The Kennedy Center

Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Richard Freed

Strauss composed this work in 1898, the year in which he reached the ripe age of 34. While it was not the last of his symphonic poems, it was the last in the remarkable chain of works in this genre which he had initiated ten years earlier with Don Juan and which had established him as a major presence in the realm of orchestral music. It is, in fact, nothing less than an autobiographical summing-up of his achievements up to that time, the time he was changing his focus from the concert hall to the opera house. He gave it the modest title Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life"), and, although he dedicated the score to Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, he chose to conduct the premiere himself, on March 3, 1899, in Frankfurt.

In his earlier tone poems--Don Juan, Macbeth, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Don Quixote-Strauss had used either literary works as models or (in the case of Death and Transfiguration) had someone put his own "program" into words after the music was written. Till Eulenspiegel is a portrait of a character from folklore; Zarathustra was a response to Nietzsche's philosophical tome, whose actual words were subsequently set to music by Gustav Mahler and Frederick Delius. Regarding A Hero's Life, Strauss declared, "There is no need for a program; it is enough to know there is a hero fighting his enemies."

In a letter to his father (the respected Munich horn player Franz Strauss), a few weeks after the Frankfurt premiere, Strauss insisted that it was "only partly true" that the hero was himself. In a program note for the premiere he wrote that the work's subject was "not a single poetical or historical figure, but rather a more general and free ideal of great and manly heroism." Several commentators have supported his disclaimer, suggesting that Strauss, like Beethoven in the Eroica Symphony, may have had a generalized ideal in mind, or perhaps a specific "hero of art" among his predecessors (such as Wagner), but surely not himself. Strauss actually referred to the Beethoven example when he undertook this work, advising in 1898 that because the Eroica had fallen into neglect he was composing his unprecedentedly large-scaled tone poem in order "to fulfil a pressing need . . . admittedly without a funeral march, but still in E-flat, with lots of horns, always a symbol of heroism." 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.

No matter how one may feel about all that, A Hero's Life represented in its time a new level in the exploitation of the resources of the modern orchestra, and it remains an outstanding landmark in that respect. It is laid out in six interconnected sections, each clearly defined in sound and given its own title. The first is a portrait of THE HERO, introduced without preamble, its theme swelling through sixteen bars and ranging across three octaves. Subsidiary themes represent the hero's sensitivity, his intelligence, his ambition, his determination.

THE HERO'S ADVERSARIES, depicted in the second section, vie with one another in degrees of pettiness and nastiness. They are identified as the carpers (flute, "very shrill and biting"), the vituperators (oboe, "snarling"), the whiners (English horn), and the hair-splitters (tuba). Strauss not only had hostile music critics in mind, but, as Wagner had done in Die Meistersinger, singled out one of them for special attention. The chief hair-splitter is said to be a caricature of a Munich critic whose very name is mimicked by the tuba: "Doktor Dehring, Doktor Dehring." Strauss's father, noted for his outspokenness, wrote to him, "Those adversaries-in my opinion they transgress everything musical. Adversaries who behave so execrably-it is beneath one's dignity to notice them."

Strauss readily acknowledged THE HERO'S HELPMATE as a portrait of his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, who had sung in Weimar performances of Tristan und Isolde under his baton in 1892 and in the premiere there of his own first opera, Guntram, in May 1894, four months before their wedding. She is represented here by the solo violin. "She is very complex," Strauss wrote to Romain Rolland, "a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute." The love scene serves the dramatic function of preparing the hero spiritually and emotionally for the challenges to be met in the following section.

THE HERO'S BATTLEFIELD, as a graphic description of combat on the most massive scale (reinforced with some of the troops offstage), remained without parallel in music until Prokofiev composed the music for the Battle on the Ice in Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky. After the combat is stilled, the hero's soaring theme prevails, and the magnificent theme for unison horns from Don Juan leads into the next section, perhaps the most intriguing and surely the most revelatory portion of the work.

It is in THE HERO'S WORKS OF PEACE, with its quotations from several of his earlier works, that Strauss gives himself away completely; but it is here, too, and in the concluding section, that he is at his most eloquent and truly noble. Following the transition effected by the theme from Don Juan, "Doktor Dehring" makes a brief reappearance (a reminder that great men's deeds will always be misunderstood and unappreciated by small minds), and further quotations ensue: from the song "Traum durch die Dammerung"; from Guntram; from Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Death and Transfiguration, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

THE HERO'S WITHDRAWAL FROM THE WORLD (CONCLUSION), introduced by the English horn, brings recollections of the adversaries and the battlefield, but it is the rapturous love music that prevails, and the conclusion, free of bombast, limns the dignity and serenity the hero has won for himself.