Ein Heldenleben

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Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), Op. 40 is a tone poem by Richard Strauss.

Unlike most composers, and true to the program music style of his day, rather than write a literary memoir of himself Strauss wrote a musical autobiography. It contains more than thirty quotations from Strauss's earlier works. But it is much more than just a recitation of Strauss's Greatest Hits. The work requires a huge orchestra, and in modern times has become a test for an orchestra to display its full maturity and skill.[1]

Ein Heldenleben is just one of many outstanding examples of symphonic writing when the Late Romantic Era was at its peak.


Strauss conceived the plan to write a heroic work in the mould of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony without a funeral march.


The work is a tone poem in five parts with an introduction, or main theme, "The Hero."

  • Introduction: "Der Held" (The Hero)
  • "Des Helden Widersacher" (The Hero's Adversaries)
  • "Des Helden Gefährtin" (The Hero's Companion)
  • "Des Helden Walstatt" (The Hero at Battle)
  • "Des Helden Friedenswerke" (The Hero's Works of Peace)
  • "Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung" (The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion)

The orchestration includes eight French horns and five trumpets in the 18-member brass section.

The Hero

The Hero is a musical portrait of how Strauss saw himself. The Introduction is highly contrapuntal with long melodic lines spanning three octaves (36 notes in chromatic tonality) and even syncopated rhythm, giving an insight into Strauss's personality.[2]

The Hero's Adversaries

The Hero's Adversaries are musical depictions of how Strauss viewed other composers of his day, namely Mahler and Sibelius, and various music critics. It begins with "spiky" woodwinds which seem to mimic Sibelius. The anti-Strauss Viennese music critic Doktor Dehring, a pedantic critic who could not abide breaking the rules of harmony, is outlined in a recurring leitmotif by tenor and base tuba which seem simultaneously ominous and brain-dead. Doktor Dehring's name is announced using parallel fifths - a deliberate harmonic mistake.

By mocking his chief critic, Strauss emulates Richard Wagner, who responded to the persistent music critic Edward Hanslick by writing in the villainous character Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. Together, the woodwinds and brass make a chorus of mean-spirited sniping. Strauss enters on bassoons, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, horns, and low strings, slowly surveying his enemies.[3] Squabbling continues, until Strauss chases them away and declares a brief victory. His wife then enters on solo First violin to begin the next section.

The Hero's Companion

Is a romantic duet between the Hero's theme and Strauss's wife, Pauline, who is portrayed by solo First violin. Pauline was a well known personality in her own right. What we hear from this long section is that Pauline could be boisterous and argumentative, but the two were deeply in love and shared domestic compatibility.

The section even allows for improvisational passages.

The Hero at Battle

The infamous battle scene is a contest between Strauss and his adversaries, where he defeats them one by one. Critics hated it, and it still stirs emotion and controversy.

The scene is introduced by a call to battle by three off-stage trumpets.[4]

In an historical context, its a contest between the more advanced stages of the Late Romantic era, and what was passing as innovations in "modern music" at the turn of the 20th century. What Strauss seems to be saying, as he said elsewhere is, "It's not that difficult" to write good music or strive for individuality.[5]

Strauss employs a snare drum, rare in symphonic writing, to give a military aire. This section may have its inspiration in Beethoven's Wellington's Victory of more than 80 years earlier.[6]

The Hero's Works of Peace

Contains numerous quotations from earlier successful Strauss pieces, some written for piano and here orchestrated for the first time. Strauss combines music from Til Eulenspiegel,[7] Don Juan,[8] Also sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, Don Quixote, Macbeth, the song Traum durch die Dämmerung (“Dream Through the Twilight”)[9] on tenor tuba, and other earlier works.

Doktor Dehring reappears twice and is chased away, the final time in outrage, which leads into the final section.

The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion

There are few horn solos throughout the piece, but after the Hero's retirement from his works of peace, there are now several long and strenuous horn solos.[10] The movement takes on the form of another duet between Strauss and his wife.

Program notes

Ein Heldenleben places extraordinary demands on the entire orchestra. Each musician becomes a virtuoso in their own right. The piece cannot be performed by rote experience - it requires interaction and dialogue between instruments, a mastery of an individual's instrument, and an understanding of the music. In the twenty-first century, Ein Heldenleben is becoming the test of maturity for 90 disciplined musicians performing at their highest level together.

Here, a provincial orchestra, Sinfónica de Galicia, proves it is on equal footing with the best orchestras in the world, Berlin, Vienna and Chicago. Once an orchestra masters this piece, it can perform anything.


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