Conductor’s Notes, May 1, 2016, “Bigger Is Better”

FCS FCS Blog, Monte's Memos

To close our “Symphony Sundays” season, we’ve chosen works that epitomize the Romantic Era, using a large orchestra and grand themes that were once described as erotic, decadent, immoral, and lascivious.

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1893) had an overwhelming impact on music that is still debated today. His “music of the future” affected generations of composers of every nationality, whether they adopted his concepts or rejected them. His opera Tannhauser was premiered in Dresden in 1845 and deals with the conflicting emotions of spiritual versus sensual love. The knight Tannhauser has gone to the underground palace of Venus, Goddess of Love, captivated by the revelry and seduction. Only when he breaks with these feelings and searches for a more moral and chaste love is he redeemed. The Overture contains themes depicting the Pilgrims’ Chorus, his song to carnal love, and the seduction song of Venus. The Overture leads directly to the opera’s opening scene, the Bacchanale and Venusberg Music, describing the erotic and sensual life there.

In many ways Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) dominated musical life in Europe as strongly as had Wagner. His 1905 opera, Salome, certainly broke new ground with its topic and voluptuous music. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, Strauss wrote a libretto himself telling the biblical story of Salome, her love for John the Baptist, and her seduction of Herod, her stepfather. Both the play and the opera were banned for several years before their approval by censors who had thought them “immoral, anti-religious, and overtly erotic.” The power of the story and the music quickly won over audiences and it remains a solid member of the operatic repertoire. Perhaps the most openly sexual portion is the often excerpted Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome dances for Herod, finally lying before him naked. Her sensual movements are usually done by a dancer, though some courageous sopranos have chosen to do the dance themselves. A more voluptuous piece has never been written.

From a 41-year-old Strauss we fast forward to the final years of a by now world-revered figure. Strauss wrote a goodly number of songs, many for his wife, the much-admired soprano Pauline Strauss. The 84-year-old composer turned to poetry of Hesse and Eichendorff for what became his final works save one. The Four Last Songs were premiered only in 1950 by acclaimed soprano Kirsten Flagstad. The songs describe the love the Strausses had enjoyed and the death they knew was not far off. Spring is a beautiful text painting of breezes, birdsong, and wonder. September is melancholy, telling of the end of summer with falling leaves. Time To Sleep features death as the ultimate repose. At Dusk has our two companions wandering hand in hand to the setting sun. We are very fortunate to have Milwaukee-based and nationally acclaimed soprano Kathy Pyeatt singing these wonderful songs for us.

We hope you enjoy our concert and invite you to join us again next season when we’ll feature some familiar pieces and introduce you to some works we think will become among your favorites.