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Studies in Musical Biography - Richard Strauss

BY ARTHUR L. MANCHESTER.
 
 
The student of musical biography may quickly perceive that of the many who have entered the lists as creative musicians, few have risen to heights of distinctive eminence above their fellows. As we have progressed in our biographic studies, we have doubtless also been impressed by the fact that those who have had most to do with developing music have been quite closely grouped during the years beginning with the seventeenth century and ending well on in the eighteenth. Yet another fact must have impressed us, namely, that those who created new forms or brought to perfection the old, went the way of all flesh, leaving none to take up their work. Since Beethoven, no one has been able to better the symphony, which stands as the consummation of the classical form; and after Brahms, no symphonies have been written that have in any way rivaled those of these master classicists. Wagner's revolution of the music drama has found no one since his death to undo it or carry it further, and among the operas written since "Parsifal" there are none which will endure as rivals to his great works. And since the sonatas of Beethoven, the piano pieces of Chopin, Schumann, Bach, no new word has been spoken. There have arisen many great virtuosi—pianists, violinists, singers, organists—who have used the forms already developed to hang their virtuosity upon, but of the creative type of the masters not one has as yet made his place sure.
 
Many composers are bidding for recognition: again and again we are called to hear some new work which is heralded as the deliverance of a successor to these masters; we go only to discover that another ambitious work has been added to the number which, while worthy, do not speak the new word. It would seem that the makers of the Classic and Romantic schools have done their work so completely that nothing can be added. The possibilities of strict Form, as exemplified in the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, and the sonatas of Beethoven, having been fully demonstrated and the expression of emotion by the Romanticists having run the gamut of subjective feeling, those who are moved to write in these later days face the alternatives of vain repetition and the discovery of new subjects and modes of expression. And to the task of discovery many have right bravely set themselves.
 
As a result, from being abstract music has come to be concrete. Its inspiration is extraneous and may be explained by a program, which gives the bases for its various phases of expression. It accurately and fully describes phases of thought, conditions of life, and doctrines of philosophy, so that one who runs may read. Thus, the somewhat fanciful designation of music as a language has taken a new significance; music is no longer a language of the emotions, whose tonal idioms may not always be translated into thought aright, but a speech which tells its story directly and explicitly.
 
To this result the closed doors of development of the older forms have not been the sole contributors; the great advance in the technical resources of music and musical instruments has contributed materially to it. The modern orchestra invites a style of writing strange to the day of the classicist, and when the searcher after a new message, feeling the hopelessness of trying to walk in the steps of his predecessors, is conscious of technical facilities of unusual scope, the new speech is practically certain. The trouble is, that, as is always the case in the use of a new tongue, the speaker is in danger of becoming incoherent, and unfortunately much of the modern music speech is thematically and harmonically incoherent. Yet out of the clamor of incoherency now and then there comes an utterance which attracts our attention, and while we may not be quite clear concerning the pertinence of its speech, it impresses us and holds our attention nevertheless.
 
And this brings us to the subject of this month's biographical study. Richard Strauss, the man of forty years, entering upon the fullness of his career as a creator of music at a time when incoherence or weak repetition is rife, has spoken amid the babel of sounds with a voice that demands attention, and has become an important factor in the music life of his day. His biography is brief, it is not from that that we will gain much. He had the good fortune to be born of a musical father, a horn player of note, and to spend his early days amidst musical surroundings. He was born in Munich, June 11, 1864. Showing the precocity usual to geniuses, he began composing early, and played the piano at four years. Serious study of the violin and composition were accompanied by a steady production of compositions, in which his later vein did not so much show, for they were all on classical lines. This goes to show that the new speech cannot be entirely independent of the old. Devoting himself to music, he assisted von Bülow, who was attracted to him, at Meinengen, became assistant conductor of the Opera at Munich, gave concerts of his works in various cities, and finally settled as conductor of the Opera in Berlin.
 
Space will not permit a full discussion of his works, for as may be inferred from the introductory reflections, his compositions are on new lines and have provoked a copious flow of ink. He has written piano pieces, songs, a string quartet, an opera, and works for string solo instruments. In all his writing he is original, but it is in his larger works for orchestra that he attracted attention as the utterer of a new speeech (sic). He has forsaken the symbolic form, and uses his great technical powers, and he is the greatest master of the orchestra now living, to tell the thought or describe the scenes he wishes to portray.
 
He began the composition of large works early, and before he was twenty he produced a String Quartet, Op. 2; Piano Sonata, Op. 5; Sonata for Piano and 'Cello, Op. 6; Serenade for Wind Instruments, Op. 7; Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 12; Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 11; Symphony in F Minor, Op. 12; Quartet for Piano and Strings, Op. 13. This is certainly an important output for a youth of twenty. Since that age he has written the great orchestral works about which rage the discussions we have alluded to. Of these, "Ein Heldenleben," the story of a hero's life, with its conflicts and triumphs, written in 1898; "Don Quixote," a theme and variations, of which each variation represents some adventure of the famous knight; "Also Sprach Zarathustra," a tone-poem intended to express philosophy in music, which aroused a contest of the sharpest description, are the most important. In them he utters his new speech.
 
The attempts to reach the source of inspiration, to account for it, to explain it, have resulted in much writing, some of it interesting, yet, after all, the only real explanation of his work will be done by time, which has given the last explanation of many things. James Huneker, in "Mezzotints in Modern Music," has written quite fully about "Also Sprach Zarathustra." Students of this series will need to watch the current magazines closely, for his present visit to this country, accompanied by his wife, Pauline de Ahna Strauss, who sings his songs, will undoubtedly give rise to many articles, critical and otherwise, concerning him. And as he is conducting his orchestral compositions, those who are on the lookout will have an opportunity to read criticisms at first hand or even to observe for themselves.
 
A valuable study will be to note the characteristics of the older schools and compare them with the newer compositions. The following questions are suggestive.
 
What were the characteristics of the Classical school? Of the Romantic school?
 
What were the determining factors in the formation of these schools?
 
What is the nature of the more serious works of to-day? For instance, the orchestral compositions of Strauss, "The Dream of Gerontius," by Edward Elgar.

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