Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra

1/13/2018 @ 7pm DECC Symphony Hall, Duluth, MN


Sibelius: Andante Festivo

Strauss: Four Last Songs

Sibelius: En Saga

Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

Christine Brewer, soprano


Richard Strauss

Not many enjoy a life filled with such variety as composer Richard Strauss did. At the young age of 24 he bursts onto the scene with his first great success, the tone poem Don Juan. From here on out he perfects the form of the tone poem, turning some of his works into symphony-like structures that last up to 50 minutes. At the same time, he is one of the leading conductors of his time. As such, he busies himself mostly with opera. Yet most of his compositional output at this time is still tone poems. But in 1905 his opera Salome causes a sensation. This is music that even the most forward thinking composers were only dreaming of.

WARNING: If you DO NOT want to see Salome sing to a severed head, do not watch this!

He follows this with his even more daring Elektra. The European avant-garde is delighted! Finally a herald to lead the way into the future. But then, suddenly, Strauss turns away from the path of radical innovation. His next opera Der Rosenkavalier was regarded as backwards and hopelessly romantic by the same people who had elevated him to be their champion.

In many ways we can see a significant break in Strauss’ Oeuvre at this time. After his period of radical modernism, his music now turned increasingly late-romantic. Ever more he abandoned composing tone poems and focused solely on opera. And in the remaining decades he composed some of the great German operas of the 20th century, from Die Frau ohne Schatten to his final opera Capriccio. His final composition was written for voice as well, yet it’s not an opera. His Four Last Songs probably feature the most beautiful music that Strauss ever wrote. Written at age 84, these songs look back on life, reflect on death and exude a calmness and fulfillment that lets us recognize Strauss’ own state of mind, only months before his own death. When, at the end, Strauss’ quotes his own tone poem Death and Transfiguration that he wrote 60 years earlier, we can literally see his life come full circle and death is the natural, calming, next step.

These songs are so wonderful yet, at the same time, so intense, that I always thought they should have a short introduction: One that calms the audience and puts us in a state of serenity. Sibelius Andante Festivo is such a work – a wonderful, short piece for string orchestra to soothe our senses and prepare us for Strauss’ final masterpiece.

Enjoy this wonderful performance with Christine Brewer, the same soprano that will be joining the DSSO in January!


Tone Poems

Both Strauss and Sibelius were masters of the tone poem, a composition that is based on something outside of the music: a story, a poem, a picture. (Strauss once joked that he could describe a knife and a fork through his music.) So in the second half of our program we feature both composers through some of their signature works: En Saga (A Fairytale) by Sibelius and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Strauss.

While often composers would provide actual programs to their tone poems, Sibelius was much more vague with his En Saga. He declared it as more an “expression of a state of mind” rather than a true story told through music. As such the music represents a rather dark state of mind, very pensive and ultimately growing into anger and frustration. Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel could not be more different, of course. Strauss sets to music the famous German tale of the prankster Till who is constantly causing trouble. Musically Till is represented by two instruments: The French Horn melody at the opening perfectly reflects Till’s mischievous character: upbeat, impish and never predictable. The second instrument representing him is the piccolo clarinet, a perfect choice to capture his naughtiness and outride insolence. When the clarinet intones his motif for the first time, you can literally see Till sticking out his tongue and teasing us.

Tragically for Till, in the end the villagers have had enough of his pranks. The piccolo clarinet describes how his soul leaves his body after they hang poor Till in the middle of the town’s square. The piece ends with a last uprising of Till’s theme in the full orchestra, assuring us that not even death can destroy such a rambunctious spirit.

This video starts with the famous horn solo representing Till. The piccolo clarinet is heard at 1:42. At 13:55 you can hear Till dangling from the gallows. And finally his soul rises and seems to float in the air at 14:16.