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Strauss: "Ein Heldeleben" / Stravinsky: "Apollon Musagète"

DPO Alive, Notes by Neal Gittleman

Strange Bedfellows in the Eye of the Beholder

Strauss’s Ein Heldeleben and Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète—probably the strangest pairing in the history of compact discs.

The pieces are about as different as could be. Heldenleben is the over-the-top apotheosis of the tone-poem, an act of sublime hubris by the then-34-year-old avatar of romantic music, Richard Strauss. Apollo is an embodiment of remote, modern abstraction by the avatar of anti-romanticism, Igor Stravinsky. But I think they belong together. And not just because they were two of the best performances from the Dayton Philharmonic’s 2010-2011 concert season.

Heldenleben and Apollo belong together because they’re two of the most beautiful orchestral works ever written. Never mind that they reflect two completely different, contradictory esthetics. Never mind that one is based on extravagance and the other on restraint. Never mind that that one uses a giant orchestra and the other just 34 string players. Never mind that the composers, had they ever met, probably would have detested each other. And each other’s music.

Never mind all that. I love these two pieces. Separately and together!

What makes Ein Heldenleben beautiful? Surely, the rich, lush, tender music of the “love scene” that closes “The Hero’s Companion” (Track 3). And the sublime coda (end of Track 6), with its gentle duet for solo horn (representing Strauss himself) and solo violin (representing his wife Pauline). But even at its most raucous moments, like noisy conflict of “The Hero in Battle” (Track 4) or the bold swagger of “The Hero” (Track 1), there’s beauty in the brilliance of Strauss’s writing for the orchestra and in the way he layers multiple musical ideas to create some of the most vivid music ever written.

Richard Strauss’s concept of beauty was rooted in 19th-century German romanticism, with its worship of nature, its obsession with love, and its exaltation of the artist as hero. And Heldenleben embodies that romantic spirit perhaps more than any other late-19th-century orchestral work. Sure, there’s not a lot of nature in it—none, really. But what we lose in glimpses of nature we gain in extra doses of hero worship (self hero worship, no less)! Ein Heldenleben strives for beauty and delivers it—in spades.

What makes Apollon Musagète beautiful? The clean, pure sonority of the string orchestra. The sharp ping of its dry accents balanced by the serene flow of its sustained melodies. The tuneful melodies themselves—surely a surprise to anyone who associates Stravinsky only with pounding rhythms and relentless dissonance. The lilting grace of the variations for the three muses (Tracks 10-12). The calm serenity of the Pas de Deux for Apollo and Terpsichore (Track 14). And the icy sadness of the Apotheosis (Track 16).

Igor Stravinsky’s concept of beauty—well, it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Though he was trained in the colorful 19th-century Russian romanticism of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky came of age in the modernist wave that swept Paris in the early 20th century. Everything romantic was out. Anything non-romantic—irony, machinery, primitivism, even brutality—was in. But by the 1920s, Stravinsky found himself drawn in a different direction—towards abstraction and classicism. Inspired by his choreographic collaborator George Balanchine and influenced by his friend and confidante Nadia Boulanger, Stravinsky became increasingly interested in an esthetic centered around cool, unemotional beauty. His description of Apollo says it all: “When, in my admiration for the beauty of line in classical dancing, I dreamed of a ballet of this kind, I had specially in my thoughts what is known as the ‘white ballet’, in which to my mind the very essence of this art reveals itself in all its purity. I found that the absence of many-colored effects and of all superfluities produced a wonderful freshness.” Stravinsky strives for something as remote as possible from the romantic concept of beauty, and, in a supreme irony, he finds sheer beauty!

Ein Heldenleben and Apollon Musagète share more than beauty. Both have moments of surprising comedy. Strauss lampoons the music critics who attacked his work in “The Hero’s Enemies” (Track 2) with a dissonant crazy-quilt of musical nastiness that some listeners may find more Stravinskian than anything in Apollo! And I’m particularly fond of the sequence in the middle of “The Hero’s Companion” (Track 3) where Pauline Strauss (the solo violin) is mad as hell and itching for a fight while Richard (the orchestra) just wants to make up and cuddle.

The comic moments of Apollo flow directly from Balanchine’s brilliant choreography. In “The Birth of Apollo” (Track 7) Apollo’s mother Leto is seemingly suspended in mid-air in the dark, in the throes of childbirth. As the moment of birth approaches, Stravinsky’s music quickly intensifies, then in one of the greatest low-tech special effects of all time, the full-sized, fully formed, and fully swaddled Apollo drops to the ground beneath his mother, accompanied by a single soft pizzicato chord. The great god Apollo appears with modest little plink! Another soft plucked chord punctuates a second comic moment in Balanchine’s ballet, in the variation for Polyhymnia, the Muse of Mime (Track 11). After dancing the entire variation with a “Ssssh!”-like finger to her lips, at the last minute, overcome with excitement at dancing for Apollo, she inadvertently speaks. And again, plunk!

In the end, the beauty of a piece of music isn’t in its technique, in its construction, or in its story. It’s in the way it moves its audience. Some may prefer Strauss’s ideal of beauty and find Stravinsky’s cold. Others may prefer Stravinsky’s even-tempered presentation and find Strauss just too, too much. In the end, beauty is in the eye—and the ear—of the beholder.

For me, these are two of the most beautiful works in the orchestral repertoire. And after you hear them together on this disc, I hope you’ll agree!

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
Neal Gittleman, Music Director & Conductor
Richard C. McCauley, Chairman

Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40
TRACK 1 - 4:21 - The Hero
TRACK 2 - 3:21 - The Hero’s Adversaries
TRACK 3 - 13:58 - The Hero’s Companion
TRACK 4 - 7:31 - The Hero in Battle
TRACK 5 - 6:15 - The Hero’s Works of Peace.
TRACK 6 - 10:47 - The Hero’s Cursing of the World and His Final Achievement
Jessica Hung, violin soloist
Recorded February 10 & 12, 2011, Schuster Center, Dayton, Ohio

Igor Stravinsky, Apollon Musagète (Apollo and The Muses)
TRACK 7 - 5:36 - Prologue: The Birth of Apollo
TRACK 8 - 3:13 - Apollo’s Variation
TRACK 9 - 4:36 - Pas d’Action (Apollo and the Three Muses)
TRACK 10 - 1:34 - Calliope’s Variation: Alexandrine
TRACK 11 - 1:31 - Polyhymnia’s Variation
TRACK 12 - 1:37 - Terpsichore’s Variation
TRACK 13 - 2:11 - Apollo’s Second Variation
TRACK 14 - 4:10 - Pas de Deux: Apollo and Terpsichore
TRACK 15 - 3:28 - Coda: Apollo and the Muses
TRACK 16 - 3:49 - Apotheosis
Recorded February 25 & 26, 2011, Schuster Center, Dayton, Ohio

Paul A. Helfrich, President
Neal Gittleman, Music Director
Patrick Reynolds, Assistant Conductor
Hank Dahlman, Chorus Director
Elizabeth Hofeldt, Junior String Orchestra Director

With thanks to the American Federation of Musicians Local 101-473 for their assistance
Marketing Director and CD Creative Direction: David S. Bukvic
Recorded and Mastered: Lloyd Bryant
Produced: Copycats Media Inc.
The DPO wishes to thank Classical 88.1 WDPR for their continuing support of the Orchestra and broadcasting of its concerts
©  2011 All Rights Reserved Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws


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