February 9, 2014

Richard Strauss and Peyton Manning: It's all about the legacy

Richard Strauss
Has it only been a week since the Super Bowl? I will now compel you to pity me: my "Super Bowl party" consisted of me, by myself, holed up in a flea-bag motel in the Washington D.C. suburbs with a Donato's pizza (tasty), checking Facebook while the Seahawks absolutely laid WASTE to the Broncos. Woo-hoo. I don't know about you, but though I watched the first half with great interest, from halftime on I turned down the sound, fired up Netflix and watched some episodes of "Dexter". (Season 6 is da BOMB, yo.)

No, things didn't turn out so well for Denver quarterback and media darling Peyton Manning. This is a blow for all those hoping he would earn his second championship ring. For the past several weeks the Number One topic of conversation on sports-talk radio has been "Peyton Manning's Legacy".

Is he the greatest quarterback of all time? What if he wins the Super Bowl? What if he loses it? THEN what will his legacy be? How will he compare to Unitas, Montana, Brady, Bradshaw, all the immortals?

You know what? This is EXACTLY like Richard Strauss. I don't think any classical/operatic composer was ever more acutely aware of his place in music history - his legacy - than the composer of Ariadne auf Naxos. Strauss clearly was aware that he would be regarded as the successor to a long line of immortal Germanic composers: Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schuber, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, and others. Quite a parade. Richard Strauss was anxious not to come up short in the judgement of history.

Franz Schubert
It's really kind of cool that the music of Ariadne is peppered with musical references to many of these composers, as well as a prominent reference to a non-German: Gaetano Donizetti, composer of Lucia di Lammermoor and other bel canto classics. This is deliberate; this is Strauss accepting the challenge of the masters who preceded him; of preparing to run the compositional gauntlet of matching their achievements.

I see definite homages to the following in Ariadne: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and Donizetti. This is not me being all brilliant and stuff; they seem plain as day and doubtless have all been remarked upon before. First: Mozart.

Strauss made no bones about his desire to follow up those Expressionist shockers Salome and Elektra with a "Mozartian comedy" in Der Rosenkavalier. He intended it to play as a 20th-century Nozze di Figaro with many shared elements: the lonely Countess, the over-sexed young man portrayed as a trouser role for a mezzo-soprano to name just two.

Similarly, the figure of the Komponist (or Composer) in Ariadne is another re-do of the role of Cherubino, the aforementioned oversexed young man. The Composer's passion for Zerbinetta is like Cherubino's passion for ...well, all the girls in Seville. In addition, they are about the same age, not to mention the same vocal fach. Hey - Cherubino is even a composer: he wrote the serenade "Voi che sapete" after all. 

There are at least two tips of the hat towards Franz Schubert. First of all, consider the composer's gloriously radient solo at the tail end of the Prologue. Heartened by his flirtatious tete-a-tete with Zerbinetta, he is suddenly over the moon with elation, brimming with love for mankind, poetry and above all, MUSIC!

"Music is a sacred art!" he sings with heartfelt earnestness. Here we are intended to think of Schubert's own ode to music, "An die Musik", in which music is also called "holy". 

But there is another, perhaps subtler nod to Schubert. No sooner has the Composer finished his aria than his is plunged into the depths of despair (again - he's prone to mood swings. Lots of them.) as those STOOPID COMEDIANS burst onto the stage, ready to run amok in his Ariadne opera and ruin it. As he flees the scene and the curtain lowers on the Prologue, we hear "Crashing Chords of Doom" in the orchestra, indicating how simply awful everything is: 
Once you hear these "Crashing Chords of Doom", and if you know your Franz Schubert, you will be reminded of two of the latter's masterpieces that also contain "Crashing Chords of Doom". One example occurs in the first movement of the Symphony in B Minor, the great "Unfinished":

And another familiar Schubertian favorite also ends with "Crashing Chords of Doom": his dramatic song for voice and piano, "The Erlking":
Strauss, not without a grin and a twinkle in his eye, has invoked the ghost of Schubert.

The Wagner parody is the most obvious tribute. The Naxos scene opens with three Nymphs establishing an otherworldly ambience with a heavenly trio in lush three-part harmony. If you don't immediately make the connection with the Rheinmaidens (they are, after all, river nymphs) who sing at the beginning of Das Rheingold, then you're an opera rookie for sure. This is a no-brainer.

The Beethoven parody-tribute is trickier. I do claim this one as my weird little idea, as I've not seen any other commentator mention it. So I may be wrong, wrong, wrong --  but I don't think I am. Judge for yourself.

At the conclusion of Ariadne's soaring aria "Es gibt ein Reich", there is a joyous, uplifting theme played by solo horn. It is the theme of Hermes, the messenger of Death in Greek mythoogy, and the spirit whose arrival on Naxos Ariadne is eagerly anticipating, since that will mean the end of her suffering. It is built on the three notes of a B-flat major triad:

This theme, noble and uplifting in character, really amounts to an inversion of the theme of the final movement of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony:
The two themes begin with the same rhythmic motive in addition to having a similar affect. Is this coincidence? Is Your Humble Blogger thinking too hard here? I don't think so.

The Beethoven theme is a hymn of gratitude for the passing of the storm depicted in the preceding movement. It betokens gratitude for life; an expression of relief and affirmation. In Ariadne, Strauss neatly turns this concept on its head. Ariadne has endured an emotional storm in the bitterness of her abandonment by Theseus. There has been a "storm" of tears and grief. For her, the arrival of Death's messenger will afford the only relief remaining to her. She feels, paradoxically, gratitude for death; she expresses her relief and affirms her excitement of her imminent passage to the Underworld.

And finally, there can be no doubt that Zerbinetta's elaborate showpiece "Grossmächtige Prinzessin" is a blatant attempt to out-do Donizetti and write the most difficult coloratura aria of them all. Strauss was pretty up-front about stating his intentions. But even if he hadn't said it in so many words, the music tells us all we need to know. The final section of this epic solo, the Rondo, begins with a melody that is as purely Italianate-in-the-bel-canto-style as it can be;
 This is a true parody of a typical Donizetti vocal line. How typical? Here's the beginning of an actual aria from Lucia di Lammermoor:
Case closed.

As a quarterback, I don't think Strauss would have amounted to much. Just another slow white guy, you know? I doubt if he had any particular arm strength, either. But in the pantheon of German composers and operatic masters who preceded him in music history, his gruff baritone is loudly proclaiming "I want to beeeee in that number, when the (musical) saints go marching in".

1 comment:

  1. Per our brief conversation last night after your talk: Here's the Mendelssohn reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuLEwrLWb78 I caught it in the opera, even though it was just a momentary thing, but would never have noticed it if you hadn't pointed it out.

    The passage you played at the piano can be heard almost note for note starting at about 2:30 in the video.

    And, interestingly, while the first couple of minutes of the Intermezzo depicts Hermia's search for Lysander in the woods, the music starting at 2:30 that Strauss quotes depicts Bottom and his troupe of buffoonish actors. Perfect music for Strauss to "borrow."