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Program Notes – Closing Night: A Hero’s Tale

Two nights ago, the National Repertory Orchestra presented An Alpine Symphony, one of the great tone poem compositions by Richard Strauss. Tonight we will hear another that was penned about sixteen years earlier.  Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) is a huge tone poem. 

Although he denied it more than once, this is an autobiographical work. It contains more than thirty quotations from Strauss’ earlier works including Also sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegels lostige Streiche, and Death and Transfiguration.  It is the inclusion of references from Strauss’ Don Quixote (delivered by the flute and oboe) in the movement called “The Hero’s Works of Peace” that was the real clue to determining the hero’s true identity. Critics were outraged at what they considered outrageous artistic egotism, despite Strauss’ denials.  In a program note he wrote that the hero of the piece was “not a single poetical or historical figure, but rather a more general and free ideal of great and manly heroism.”

Strauss further described the work this way: “It is entitled ‘A Hero’s Life’, and while it has no funeral march, it does have lots of horns, horns being quite the thing to express heroism. Thanks to the healthy country air, my sketch has progressed well and I hope to finish by New Year’s Day.”  He did, on December 27th.

Originally, the scores included the following titles but Strauss later instructed that they be omitted.  Don’t tell on us, but here they are:

1.”Der Held” (The Hero)
2.”Des Helden Widersacher” (The Hero’s Adversaries)
3.”Des Helden Gefährtin” (The Hero’s Companion)

 4.”Des Helden Walstatt” (The Hero at Battle)
 5.”Des Helden Friedenswerke” (The Hero’s Works of Peace)

 6.”Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung” (The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Consummation)

Critics believe Strauss’ later works did not live up to the earlier ones. Noted conductor Aantal Dorati said, “Good beginnings and weaker endings are a characteristic of the music of Strauss. And in all of Strauss’s life it was this way—the beginning of his life…so exciting so full of promise, and in the end, under the Nazi shadow.  But at least he was a marvelous beginner.”

The Nazi shadow was real; the Nazi propaganda machine, directed by Joseph Goebbels, used his music and public image. Strauss was commissioned to compose the Olympic Hymn for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. After the war, Strauss maintained that cooperation with the Nazis was the only way to protect his daughter-in-law Alice, who was Jewish, and her two sons. Allied denazification tribunals eventually cleared his name and he returned in 1949 to Garmisch, a mountain resort town in Bavaria, where he died three months after his 85th birthday celebrations.

His self-evaluation shows what may be considered a nice sense of humor: “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.”

Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191 was completed in 1895.  It remains one of the most popular and important works for cello. It almost never happened.  Dvořák had been asked many times over the years to write a cello concerto.  He always refused, saying the instrument simply was not suitable for a solo run.

In 1892, Dvořák moved to New York City and was appointed Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. In 1894 one of the Conservatory teachers Victor Herbert, completed his Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 30, and premiered it in a series of concerts.  After attending two of these concerts, Dvořák was apparently convinced that the instrument could be used as the star in a concerto.  Since Herbert served as something of a muse for Dvořák, he deserves a few words about his work and career.  Herbert had been principal cello in the orchestra that premiered Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9. Herbert’s cello concerto was enthusiastically received and continues in the standard repertoire today. 

Johannes Brahms was Dvořák’s mentor. He offered to correct the proofs of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor prior to its publication. Although Brahms did not write a cello concerto (he did compose a concerto for violin and cello) he knew Dvořák’s work very well.  In 1896, Brahms heard Dvořák’s concerto played with Brahms piano accompaniment.  Brahms is reported to have said, “If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself.”

Written by Doug Adams