Metamorphosen: Strauss Chamber Works
The Oculi Ensemble is a flexible string ensemble dedicated to performing and discovering the breadth of string repertoire for combinations from two to seven players. The Ensemble is derived from internationally acclaimed musicians from such leading quartets as the Badke, Doric, Piatti, Navarra, Albion and Idomeneo.
For their debut release as a standalone ensemble, the Oculi Ensemble presents chamber works by Richard Strauss, ranging from his iconic Metamorphosen (from which the album takes its title) to some of his lesser-known chamber works, including his early String Quartet fragment, left tantalisingly unfinished.
Oculi Ensemble leader Charlotte Scott writes: “This disc has been a real labour of love. From the Oculi Ensemble’s inception the group wanted to explore the breadth of instrumental combinations of Strauss’ chamber works. We spent a hugely enjoyable time recording at Champs Hill, and we enjoyed the journey that each day took us on, emotionally and musically. We hope that the disc enables you to join us in the Oculi Ensemble’s appreciation of the glorious chamber works of Richard Strauss.”
- Sleeve Notes
Munich, capital of the short-lived Kingdom of Bavaria, was developing fast at the time of Richard Strauss’s birth in 1864. The future composer’s home city, Germany’s second largest after Hamburg, had prospered since arrival of the railway little more than a quarter century earlier, its ancient medieval centre now open to the grand neoclassical buildings of the Ludwigstrasse and its related ‘royal’ avenues. Young Richard, the first of two children born to the court horn player Franz Strauss and Josephine Pschorr Strauss, daughter of an affluent local brewer, was raised to value education and its role in the cultivation of excellence. His own father had overcome the stigma of illegitimacy to ascend the ranks of Bavarian musicians to become professor at Munich’s Royal School of Music and, in 1873, chamber musician to Ludwig II, the famously profligate Swan King.
Formative studies at the Ludwigs-Gymnasium helped establish Richard’s lifelong attachment to Bildung, the systematic process of humanist education rooted in the great classical and historical achievements of European culture. The works of Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and, above all, Goethe, gave shape to Strauss’s worldview; his early musical studies, meanwhile, were guided by the ultra-conservative tastes of his father, who limited his son’s studies to ‘nothing but classical music’ until he was sixteen. ‘I owe it to this discipline,’ he recalled in old age, ‘that my love and adoration for the classical masters of music has remained untainted to this day.’
Beyond its court and public institutions Munich’s musical life drew considerable energy from the growing presence of middle-class culture. The domestic salon and more modest drawing rooms of Bavaria’s bourgeoisie became havens for chamber music. Strauss, a self-confessed ‘bad pupil’ who disliked practising piano and violin, had a gift for sight-reading at the keyboard and was a sensitive accompanist of lieder. ‘I also became a respectable chamber musician,’ he noted in his brief essay, ‘Recollections of My Youth and Years of Apprenticeship’. Strauss’s love for the ‘classical masters’ and closeness to the conservatism of his father and Munich’s musical cognoscenti did not
prevent him from adopting influences from the iconoclastic works of Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner. Yet before the teenager felt free to experiment, he proved his mastery of counterpoint and fugue in a series of works directly inspired by the classical Viennese composers and such early Romantics as Mendelssohn and Schumann.
The classical tradition supplied formal models for Strauss’s early works. The String Quartet in A major was completed in 1880, the year in which he also wrote his Symphony No.1 in D minor. The quartet, first performed at Munich’s Museumsaal on 14 March 1881 by an ensemble led by the composer’s cousin and violin teacher, Benno Walter, opens with a lively theme reminiscent in style of Haydn. The first movement’s development section takes an initial scenic detour from the exposition’s thematic material before settling for routine repetitions and variations of its principal themes, a strategy that lessens the impact of the recapitulation. Strauss thereafter launches and sustains a spirited scherzo, graced by echoes of Mozart and a Ländler-like drone bass; the movement’s trio section is marked by a flowing fiddle melody, elegant companion to the bustling scherzo.
Norman Del Mar, in his critical commentary on the composer’s life and works, dismisses the following Andante cantabile for ‘the lame symmetry of its themes’ before asserting that it ‘certainly at no time touches even the fringe of one’s heart. But then how should it? What did the pampered schoolboy know about life?’ The movement’s Mendelssohnian introduction and opening cello theme suggest that he knew something, even if it was yet insufficient to escape the limits of his formal training. Mozart’s influence surfaces again in the finale, clearly stamped in the opening theme and preserved in spirt throughout the movement. The work’s premiere received a favourable review in the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten. where it was welcomed as ‘proof of decided talented; it is characterised by natural sentiment and skill in handling form.... Each movement was generously applauded and the young composer took two bows at the end at the insistence of an enthusiastic audience.’ The sixteen-year-old’s String Quartet was
accepted by the small firm of Joseph Aibl and published as his Op.2, part of an agreement that would last for twenty years and see thirty works through the press.
During his childhood and early adolescence Strauss wrote songs and chamber pieces for members of his music-loving family, dedicating many of them to his aunt, Johanna Pschorr, and writing others for her sons. In July 1879 he began work on a string quartet movement, the Quartettsatz in E-Flat Major, but abandoned the project in its forty- second bar, apparently distracted by the handful of other pieces he was composing at the time and what he described as the ‘greatest enjoyment’ of playing Mozart’s piano concertos from his father’s copy of their first complete edition. The background to Ständchen (‘Serenade’) remains unclear, although the piece was probably written in Munich in the early 1880s; it certainly stands as a fine example of its young composer’s lyrical invention, an exquisite song-without-words for violin, viola, cello and piano punctuated by emotional turbulence in its central section and distinguished throughout by idiomatic scoring.
