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About this Piece

Composed: 1909-1910; 1944
Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat), bass clarinet ( = basset horn), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, ratchet, snare drum, tambourine, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 15, 1945, Alfred Wallenstein conducting

When Richard Strauss needed some local color for his opera Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier of the Rose), which is set in Vienna, he turned to the waltz. It was a rather anachronistic choice, since the opera is set in the 18th century, roughly a hundred years before Johann Strauss, Jr. and company had everyone in the Austrian capital dancing in 3/4 time. Examples of the waltz can be found as far back as the late 18th century, but, for most music lovers, the waltz equals Vienna during its 19th-century glory days. By the time Strauss composed Der Rosenkavalier in 1909-1910, the sun was setting on that golden age, and the composer used the waltz in the opera as shorthand for the elegance and grace of a bygone era.

The opera’s story unfolds in old regime Europe. Octavian, a young nobleman (sung by a mezzo-soprano in the opera, which makes the part one of the most famous trouser roles), is carrying on a love affair with the Marschallin (she is married to a Field Marshall, which explains her name, a feminized form of the German “Marschall”). Baron Ochs, a bumbling old bumpkin and relative of the Marschallin, wants to marry lovely young Sophie, so the Marschallin suggests Octavian as a go-between for the proposal. When Octavian falls in love with Sophie, amusing machinations ensue, and eventually their love becomes clear to all. In the end, the Marschallin gives up Octavian so that he and Sophie can be united.

Strauss’ score for the opera, with its delectable waltzes and passages of ravishing beauty, proved extremely popular with audiences, and Strauss culled two “Waltz Sequences” from the score for performance in the concert hall. Delicious as these are, they miss out on some of the score’s more subtle flavors. The composer also sanctioned and had a hand in the arrangement of substantial excerpts from the score to accompany a 1925 silent film of Der Rosenkavalier, directed by Robert Wiene of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame. Strauss was very reluctant about the whole venture, in spite of a $10,000 fee, and his trepidation was borne out by the fairly disappointing end result.

Two decades later, Strauss consented to another version of his Rosenkavalier score for orchestra. This Suite was presumably arranged by Artur Rodzinski, who was conductor of the New York Philharmonic at the time and had been Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1929 to 1933, and he conducted its first performance in New York on October 5, 1944. Strauss, in a tough spot financially after World War II, agreed to its publication in 1945.

The Suite opens just as the opera does, with bellowing horns and glowing strings portraying the love-making that has just taken place between Octavian and his significantly older mistress, the Marschallin. The music that accompanies the presentation of the silver rose in Act II (Octavian gives it to Sophie as an engagement present from Baron Ochs) follows, delicate and rapt, the rose itself depicted by a series of shimmering chords played by flutes, solo violins, harps, and celesta. A brief passage of turbulent music that accompanies Ochs’ discovery that Octavian has only been posing as his go-between to pursue Sophie himself precedes the series of waltzes that we hear in Act II while Ochs is trying to sweet talk Sophie with smooth lines like “With me, no night will be too long for you!” Here, any attempt to follow the narrative of the opera begins to disintegrate, as the Suite jumps back to the beginning of Act II and then to an orchestral rendition of the famed trio and duet that close the opera, as the Marschallin gracefully yields to Sophie and the elated young lovers sing their duet. The Suite’s coda brings yet another waltz, this time from earlier in Act III, a fitting culmination for a Suite from an opera that revels in the splendor, opulence, and charm of Vienna’s golden age.

— John Mangum is Director of Artistic Planning for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.