Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), Op. 40 is a tone poem by Richard Strauss. The work was completed in 1898. It was his sixth work in the genre, and exceeded any of its predecessors in its orchestral demands. Generally agreed to be autobiographical in tone, despite contradictory statements on the matter by the composer, the work contains more than thirty quotations from Strauss's earlier works.
Strauss began work on the piece while staying in a Bavarian mountain resort in July 1898. He proposed to write a heroic work in the mould of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony: "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."
Strauss worked on Ein Heldenleben and another tone poem, Don Quixote during 1898. He regarded the two as complementary, saying they were conceived as "direct pendants" to one another. There was speculation before the premiere about the identity of the hero. Strauss was equivocal: he commented "I'm no hero: I'm not made for battle", and in a programme note he wrote that subject of the piece was "not a single poetical or historical figure, but rather a more general and free ideal of great and manly heroism." On the other hand, in the words of the critic Richard Freed:
The music, though, points stubbornly to its own author as its subject, and Strauss did concede, after all, in a remark to the writer Romain Rolland, that he found himself "no less interesting than Napoleon," and his gesture of conducting the premiere himself instead of leaving that honor to the respected dedicatee may well be viewed as further confirmation of the work's self-congratulatory character.
Structure and analysis
The work, which lasts about fifty minutes is through-composed, performed without breaks, except for a dramatic grand pause at the end of the first movement. The movements are titled as follows (later editions of the score may not show these titles, owing to the composer's request that they be removed):
- "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 Consummation)
1. "The Hero": The first theme represents the hero. In unison, horns and celli play E-flat major triads ascending through an almost four-octave span. A contrasting lyrical theme first appears in high strings and winds in B major. A second motive appears, outlining a stepwise descending fourth. Trumpets sound a dominant seventh chord followed by a grand pause, the only prolonged silence throughout the entire piece.
2. "The Hero's Adversaries": The movement opens with chromatic woodwinds and low brass: multiple motives in contrasting registers are heard. The adversaries represented by the woodwinds are Strauss's critics, such as the 19th-century Viennese music critic Doktor Dehring, who is memorably written into the score with an ominous four note leitmotif played by the two tubas in parallel fifths. As the critic Michael Kennedy puts it, the Hero's theme goes dolefully into the minor and the critics renew their attacks until a fanfare from the brass diminishes them".
3. "The Hero's Companion": Strauss was evasive about whether he was or was not the hero depicted in the piece, but he explicitly confirmed that the hero's companion was a portrait of his wife, Pauline de Ahna. He wrote to Rolland, "She is very complex, a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute." The section features a tender melody played by a solo violin. In an extended accompanied cadenza filled with extremely detailed performance instructions by Strauss, after the fashion of an operatic recitative, the violin presents new motivic material, alternating with brief interjections in low strings, winds, and brass. During this section, the violin briefly foreshadows a theme that will appear fully later. The cadenza concludes and the new thematic material is combined in a cantabile episode commencing in G-flat. Fragments of the motives from the previous movement briefly appear. A fanfare motive in offstage trumpets, repeated onstage, is then heard. The section ends with "a voluptuously scored love-scene."
The academic and critic James Hepokoski observes that the whole work is in a massive version of sonata form. The three initial sections comprise an elaborate exposition, with elements of a multiple-movement symphony evident in their contrasting character and tempo. The remainder of the work comprises development, recapitulation, and coda, with occasional new thematic material.
4. "The Hero's Battlefield": In this first extended development section of the work, percussion and a solo trumpet are heard in the first appearance of 3/4 time: a variation of a previous motive. A sequence of clamorous trumpet fanfares occurs as the music approaches a harmonic climax in G flat, and the related E flat minor. Percussion is pervasive throughout the movement. 4/4 time returns in a modified recapitulation of the first theme as it appeared at the beginning of the piece, this time with a repeated quaver accompaniment. A new cantabile theme makes its appearance in the trumpet, and an extended elaboration of this serves to preface the next section.
5. "The Hero's Works of Peace": The autobiographical aspect of the work is indicated most clearly in this section, in which Strauss extensively quotes his previous works. He quotes his early opera Guntram (eight times), his symphonic poems Don Quixote (five times), Don Juan (four), Death and Transfiguration (four), Macbeth (three), Also sprach Zarathustra (three) and Till Eulenspiegel (once). The lieder "Traum durch die Dämmerung", Op 29/1 and "Befreit", Op 39/1, are quoted once each. The melodies lead into the final section.
