“The most genuine and most splendid Strauss!”
Richard Strauss: Festival Prelude op. 61 (for great orchestra and Organ)
In October 1887, the Gewandhaus audience saw the first of a young conductor who, at the age of twenty-three, had already been highly praised by critics in Munich, Berlin and Dresden. His name was Richard Strauss. At last, Leipzig had the chance to form a picture of his “forward-looking” tonal language. The concert programme included his Second Symphony in F minor op. 12, composed in 1883. Yet the Leipzig audience could not yet make much sense of his music and interest in the young composer subsided again. At most, there were reports of his conducting at the Weimar Court Opera, where he was promoting Richard Wagner‘s work and had directed Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde, conducted the premiere of Humperdinck‘s Hansel and Gretel in 1893 and created a worldwide sensation with his tone poems Macbeth, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel‘s Merry Pranks, Thus spake Zarathustra and Don Quixote.
The “dispatches” from Weimar express polar opposites of euphoria and hostile rejection.
There is no question but that Arthur Nikisch – both earlier as principal conductor of the Leipzig municipal theatre and now more than ever as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – took note of the composing conductor‘s pros and cons when he placed Don Juan on the programme of a concert in October 1898. The press was loud in its praise, since “a rendition of Strauss‘s symphonic tone poems so perfect down to the finest detail would have been simply impossible before Nikisch …” (Musikalisches Wochenblatt, October 27, 1898). At the same time, the Gewandhaus management was encouraged “to perform his other creations of this kind at not too lengthy intervals”.
Now Richard Strauss‘s name appeared on the programme every year, not seldom three times in one season. Often only a few months separated a work‘s premiere from its first performance at the Gewandhaus.
The same applied to planning at the Leipzig Opera. There too, the management included performances of Strauss‘s operas, often in the year following their Dresden premiere; that was the case with the Leipzig first performances of Salome, Elektra and Rosenkavalier.
But let us return to the Gewandhaus. Just under three months after the Vienna premiere of the Festival Prelude, Nikisch opened the first Gewandhaus Concert of 1914 with the work, followed by Arnold Schoenberg‘s Chamber Symphony op. 9. The rest of the programme was just as exciting: Eugen d‘Albert as soloist in his own E major Piano Concerto and in the E flat major Piano Concerto by Franz Liszt.
People in Leipzig awaited the press response the next day with bated breath. Contrary to expectations, it did not concentrate on the grandiose Strauss premiere, but in no uncertain terms excoriated Arnold Schoenberg, who was “modern to the point of fanaticism” and promulgated “aesthetics of the ugly”. His Chamber Symphony op. 9, “a musical hell of horror and eeriness”, would be “dismissed by those versed in the Classics” as “a monstrous mockery of an abortion, painful to sit through”, according to Die Leipziger Neuesten Nachrichten. And only much later do we read: “from Schoenberg to Richard Strauss‘s ‚Festival Prelude‘” is “a good leap, even among modern works”.
The Gewandhaus audience did indeed respond enthusiastically to the sonorous work, which powerfully presented the listener with “sensual sound, the primal being of all music”. It celebrated a “most genuine and most splendid Strauss!”
So it was no surprise that Leipzig at last held a proper Strauss Festival in 1920/21. Following the example of the previous year‘s highly acclaimed Bruckner series, Nikisch now planned a “Richard Strauss Series” of eight concerts, which would include “all the symphonic poems”, according to the Zeitschrift für Musik – an honour the Gewandhaus had thus far reserved for dead composers.
World premieres are another major aspect of Gewandhaus history. Although the Dresden Opera, with its orchestra, was one of Richard Strauss‘s preferred venues for premieres, the Gewandhaus Orchestra could rightly also boast having launched a work by Strauss. The credit for that went to its conductor, Bruno Walter*, who with his concert planning seems to have perfectly met both the needs and the tastes of the enterprising Richard Strauss. On October 20, the opening night of the 1932/33 season, the Gewandhaus Orchestra premiered Strauss‘s ballet suite Schlagobers (whipped cream) op. 70. On top of that, Lotte Lehmann, Strauss‘s highly paid favourite singer, sang three of his lieder for solo voice and orchestra.
* Less than five months later, prior to the subscription concert of March 16, 1933, the chief of police in Leipzig acting on behalf of Saxony‘s Ministry of the Interior expelled Bruno Walter from his position as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra because he was a Jew.
Then there was the concert two years later, on April 26, 1934. At the age of almost seventy, Strauss conducted exclusively his own works: the Dance Suite after Couperin and An Alpine Symphony. Hardly moving, he conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra virtually by the power of suggestion, seeming to meet the gaze of each musician and exert magic control with his watery blue eyes. The Zeitschrift für Musik stated aptly: “… his special method of exploiting the entire gamut of the orchestra‘s expressive nuances by means of uncannily economical signals triumphed …”
Dr. Steffen Lieberwirth
© Text from the Booklet