Today marks Richard Strauss's 150th birthday. To celebrate the occasion, we have created a playlist of essential Strauss listening, featuring ten highlights from the great composer's musical works.
Here is a guide to three works selected from the playlist.
Also sprach Zarathustra (1896)
One of Strauss’s most exuberantly inventive works, Also sprach Zarathustra is scored for a massive orchestra, integrating passages of dazzling brilliance with voluptuous string writing. We follow Zarathustra from the work’s arresting opening (‘Sunrise’), through his dismissal of the old regime (‘Dwellers in the Outer Reaches’), his profound optimism and joy at the new order of things (‘The Great Longing’/‘Of Joys and Passions’), and his subsequent despair (‘The Grave Song’), from which ‘Science’ offers no relief. While ‘Convalescing’ he discovers the life enhancing quality of the dance (‘The Dance Song’), which is silenced by the return of night (‘Song of the Night Wanderer’), its mysterious forebodings ending the work on a note of profound uncertainty, suggested by two parallel key centres.
Till Eulenspiegels lustige streiche (1895)
Subtitled ‘an old rogue’s tale in rondo form’, Richard Strauss’s orchestral showpiece of 1895 has remained a firm favourite and sure-fire concert opener. It is scored for large orchestra and brilliantly describes the adventures of folk hero Till Eulenspiegel, whose ‘merry pranks’ are a mixture of the mischievous, the amorous and the downright wicked. All members of the orchestra appear to get walk-on parts; at one point even a rattle is asked to join the fun.
Till Eulenspiegel is also notorious for containing one of the most treacherous horn solos in the repertoire – at one time more feared than relished, it holds few terrors for horn players today, however. As for Till, whereas in the present social climate he would probably be unlucky to receive any more than an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO), our hapless medieval hero is sentenced to death for his misdemeanours – the frantic shriek of the E flat clarinet highlights his terror on the gallows. However, because this is meant to be a ‘merry’ piece, Strauss orders a cheeky final flourish from full orchestra just to reassure us that Till’s roguish spirit lives on.
The Horn Concertos (1883, 1942)
If you relish Strauss’s horn fireworks in Till Eulenspiegel, then his two horn concertos should be your next stop. Strauss was 18 when in 1883 he dedicated his first concerto to Papa Strauss who was then principal horn player with the Munich Opera Orchestra. The hand horn was still widely in use but this piece was written for the new and more versatile valve horn; his father, a renowned exponent of the older instrument, never mastered it. Whereas Schumann’s influence is obvious in the conventional first concerto, Strauss’s second, written 60 years later, is a prime example of just how writing for the horn had advanced in the 20th century.
To find out more about Richard Strauss, turn back to the January issue of BBC Music Magazine