The Festmarsch in D major, also for piano quartet, completed in November 1886 as a silver wedding gift for Johanna and Georg Pschorr, combines the celebratory with the serious, the latter heightened in the pensive trio section and recalled in the composition’s short, restrained coda. The Two Pieces for Piano Quartet represent symbols of Strauss’s deep affection for Georg Pschorr, not least for his abiding encouragement and occasional financial support: Georg covered the printing costs of his nephew’s official Opus 1 and, in the winter of 1892, paid for him to visit Greece, Sicily and Egypt to speed his recovery from serious illness. Strauss wrote the Two Pieces in Weimar as a Christmas present for his uncle, during breaks between conducting duties for what proved to be the world premiere of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel. He based the fiery Arabische Tanz, completed on 7 December, on original Arab melodies; the
‘Little Love Song’, meanwhile, would have evoked fond memories of the many musical
soirees held at the Pschorr house. On Christmas Eve, the day after finishing the second of the set, Strauss wrote to his father: ‘I sent off the pieces for Uncle Georg yesterday, I really had to cheese-pare the time for them, for I’ve not a free moment in the last fortnight.’
Lessons from the past and their supposedly civilising values were tested to destruction by the First World War and the blood-lust of the Nazis. Even so they brought solace to Strauss in old age. His last completed opera, Capriccio (1940–41), reflects on the nature of opera itself and its eternal debate about the primacy of words over music or music over words. The work, subtitled ‘A Conversation Piece for Music’, opens with a Prelude for string sextet, ostensibly written by the composer Flamand to mark the Countess Madeleine’s birthday and advance his pursuit of the beautiful widow over that of his rival in love, the poet Olivier. The sextet’s yearning expression, touched by nostalgia for a land of lost content, reveals the power of instrumental music to transcend words.
During the last six years of his life Strauss, yesterday’s man in so many ways, completed a series of remarkable masterworks, rightly judged as the fruits of a creative Indian summer and a final avowal of his faith in the expressive language of late Romantic music. Although Metamorphosen for twenty-three solo strings was written to satisfy a commission from Paul Sacher, founder and director of the Schola Cantorum in Basel, its emotional content was conditioned by a dawning realisation of the futility of war and its terrible consequences.
On the night of 13–14 February 1945, what felt like an unbroken wave of Allied bombers reduced Strauss’s beloved Dresden to ruins and killed over 50,000 of its inhabitants. On 2 March Strauss wrote to the Viennese art historian Joseph Gregor: ‘I too am in a mood of despair! The Goethehaus, the world’s greatest sanctuary, destroyed! My beautiful Dresden – Weimar – Munich, all gone!’ The 81-year-old composer responded to the weight of destruction in his impassioned Metamorphosen, a
work of aching sadness and bitter despair for the tragic course of twentieth-century history. On the final page of the manuscript, Strauss simply added the words ‘In memoriam!’ beneath a quote voiced by low strings of the opening of the funeral march from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony.
Strauss had begun work on the score for Sacher in August 1944, incorporating into his sketches material from an abandoned setting of Goethe’s poem Niemand wird sich selber kennen and developing its rich web of polyphony during the early autumn. The composer’s biographer Michael Kennedy suggested that the Goethe connection marksMetamorphosen as ‘not just the elegy for the destruction of German culture that has been supposed, but a deeply personal apologia for having had anything to do with the Nazi regime at any time.... Metamorphosen is the music of the confessional.’ Certainly its composition appears to have involved catharsis for a man who had served as inaugural president of Josef Goebbel’s Reichsmuskikammer until his dismissal from the post in 1935. Strauss struggled to complete his new ‘Adagio’, but returned to his sketchbooks in January 1945 and again in the weeks after the Dresden raid. It has been observed that Goethe also provided the inspiration for the work’s title, not least since Strauss had sought comfort in the poet’s late works and his ideas about the constantly changing nature of an individual’s body, mind and soul.
After a plaintive introductory theme given to the cellos and double bass, it seems that Strauss by chance introduced a melody for two violas heavily reminiscent of the opening theme from the funeral march of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony. This ‘Eroica’ reference is recalled elsewhere in the work’s opening section, and is deliberately stated in its despairing closing bars. Strauss later noted that the Beethoven quote ‘escaped from his pen’. The work’s freewheeling central section, prefaced by a surging climax, provides an initial moment of reflection after the emotional turmoil of its opening material. Here, the composer invokes the spirit of a lost culture in music of almost
unbearable anguish; Strauss indicates a gradual acceleration in tempo throughout and builds the tension towards the eventual reprise of the work’s introductory Adagio.
Soon after completing Metamorphosen Strauss summarised the feelings surrounding the work’s creation in his diary: ‘On 1 May ended the most terrible period of mankind: twelve years during which the fruits of Germany’s 2000-year-long cultural development were condemned to extinction and irreplaceable buildings and works of art were destroyed by a criminal rabble of soldiers. A curse on technology!’ Strauss finished the work’s draft in short-score form for seven solo strings on 31 March 1945. The manuscript, written for two violins, two violas, two cellos and one double bass, served as the basis for the composer’s final version for twenty-three strings. It was rediscovered in Switzerland in 1990 and edited for performance four years later by the cellist Rudolf Leopold, a native of Vienna born in 1954, a decade after the US
Air Force made the first of many bombing raids on the Austrian city. Leopold’s arrangement draws from the septet version, including its closing modulation, and the more familiar version for twenty-three strings to enhance the intimacy of the work’s instrumental polylogue without diluting its nobility of expression.
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