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Suite from Der Rosenkavalier

About the Work

Richard Strauss
Quick Look Composer: Richard Strauss
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Beethoven May 31 - Jun. 2, 2012
© Thomas May

Richard Strauss cut his teeth in the art of musical storytelling through his extraordinary sequence of tone poems in the last years of the nineteenth century. In a way, they provided the ideal preparation for his career as an opera composer. And it was from this experience that he drew to craft the unforgettable musical characterizations of Der Rosenkavalier, which range from boisterous parody to subtle psychological nuance. Strauss also had the benefit of working with one of the most marvelously crafted librettos in the literature, thanks to his partnership with the poet/dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who had recently launched their legendary partnership by furnishing the libretto for Elektra, the (shockingly different, as it were) opera immediately preceding Der Rosenkavalier.

Set in mid-18th-century Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier was originally conceived as a period comedy inspired by Verdi's Falstaff as well as the comic panache of Molière's satires. The story's comic aspects center around the loutish, self-centered Baron von Ochs (a German name that means exactly what it sounds like in English) and his quest to win the beautiful Sophie von Faninal as a trophy bride-and his ticket to the sizeable dowry promised by her nouveau riche father. But the Baron's plans are foiled by the young Count Rofrano, known as Octavian and cast as a "trousers role" ( i.e., for a female singer, like Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro). Octavian himself falls in love with Sophie (immediately reciprocated) when he meets her as bearer of the "silver rose" to announce Ochs's engagement. In fine comic fashion, the young count then orchestrates a plot to unmask his rival's true character.

But Octavian must also come to terms with his love for an older woman, the Marschallin, an aristocrat trapped in a loveless marriage, with whom he is engaged in a passionate affair at the very start of the opera. The Marschallin introduces an entirely new dimension of pathos and psychological nuance into the comedy and becomes its true central character, revealing Strauss and Hofmannsthal's desire to emulate the bittersweet emotional complexity of Mozart's Figaro. In fact it is she who arranges for Octavian to deliver Ochs's engagement token, thus securing her lover's first introduction to the younger woman she already intuits will become her own rival. The perceptive Marschallin has decided to save Sophie from suffering the same fate that befell her at that age and is eager to thwart Ochs's scheme.

Strauss wrote the score for Der Rosenkavalier between 1909 and 1910, and the opera was premiered in January 1911. It made the already rich and famous composer into an even more wildly successful celebrity, becoming a phenomenon well beyond the opera house and generating an avalanche of "tie-in" merchandise. Der Rosenkavalier has also found a life in the concert hall. Along with its gestures of Mozartean homage, the score draws on the orchestral mastery Strauss had inherited from Wagner. This aspect comes to the fore in the purely instrumental suite we hear, the best known of numerous suites that have been extracted from the score over the years (most of which were not arranged by the composer himself). Strauss's own role in preparing this particular suite is murky; around the time it was introduced in New York, in 1944, he was fashioning a different suite of his own drawn mostly from the opera's waltzes. Conductor Artur Rodzinsky, who led the Rosenkavalier Suite's first performance, is usually cited as the party responsible for actually splicing it all together-though the composer likely consented to its publication the following year.

The Suite opens forcefully with the Prelude's jubilant, masculine horns, which evoke the teenage Octavian's passion for the Marschallin (who is approaching middle age). The music, alternately lush and heroic, includes one of the most graphic depictions of sex in the literature as the horns work to a climax, followed by a rosy, postcoital afterglow woven from leitmotifs representing the Marschallin and her reflections on aging. This jump cuts to the stunning scene in the second act that gives the opera its title ("The Knight of the Rose"), as Octavian undertakes his mission to present Baron Ochs's silver rose to Sophie. (Despite what the Viennese tourist industry would have you believe, this magnificent ceremony-given a genuinely silvery, glistening orchestration by Strauss-was a Symbolist invention by Hofmannsthal.) But the young pair themselves fall in love to music of rapturously soaring ecstasy.

A brief, chaotic interlude signals the intrusion of the lecher Ochs, who then dances with fatuous self-satisfaction to one of the waltzes that are such a recognizable part of Der Rosenkavalier's sound world. Ever since the opera's premiere, pedantic critics have noted that the waltzes pervading the score are "anachronistic" for its mid-18th-century setting. But they never feel out of place amid Strauss's time-traveling homage to the great music of the past-including parodies of Tristan and yes, loving nods to the (unrelated) "waltz king"-but all  filtered through Strauss's unmistakable style.

If the waltzes showcase the opera's comic side, the great Trio near the end of the third act (which follows) is the epitome of Der Rosenkavalier's bittersweet wisdom. How fitting that Strauss actually decelerates the waltz's natural pace for this music, where the Marschallin, who had earlier been shown trying to stop time, renounces her lover. She acknowledges that Octavian and Sophie will be happier together, while they meanwhile marvel at their newfound love. After the Marschallin's graceful exit, the pair continue with a duet of simple, fairy-tale charm. Capping the Suite is another of Ochs's hedonistic waltzes from earlier in the act, which features some of Strauss's most delirious modulations.