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When Richard Strauss (1864-1949) began work on his first concerto for the horn, he may have been only 18 years old, but he already had literally a lifetime of experience in virtuoso horn playing. His father, Franz Joseph Strauss, was principal horn at the Munich Court Orchestra and had been since well before Richard was born. Dour and conservative in musical and personal issues, the elder Strauss was nonetheless almost universally admired in German music circles for his flawless technique and impeccable artistry. He became famous, for example, for his glorious playing in Wagner's operas, compositions - and a composer - he despised. "Strauss is a detestable fellow," Wagner retorted, "but when he plays the horn you can't be angry with him."
This magical playing, and the long hours of practice that supported it, were surely among Richard Strauss' formative musical experiences. Certainly a love for the French horn and a keen ear for its effective use is apparent in all of Richard's music, from this early concerto through the tone poems - think of the marvelous calls in Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel, for just a few examples - the operas, the Second Horn Concerto of 1942 (dedicated "to the memory of my father"), and even the autumnal Four Last Songs.
Richard Strauss would come to disagree with his father on the subject of Wagner's operas, but in 1882 and 1883 - when he was composing this concerto - he had not yet fallen under the Wagnerian spell. This is a very conservative work in its harmony and a youthful one in its melodic ardor and profligacy, though even in his final years, depressed and discouraged by the vastly changed post-war world around him, Strauss still had big tunes in him.
This concerto is cast in the three movements traditional to European concertos, though as Mendelssohn did in his E-minor Violin Concerto, Strauss links the first two movements. And also like Mendelssohn, he wastes no time introducing the soloist: one chord from the orchestra and the horn jumps in with an energetic fanfare.
Strauss provides the thematic contrasts expected of a late-Romantic opening movement, long-winded lyricism versus dark drama. He deftly slips into the slow movement, a somber, soft-grained place of sweetly haunted tunes, elegantly accompanied. The finale is one of those robust movements full of hunting calls so typical of horn writing. There are ominous developments towards the end, but it closes with brave display. All three movements are linked by varied manipulation of the opening fanfare.
-- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's program book.