Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, oboe d’amore, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 saxophones (soprano, alto, baritone, and bass), 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tambourine, and triangle), 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 1, 1938, Otto Klemperer conducting
In 1902, after having been excoriated by the press and certain academics for his Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), in which Strauss was the hero, indeed the savior of the world from the philistines (i.e., anyone who didn’t like his music), the composer countered with another side of his personality: the everyday guy – in his spare time a musical supergenius – extolling mundane life with the Symphonia domestica. Papa and Mama (wife Pauline, a singer), and baby (Franz, aka Bubi) making three: “A day in my family life. It will be partly lyrical, partly humorous – a triple fugue will together portray papa, mama, and baby.” But fearing that his comments would be taken by the press as flippant, he somberly added, “What can be more serious than family life? I want the Symphonia domestica to be understood seriously.”
Shortly before, he had been hiding out from the tempestuous Pauline on England’s Isle of Wight after a mammoth set-to and “something happened.” In brief: a letter addressed to Richard by one Fräulein Mücke and opened by Pauline arrived while he was away. The letter suggested visits to a bar and hanky-panky. Pauline wrote a scathing letter to her husband: she was getting a divorce – and to make her point had withdrawn most of their funds from the bank. As it turned out, it was mixup created by an Italian tenor (is this an opera buffa?) who in acting as intermediary for Mücke in trying to contact the conductor Josef Stansky, pronounced his name Straussky, which became Strauss. The intercepted letter concerned a meeting at which Stransky was to give Mücke some concert tickets, so the story goes. Strauss explained it all in a letter to Pauline concluding, “Loving greetings and kisses from the adulterer to yourself and to Bubi.” Richard and Pauline remained together until their deaths, his in 1949, hers in 1950.
(Rather like the sausage maker who wastes no part of the animal, the practical Strauss used the episode as the central component of his opera Intermezzo, which he completed in 1923. )
The Symphonia domestica had its premiere at Carnegie Hall in March of 1904, the centerpiece of a tour by the Strausses in which he served as orchestral conductor and as piano accompanist to his wife, who sang Strauss’ latest lieder. The Symphonia was such a success with its audience that two additional performances had to be presented in Wanamaker’s Manhattan department store, the entire main sales floor having to be cleared to accommodate musicians (the orchestra is huge, with quadruple woodwinds, a battery of saxophones, wall-to-wall brass) and audience, and the press, all hungry for a glimpse into the raucous and, as they had been informed, steamy home life of this famous couple.
Nevertheless, prior to his departure for America Strauss – to ward off such possible press comments as “here Papa takes his turn at changing Bubi’s diapers” – removed most of the explicit section headings: you had to figure out for yourself that the double-fugue relates to a mighty family row and that “there is a love scene.”
The New York and German press howled at the Wanamaker’s concerts – and at the Symphonia itself – as a blatant commercialization of the sacred art of music and the intimacy of family life. To which the handsomely compensated composer responded: “True art ennobles this Hall, and a respectable fee for his wife and child is no disgrace even for an artist.”
The Symphonia domestica is in five linked sections, all developed from the opening phrases of the work. Pauline is introduced with a tantrum, which Papa dismisses (the music would indicate) with cheerful condescension, the “sex scene” (you can’t miss it) is indeed heated – to the boiling point, the numerous scenes of playing with Bubi are full of good cheer, but, as the celebrated conductor Hans Richter put it, “All the cataclysms of the downfall of the gods in burning Valhalla do not make a quarter of the noise of one Bavarian baby in his bath.”
Trying to figure out what is happening when is surely fun, but may detract from savoring the sonic splendor and glowing melodiousness of this gorgeously over the top late-Romantic sonic bash. But who am I to tell the listener how to listen?
— Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.