A guide to Strauss's Symphonia Domestica and its best recordings
Taking inspiration from his everyday married life, Strauss composed a landmark in symphonic music; Terry Blain finds the best recordings of Strauss's Symphonia Domestica;
It is quite clear, then, that he has thought it worthwhile to put about 100 people to a great deal of trouble and expense in order to suggest the imbecile spectacle of a baby shrieking in its bath.’ So wrote the English music critic Ernest Newman in 1905 after the English premiere of Richard Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica, an orchestral tone poem lasting 45 minutes.
Newman pulled no punches in his estimation of Strauss’s newest piece. ‘Sheer inanity,’ he called it. ‘There is something physically wrong with a brain that can fall so low as this.’
What is Symphonia Domestica about?
Newman’s contemptuous dismissal of the Symphonia Domestica has been echoed by many since. Should a ‘serious’ composer really be depicting minute details of his family life – including an X-rated sex scene and an unseemly domestic squabble – in music?
Had he really nothing more edifying to offer than that? For Strauss, though, family was at the heart of his life as a composer. His wife Pauline, a renowned soprano, had a famously combustible temperament. But the couple’s relationship ran deep, and the marriage lasted over half-a-century. The arrival in 1897 of their son Franz – nicknamed ‘Bubi’ – further bolstered the sustenance Strauss drew from home and family, and the creative stability they gave him.
So why not express his sense of domestic felicity in music? In 1903, Strauss set about doing just that. Four interlinking sections were planned for the new work, loosely resembling those of a symphony. Father, mother and baby are all allotted their own musical themes in the opening ‘movement’ – a cooing oboe d’amore represents Bubi.
In Strauss’s ‘day in my family life’ we hear, in turn, ructions at baby’s bathtime, a lulling cradle song, a clock chiming, an almost indecently graphic depiction of the parents’ nocturnal love-making and an almighty quarrel over the Strauss breakfast table.
Early drafts of the Symphonia Domestica contain verbal descriptions, mapping out where these incidents are actually depicted in the music. ‘Mama puts Bubi to bed’, Strauss writes at one point, then ‘Papa and mama alone: love scene’, and ‘Morning: Bubi cries, happy awakening’.
Sensing the ridicule he was inviting from those who favoured music of grand philosophical pretensions – Wagner’s influence dominated Austro-Germanic music at the period, and Mahler already had four symphonies to his credit – Strauss omitted these annotations from the printed score, hoping listeners would respond primarily to the music.
How was it received?
When the Symphonia Domestica was premiered on 21 March 1904, they did exactly that. The venue was Carnegie Hall, New York, where Strauss was guest-of-honour at the last of four ‘Festival Concerts’ organised by Hermann Wetzler, a German-born conductor and composer. Fifteen rehearsals were needed to whip the Wetzler Symphony Orchestra into shape – a ‘band of anarchists’, Strauss called them – but they undoubtedly delivered on the evening.
An ‘extremely fine’ performance, wrote the New York Times’s reviewer, ‘in many respects brilliant’. Strauss himself conducted ‘with tremendous energy and alertness’, earning ‘many recalls’ to the platform from a large, appreciative audience.
So appreciative, in fact, that two repeat performances of the Symphonia Domestica were quickly added. These took place – appropriately enough for a work extolling cosy domesticity – in the nearby Wanamaker department store in downtown Manhattan, where an entire sales floor was cleared for Strauss, his orchestra and the paying customers.
The Wanamaker concerts particularly rankled with critics, many of them already spitting teeth at Strauss’s low-brow choice of subject-matter. Not content with peddling intimate family relationships on a public platform, was he now literally selling his artistry out to the highest commercial bidder? Strauss was, however, having none of it. ‘True art ennobles this hall,’ he said, ‘and a respectable fee for his wife and child is no disgrace, even for an artist.’
And yet doubts about the Symphonia Domestica linger. Can worthwhile music really be made from the minutiae of family living? Is art not meant to rise above the banalities of everyday existence? Strauss’s response to questions such as these was disarmingly simple. ‘What can be more serious than family life?’ he retorted. ‘I want the Symphonia Domestica to be understood seriously.’