6. "The Hero's Retirement from this World and Consummation": Yet another new motive appears, commencing in a rapid descending E-flat triad, which introduces a new development of the original theme: an elegy featuring harp, bassoon, English horn, and strings. The reappearance of the previous "Hanslick" motive brings in an agitato episode. This is followed by a pastoral interlude with what Kennedy calls "a bucolic cor anglais theme". The descending triad now appears slowly, cantabile, as the head of a new, peaceful theme in E flat: this is the theme foreshadowed during the violin cadenza. In a final variation of the initial motive, the brass intones the last fanfare, and a serene E flat major conclusion is reached.
The work is scored for a large orchestra consisting of piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, English horn/cor anglais (doubling 4th oboe), E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns in F, E and E-flat, 3 trumpets in B-flat (3 used offstage briefly) and 2 trumpets in E-flat, 3 trombones, tenor tuba in B-flat (euphonium), tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, tenor drum, tam-tam, 2 harps, and strings, including an extensive solo violin part.
Dedication and performances
Strauss dedicated the piece to the 27-year-old Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. However, it was premiered by the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester on March 3, 1899 in Frankfurt, with the composer conducting. The first American performance was a year later, performed by the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Theodore Thomas. The work did not reach England until 1902, when the composer conducted Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra.
The German critics responded to Strauss's caricatures of them. One of them called the piece "as revolting a picture of this revolting man as one might ever encounter". Otto Floersheim wrote a damning review in the Musical Courier (April 19, 1899): "... alleged symphony ... revolutionary in every sense of the word. The climax of everything that is ugly, cacophonous, blatant and erratic, the most perverse music I ever heard in all my life, is reached in the chapter 'The Hero's Battlefield.' The man who wrote this outrageously hideous noise, no longer deserving of the word music, is either a lunatic, or he is rapidly approaching idiocy". The critic in The New York Times after the New York premiere in 1900 was more circumspect. He admitted that posterity might well mock his response to the piece, but that although "there are passages of true, glorious, overwhelming beauty … one is often thrown into astonishment and confusion". Henry Wood, with whose orchestra Strauss gave the British premiere, thought the piece "wonderfully beautiful".
In modern times, the work still divides critical opinion. According to Bryan Gilliam in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, this is "mainly because its surface elements have been overemphasized." In Gilliam's view:
Various critics see the work as a flagrant instance of Strauss's artistic egotism, but a deeper interpretation reveals the issue of autobiography to be far more complex. Ein Heldenleben treats two important subjects familiar from earlier works: the Nietzschean struggle between the individual and his outer and inner worlds, and the profundity of domestic love.
There are many recordings of Ein Heldenleben, including the following:
- Glass, Herbert. "Ein Heldenleben", Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, accessed 6 September 2013
- Youmans, p. 81
- Kennedy, Michael, "Ein Heldenleben", notes to Chandos CD Chan 8518 (1987)
- Freed, Richard. "Ein Heldenleben, Op 40", The Kennedy Center, accessed 6 September 2013
- Ferguson, pp. 571–575
- Hepokoski in Youmans, pp. 102–103
- Brosche, Günter in Youmans, p. 223
- A Hero's Life: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Phillip Huscher. "Ein Heldenleben program notes". Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
- "Richard Strauss's 'Heldenleben' conducted by the composer in London", The Manchester Guardian, 8 December 1902, p. 5
- Chalmers, Kenneth. Liner notes to Philips CD 456575 (1999)
- "Perlman to appear in concert", News OK, 11 October 2002
- "The Philharmonic Society", The New York Times, December 8, 1900.
- Wood, p. 163
- Gilliam, Bryan. "Strauss, Richard, §7: Instrumental works", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, accessed September 6, 2013 (subscription required)
- Ferguson, Donald Nivison (1968). Masterworks of the orchestral repertoire: a guide for listeners. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-0467-8.
- Wood, Henry J. (1938). My Life of Music. London: Victor Gollancz. OCLC 30533927.
- Youmans, Charles (2010). The Cambridge companion to Richard Strauss. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521899303.