Length: c. 45 minute
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 4 oboes (4th = English horn), 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 3 trumpets (+ 3 offstage), 2 piccolo trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, small military drum, tenor drum, tam-tam, and triangle), 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 2, 1928, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting
The French novelist and music historian Romain Rolland made the following observation in 1924, a quarter-century after Strauss composed Ein Heldenleben: “If this music still glows today, you can imagine how it seethed when it was fresh from the oven. The tongue peeled, the breath scorched, the marrow shook at trumpet calls that fanned the fires, deep abysses opened, threatening to engulf the musical idea. But time and again it leapt up again. The well-bred public was beside itself... the instrumental thunder, the dramatic intelligence were gigantic.”
Embattled for what was perceived as the “progressive” nature of his early scores, Strauss was additionally raked over the coals for making himself the hero of his Ein Heldenleben: “a monstrous act of egotism,” according to one review of the premiere, “and as revolting a picture of this revolting man as one might ever encounter. He is, then, honest.” Strauss took such criticism in stride and was particularly delighted that the critics recognized themselves and were offended by his jibes in the “Hero’s Adversaries” section, with its uncouth woodwind chattering and the leaden academicism of the low-brass references to parallel fifths, forbidden in the classroom.
The first word of the score’s existence comes in a letter written by the composer from a Bavarian mountain resort, dated July 25, 1898: “Since Beethoven’s Eroica is so unpopular with our conductors today and hence rarely performed [Straussian irony, hardly delicate] I am filling the void with a tone poem of substantial length on a similar theme. It is entitled ‘A Hero’s Life,’ and while it has no funeral march, it does have lots of horns, horns being quite the thing to express heroism. Thanks to the healthy country air, my sketch has progressed well and I hope to finish by New Year’s Day.” And finish he did, on December 27. Strauss conducted the premiere in Frankfurt in March of the following year.
Although endless detail has since been provided about what is happening in every measure of Ein Heldenleben, it should be kept in mind that the Heldenleben scenario usually cited was not the composer’s handiwork, but that of Lawrence Gilman, annotator for the New York Philharmonic, who wrote it for Strauss’ first post-World War I American tour. All that Strauss himself provided was titles for the six main sections: 1. The Hero; 2. The Hero’s Adversaries; 3. The Hero’s Companion; 4. The Hero’s Battlefield; 5. The Hero’s Works of Peace; 6. The Hero’s Retreat from the World and Fulfillment.
Still, Romain Rolland would relate the following about his conversation in 1924 with Strauss regarding the “Hero’s Companion” section (the “companion” characterized by the effusive violin solo): “I questioned him about the Hero’s wife, who so greatly intrigued the audience – some considering her a depraved woman, others simply a flirt. Strauss said, ‘neither the one nor the other. It’s my real-life wife, Pauline, whom I wanted to portray. She is very complex, very much a woman, a little depraved, something of a flirt, never twice alike, every moment different from what she was the moment before. At the beginning, the hero follows her, goes into the key she has just sung [Pauline had, in fact, been a opera singer], but she always flies further away. Then at the end she says, ‘No, I’m staying here.’ He stays in his thoughts, in his own key. Then she comes to him.”
A love scene if ever there was one, but the listener – as Strauss suggested elsewhere – would recognize that without benefit of words.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times. He has been English-language editor/annotator for the Salzburg Festival since 1996.