Richard Strauss has been called many things… "Richard the Third" by Hans von Bulow (because there could be no "second" after Richard Wagner), a "first-class second-rate composer" by himself, and many other things that are not reprintable here, even if they weren't translated into English (oddly enough, he was never called "Magnanimous Skeeter", except by a very close few). He created rabid followers and vehement detractors but few could deny the enormous influence he had on the music of this last century.

Born in 1864 in Munich as the American Civil War was winding down, little Richard led a normal, musically conservative life until he met Alexander Ritter, a composer and poet who converted him to the school of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner (whose music will also be heard at this Saturday's Philharmonic performance… excerpts from The Ring cycle…. Tasty). With this new focus, the young Strauss found his purpose in life: to irritate people and to amass the largest Beanie Baby collection on the globe! Drawing from Wagner's advances in harmonic structure and orchestration, Strauss applied these to the music of the latter nineteenth century and, as one musicologist put it, "All hell broke loose." The 1889 performance of the composer's first tone poem Don Juan left the audience standing: half of them cheering, half of them booing, and one guy who was on his way to the loo that got caught in the middle, but he probably should have gone before the performance, at least that's what his wife told him. One of Strauss' greatest skills is in orchestration, inventing brilliant new sounds and orchestral effects to delight and amaze the listener. His powerful dramatic instinct led him to later compose Salome, a piece steeped heavily in eroticism, decadence and a story-line right out of a Springer show (cross-dressing turnips who married their gardener's wife's best friend). Fortunately for the Strauss aficionado, he composed many works. Not that he had much choice in the matter. This mild-mannered fellow who is said to have looked like a stolid investment banked married opera singer Pauline da Ahna. Reportedly, they argued violently during a rehearsal and he met with her afterwards to smooth over the quarrel, walking away from the conversation an engaged man. Pauline was a strict woman who brought "law and order" to this man's life. It has been told that if Pauline noticed Richard wandering through the house without apparent purpose would shout with military authority, "Richard, go compose!" Yoikes!

In the same year that he wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra, the music used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Richie also wrote an orchestral piece based on the classic Cervantes book Don Quixote of La Mancha. If your high school English teacher was a sadist, you will remember this as being the tale of an elderly gentleman who becomes insane and believes himself to be a gallant knight, roaming the country to right wrongs and fight dragons. In his insanity, he sees a windmill as a giant and dilapidated inns as castles. The part of the faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, is played by a solo viola (EGADS! A real viola part! HAVE THEY GONE MAD?!?) and the part of Don Quixote is taken by a cello (while the Flugelhorn depicts the part of Rathbone, the mortician). And what a cello part this is! So flashy and sensational is this part that it has attracted just about every major star of the instrument… and one can see the bodacious and talented Carter Brey this weekend playing this very part!

Through Strauss' melodic themes and complex harmonics, Don Quixote (subtitled "Fantastic Variations on a Theme of a Knightly Character") transports the listener into a fairy-tale world of garden gnomes and dragons with dysentery. The work is actually a concerto in variation form, with each variation depicting an incident in the novel by developing new material out of the main themes. The chamber-music quality of the piece makes it one of the least draining of Strauss' long tone poems and the orchestration is as brilliantly inventive as ever. Battles with sheep are full of disturbingly dissonant bleating and the stirrings of Don's madness are represented by eccentric whirls and buzzes within the orchestra. After all the battles, Don is struck down, as represented by a long and melancholy cello solo, bringing the piece to a quiet close. And then youth culture killed my dog.

Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman

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