As the already successful composer of tone poems such as Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, Strauss had every right to crave his listeners’ indulgence. In return he offered them, in Symphonia Domestica, a brilliantly warm and witty celebration of the things that mattered most to him in life – not philosophical or spiritual speculations, but the happiness and meaning that he found in the intimate environment of his own family. ‘I want to create joy,’ he once commented. In the Symphonia Domestica he did just that, allowing audiences to share his unshakable conviction that, as Hugo Wolf’s song puts it, ‘even small things can be delightful’.
The best recordings of Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica
Zubin Mehta (conductor)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Decca 470 9542
Zubin Mehta and the Symphonia Domestica are bosom buddies: he has recorded it on no fewer than three occasions. While his re-makes with the Berlin and London Philharmonics have their moments, they pale in comparison with this remarkably fresh and vivid version with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (with which today he is conductor emeritus). Made in 1969, when Mehta was in a golden period as the orchestra’s music director, it bristles with the self-confidence and élan he had instilled in the players since his appointment, aged just 26, seven years earlier.
Mehta has often been branded a brash interpreter, but there is no sign of that here. Indeed, of all the Domesticas on record, none is more tenderly expressive. The Scherzo, where the baby awakes, has ravishingly pointed woodwind detail, and the cradle song that follows is hushed and cossetting.
Mehta can call out the big guns when needed. The fiery fugue which launches the Finale leaves no doubt that a sharp-tongued altercation is happening between the Strausses, while the crushing, brass-capped climaxes at the work’s conclusion are exhilaratingly projected. But Mehta also finds a degree of emotional nuance matched by no other conductor. No one makes the multi-stranded dream music of the sleeping hours sound quite so strange and unsettled. And even in the love music of the Adagio, Mehta finds elements of unquietness and anxiety that are glossed over in other interpretations.
Much of this extra detail would be buried were the sound quality not outstanding. Fortunately, it is. Working in Royce Hall at the University of California, Decca’s engineers conjure a classic analogue recording, wonderfully ripe and rangy, with oodles of visceral impact. In the Symphonia Domestica you need that – if you’re not thrilled and seduced by the sounds of Strauss’s massive orchestra, half the point of the piece is missing. Brass and double basses emerge with particular potency, and no other version is so sheerly enjoyable as a hi-fi listening experience. It is currently available to be streamed or bought via download, and the digital remastering is excellent.
Watching Strauss conducting the Symphonia Domestica, an observer wrote that ‘he laughs with the timpani’, and ‘takes pleasure with the joy he is unleashing’. Mehta captures that quintessential Straussian spirit in this great recording.
Antoni Wit (conductor)
If you don’t like downloads or streaming, this richly enjoyable 2009 performance by the Staatskapelle Weimar is the leading option on CD. Antoni Wit’s tempos are consistently broader than most, but that allows the warmth of Strauss’s orchestration to radiate, with no significant loss of detail. The Weimar violins are especially impressive, phrasing with a natural pliability and feeling for the long-spun, lyrical melodies. Naxos’s engineering sets the players in a concert-hall perspective, with pleasingly high levels of transparency.
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George Szell (conductor)
The Symphonia Domestica is so intricately orchestrated that any weaknesses in individual sections or players are glaringly obvious. There’s no danger of that in this Cleveland Orchestra recording. Made in 1964 for Strauss’s centenary, it still scorches all the others in the unshakable virtuosity of its playing. Szell’s tempos are on the quick side but never rushed, and the Cleveland players have an uncanny ability to combine chamber-like delicacy with blockbusting ensemble impact. In 24-bit, high resolution format particularly, it makes for an enthralling experience.
Rudolf Kempe (conductor)
Warner Classics 9029554251
An outstanding Strauss conductor, Rudolf Kempe’s 1972 Symphonia Domestica sits midway between Wit’s geniality and Szell’s pinpoint precision. The Staatskapelle Dresden premiered many of Strauss’s operas, and its players understand Kempe’s affectionate micro-rubatos instinctively. Their bounding athleticism is never muscle-bound, and the love music is passionately delivered, though dignity and decorum are maintained in even the steamiest moments. A long, venerable tradition of Strauss interpretation is distilled in this rendition.
And one to avoid…
The concert from which this was taken was the last Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted in the old Berlin Philharmonie concert hall before Allied bombers flattened it in 1944. Through the foggy, dynamically pinched recording (complete with audience coughing), one discerns an incandescent performance by the Berlin Philharmonic. But sonically it’s a severely limited experience, which Symphonia Domestica should never be.