I keep a copy of “The Glenn Gould Reader” in the bathroom and open pages at random, always finding something interesting or outrageous. His chapters on Richard Strauss, whom he regards as the greatest musical figure of the 20th century, turned out to be germane to the Nov. 18 concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, which will feature the Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1, Op. 11, and the Stravinsky “Rite of Spring.”
The four Mozart Horn Concertos are among my favorite works, and when I first heard the Strauss it fit right in. It, too, is a work of early genius, written, like his first symphony, when Strauss was 18 and attending university as a student of philosophy and art history. He never received a degree and never studied at an academy of music.
All of his musical instruction came from his father, Franz Strauss, one of the greatest French horn players of his time, and from fellow musicians, including Hans von Bulow, who accepted the younger Strauss as his protege. Franz wouldn’t let Richard study Wagner, thus saving him from a fate worse than death.
The horn concerto, like at least one of Mozart’s, was written for valveless hunting horn, which Franz could have managed, although with great difficulty. But the elder Strauss never played it in public, claiming that he didn’t like all the high notes. Richard dedicated it to another noted horn player, who also didn’t play it.
(Full disclosure: I attempted to make my son a French horn player. He is now a professional fox hunter in Maryland.)
As Gould points out, the Strauss concerto could have been written by Mendelssohn or even Carl Maria von Weber (whose “Overture to “Euryanthe” is also on the Portland Symphony program). In spite of its traditional style and harmony, after a few bars it becomes clear that Strauss has left his models behind.
It is Gould’s contention, and here I have to agree with him, that Strauss had absorbed, like Schoenberg, all that traditional late-Romantic harmony had to offer. But instead of abandoning it as worn out, he put it in the service of a contrapuntal technique that Bach would have admired.
The combination poured new wine into old bottles and made possible the clear portrayal of extreme emotion in both the operas and the tone poems. It was also a technique that the composer continued to evolve (although Gould hates that concept) throughout his long life, resulting in great music composed when Strauss was in his 80s, such as “Metamorphosen.”
The key of the Horn Concerto is E-flat, but almost all soloists today play it on a valved double horn in F/B-flat instead of an E-flat horn. It should be interesting to hear it played by Jeff Nelsen, who was a member of the famed Canadian Brass Ensemble for eight years. He could play it on a valveless horn, but he probably won’t.
This is a Stravinsky year, and it should be noted that Strauss’ great opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” was composed at the same time as Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” which concludes the Nov. 18 program. The contrast could not be more striking — one composer, Stravinsky, completely a man of his time, and the other, an intellectual Romantic Mozart, completely out of it, for which, at least so far, he has never been forgiven.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:
Correction: This article was revissed at 3:52 p.m., Nov. 5, 2012, to state that Strauss’ great opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” was composed at the same time as Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” which concludes the Nov. 18 program.