Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, op. 59, TrV 227

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            Richard Strauss lived a long and productive life, striding across the musical landscape of Europe from teenage success to triumph in old age.  He was the son of a prominent musician, one of the world’s great horn players, and wrote works in his youth that are still performed and admired.  He married a well-respected soprano, had a family who loved him, and enjoyed a warm, stable personal life.   But, it is difficult, indeed, to think of a composer more possessed of an overweening ego than that of Richard Strauss (other than that of Wagner, of course).  Thankfully, his was not malicious, and was to some degree justified.  Strauss is almost unique in that his long life (unlike that of, say, Verdi) spanned remarkable changes in musical style, not to speak of world history. He is known both as a master of late romantic symphonic style in his large tone poems for virtuoso orchestra—the ten composed from 1886 to 1915, and also for his modern, often strikingly dissonant operas of the twentieth century. 

            He moved gradually away from the composition of tone poems to that of opera, beginning with Guntram, first performed in 1894.  Strongly derivative of Richard Wagner’s style, it was not very successful and enjoyed few performances thereafter.  But, with the première of his next opera, Feuersnot, he hit pay dirt:  the salacious nature of the libretto attracted great attention, and it was a box office smash.  The theme was simple:  make fun of Wagner’s obsession with “redemption through love,” by writing an opera about “redemption through sex.”  Well.  The way forward was clear, so his next hit was the 1905 sensation, Salome, with its sordid lust, incest, decapitation, and necrophilia.  It, too, became an international success, although after the New York première in 1907, wealthy patrons caused the cancellation of further scheduled performances.  His musical style was all the while becoming less and less lush German romantic, and more and more twentieth-century dissonant.  But then, it suited the subject matter much more appropriately.  The next opera, Elektra (1909), is a difficult tour de force of modernity that, in the depiction of the infamous character is an operatic horror show.  And what is the point of this summary of a series of dissonant, controversial operas?  Simply to put into context the utter about face of the subsequent opera, Der Rosenkavalier of 1911.  It is everything that its predecessors were not:  a comic story, a sumptuous, a beautiful eighteenth-century set, mellifluous waltzes, gracious characters, and a sparkling, romantic music style that is nonpareil.  In other words, gracious, traditional romance writ large.

            The score is a masterpiece of virtuoso orchestra writing, from whooping horns to magical, tinkling percussion.  The opera was an immediate, enormous success, and it has remained one of the most popular operas, ever.   The music was so popular that it was inevitable that concert excerpts should be extracted; but oddly, it was not until 1944 that a suite based upon musical highlights was assembled.  The première was given by the New York Philharmonic in the October 1944, while Strauss was still ensconced in Austria, a citizen of the Third Reich.  The opera is the story of a noble Viennese aristocrat of “a certain age,” who has a young count as a lover.  There is a second couple consisting of a coarse older nobleman who has his eye on a young lady—the latter then falls for the older woman’s young lover.  They ditch the old guy, and the older woman graciously cedes her lover to the younger woman.  It’s a comic, bittersweet, and sophisticated study in the realities of romantic love, played out in the most elegant and polished of music and manners.  From the soaring horns of the opening that portray nights of passion, to the delicacy of the presentation of the “Silver Rose” between the young lovers, the music is a constant reflection of the ups and downs of the bittersweet love affair.   Romantic infatuation, wistful regret, and musing over age, infidelity, and fate all inform the moods in the suite.  And marvelously driving it all are the incomparable Viennese waltzes scored so extravagantly--as only Richard Strauss could have done.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan