Ein Heldenleben by Strauss performed by the New York Youth Symphony at Colden Auditorium at Queens College
At what point does all art about struggle, doubt, and triumph wind up being about the artists themselves? Is the Eroica Symphony an ego-less work because it was at one point dedicated to Napoléon and thus superficially disconnected from Beethoven’s own image of himself as a heroic, self-determined man coping with fate and tragedy and humanity? The reception to Strauss' Ein Heldenleben was vicious and uniquely personal; critics felt that by casting himself as the Hero in his own tone-poem, he considered himself a superior being. As one writer put it, “…as revolting a picture of this revolting man as one might ever encounter. He is, then, honest.” Yet the life of an artist is the stuff of heroism: realizing a vision and sustaining it, integrating into a community and defining the relationship between creative productivity and domestic harmony, confronting the world with your most personal statements and facing the inevitable humiliation of rejection, coping with misunderstanding and feelings of futility and failure. The agonizing process of an artist has fascinated us since we could recognize art, and this work tells us that anyone who engages in the struggle is a hero, even a quiet, nebbish man like Strauss who had no exaggerated image of himself with shield and steed. Ein Heldenleben is a monument built on monuments, a portrait of the artist as an artist.
Strauss himself wrote the titles of each section of Heldenleben, and they provide the easiest route through the epic. The opening chapter, “The Hero,” begins with a Hero’s melody of pure confidence and long stride played by the low strings and horns, propelling the work with no introduction or accompaniment, save a few brass interjections of support. Once presented, the key abruptly shifts from the E-flat major of Beethoven’s Eroica to a lucid, transparent B major; it’s as if we have plunged into the Hero's subconscious and taken on an extended, highly contrapuntal journey through different aspects of the Hero's psyche, some motives suggesting artistic yearning, others heroically ascending. These themes swirl around each other, defining the Hero and coming to a climax back in E-flat major, but the momentum is interrupted by:
The Hero’s Adversaries. This is Strauss’ representation of his critics, in some cases specific men he had wrestled with. Every kind of pedantry is on display in this menagerie of woodwinds: acid-tongued staccato flutes, impotent, whiny oboes, doleful tuba and euphonium intoning the ultimate in music theory hypocrisy: parallel fifths. This barrage over the music turns melancholic, as the Hero bemoans his fate and licks his wounds. Just as he has picked himself up and restated his heroic intentions, he is blind-sided by the arrival of: The Hero’s Companion – a bravura cadenza for the concertmaster, and a detailed portrait of Strauss’ wife, the opera singer Pauline de Ahna. Pauline was a controversial and fascinating woman, reviled by many, considered harsh, formidable and controlling. Yet she was utterly adored by Strauss, who described her as “every minute different from what she was the minute before.” Strauss provided descriptive text in the score to accompany each violin gesture, and it gives us a glimpse into how Strauss saw his wife: "hypocritical languishing," "merry," "frivolous," "nagging," "angry," "amiable," "sweet," "sharp," "playful," "full of love." A high-octave love scene commences, passionate longing leading to a peaceful bliss.
Just as the bliss feels permanent: The Hero's Deeds of War - the critics, from far away, reenter, accompanied by off-stage trumpets. With his companion at his side this time, the Hero sweeps into battle. This is the centerpiece of Ein Heldenleben: a massive, outrageously chaotic war sequence. As the music implodes on itself, the Hero rises victorious. There is general celebration, and the Hero Theme from the beginning is now a victor's parade, played in unison by the entire string section. This melody gives way to a surging development section whose climax is a quote played by the horns from Don Juan, one of Strauss' earliest and most successful tone-poems. This leads us to: The Hero's Works of Peace. The victory was, fundamentally, a psychological one. This personal triumph leads to creative fruition, which Strauss dramatizes in a dreamy sequence with a complex musical tapestry made up entirely of famous quotes from Strauss' most beloved tone-poems, operas, and songs. Despite the calm of this sequence, the critics reappear, pulling the Hero towards self-doubt.
The Hero's Withdrawal from the World and Fulfillment - the final sequence. The Hero is ambivalent about the worth of his creations, and, frustrated by incessant criticism and a sense of futility about his purpose, he withdraws into a quiet space with his companion to lead a life of domestic bliss. This final sequence is highlighted by an extended duet between the first horn (the Hero) and the violin (his companion). They don't so converse much with each other as simply occupy the same peaceful space together, weaving around and complimenting each other. With a few final grand chords (reminiscent of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra'), the work ends in gratitude and tranquility.