and Paint Your Wagon (1951), but it was the 1956 production of My Fair Lady that was to be the epoch-making show, partly from the Shavian brilliance of dialogue and lyrics (it is often hard to tell where Shaw ends and Lerner begins), and partly from the richly varied and tuneful score by Loewe. “I could have danced all night” brilliantly captures the soaring high spirits of the Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle after she makes a successful debut in society with her newly polished manners and refined English accent.
GEORGE GERSHWIN (1897-1938)
“Summertime” from Porgy and Bess
Had George Gershwin lived even a normal lifespan, rather than being cut off in his prime by a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight, who knows what musical marvels might have enriched American music in another couple of decades of astonishing creativity? That is the kind of second-guessing we offer for other musical geniuses whose lives were far too short—Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Bizet, none of whom reached the age of forty. And as with them, we also celebrate Gershwin’s far-too-brief life because, in spite of its brevity, his creativity left an astonishing wealth of riches. He remains unique among American composers.
After all, Gershwin did something that no other composer has managed to do so easily and so well: he spanned the two cultures of classical and popular music in America. His talent was recognized early,but given his background, as the son of hard-working Russian-Jewish immigrants growing up in his native Brooklyn and haunting the popular Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, no one would have predicted the direction it would take—from “song-plugger” on Tin Pan Alley to composer of brilliant Broadway shows (with lyrics by his brother Ira) to composer of widely-played concert music such as Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris to the creation of what is arguably the Great American Opera, Porgy and Bess.
As unlikely at it may seem, one of the musical inspirations for Gershwin’s opera was Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. While visiting Europe in the late 1920s, Gershwin met Berg, saw his opera, and purchased a copy of the score to study. Many specific elements of Wozzeck are echoed in Porgy, one of these being the importance of the lullaby that Marie sings to her child. Gershwin opens his opera with one of the primal “mother songs” of all time, the soaring “Summertime,” which is sung by three different women when, for various reasons, the infant is left motherless.
On the surface, the story that seems to be just the eternal triangle that lies at the base of so many operas, but the deeper we penetrate its richness, the more it turns out to be a moving and effective picture of an entire society, and “Summertime” is one of its most expressive high points.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)