Classical VI: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life)

No heroic season would be complete without the most heroic piece of all, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) by Richard Strauss. Our season finale will also include Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, celebrating the defeat of Napoleon, and Piano Concerto No. 2 by Shostakovich, a Russian musical hero in his own right, featuring Moscow-born pianist Natasha Paremski, one of the piano world’s fastest-rising stars.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(April 25/May 7, 1840—October 25/November 6, 1893)
1812 Overture (The Year 1812), op. 49

One of Tchaikovsky’s most enduring works, this overture commemorates the 1812 Russian defense of its motherland against Napoleon’s invading army.  In 1880, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, commissioned in 1812 by Tsar Alexander I to commemorate the Russian victory, was nearing completion in Moscow. Nikolai Rubinstein suggested that Tchaikovsky write a work for the occasion. He began on October 12, 1880, and finished the piece six weeks later.  It was eventually premiered in Moscow on August 20, 1882, outdoors, near the still-unfinished Cathedral.

The music represents specific episodes in this historic battle.  It begins with an Eastern Orthodox hymn, O Lord, Save Thy People, played by cellos and violas, perhaps representing the Russian people praying for a conclusion to Napoleon’s invasion. Next, the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is heard, and then mixed with Russian folk music to represent the two armies fighting.  Five cannon shots are heard, and the battle ensues. The Marseillaise is most prominent, but then the French army retreats.  The Russian hymn is repeated, interpreted as prayers being answered. The grand finale culminates with more cannon shots and the melody of God Save the Tsar!

As a rousing patriotic hymn, the Overture has subsequently been adapted into contexts other than Russian fighting.  The tradition of using it as an accompaniment to fireworks displays in the USA on Independence Day, was initiated July 4, 1974, by Arthur Fiedler with the Boston Pops.

Dmitri Shostakovich
(September 12/25, 1906-August 9, 1975)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, op. 102

When he graduated the Petrograd Conservatory in 1926, Shostakovich was intent pursuing a dual career as a pianist and composer, but early success with his First Symphony led him to concentrate on composition.  In the mid-1930s, politics stymied his output, but he was able to navigate the situation to survive and continue composing.  When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, the oppressive conditions under which artistic expression was monitored finally relaxed. 

Shostakovich’s second piano concerto was composed for his son’s 19th birthday and was premiered at Maxim’s graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. The woodwinds open the first movement with a joyful theme. The piano eventually enters, finally arriving at a march-like theme.  After a long build-up, a peak, and a brief silence, a fugue starts in the piano, almost like a cadenza for the soloist.  Eventually, the joyful theme returns, and then the piano takes over, leading the forces forward to an exciting close. 

The second movement begins in the strings with a touch of tender melancholy.  The piano enters to shed positive light on the melancholy mood. The melancholy music eventually returns, and the piano plays an ornamented version of the original theme.  The finale, a lively dance in duple time, is presented attacca. A second theme is introduced by the orchestra in 7/8 time, then played by the piano accompanied by pizzicato strings. New material arrives in complicated scale exercise patterns, rumored to be a joke for Maxim’s graduation. These three ideas are then developed before a final statement of the 7/8 theme and a breathless, joyous end to an uplifting piece.  The release of tension from Stalin’s rule is palpable, a wonderful outpouring of relief and happiness.

Some critics have dismissed this concerto as a less important work, and the composer himself apparently made some disparaging comments about it, possibly to pre-empt criticism.  Still, the work has achieved some popularity in its appealing moods and flashy technique.

Richard Strauss
(June 11, 1864 – September 9, 1949)
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), op. 40

It seems inevitable that Richard Strauss would become a musician.  His father was a hornist in Munich and was a part of several premieres of works by Richard Wagner.  Strauss’s first mature compositions, especially his tone poems, explored the expressive capabilities of instrumental music, particularly in how instruments alone might portray a literary storyline.  Ein Heldenleben, Strauss’s eighth tone poem, exceeds all of its predecessors in scope and orchestral demands. In a program note, he wrote that subject of the piece was “not a single poetical or historical figure, but rather a more general and free ideal of great and manly heroism.” Some scholars, however, suggest that the work is autobiographical, especially since there are over thirty quotations from earlier works, including Also sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegel, Don Juan, Don Quixote, Death and Transfiguration, Macbeth, his early opera Guntram, and two lieder “Traum durch die Dämmerung” and “Befreit.”

Ein Heldenleben has seven episodes, unified with Leitmotifs, short musical motives that represent characters, events, or emotions, that are a part of a storyline.  “The Hero” introduces the primary motive that represents the main character, proceeding confidently. “The Hero’s Adversaries,” in this case Strauss’s critics, opens with chromatic woodwinds and low brass.  The image is like they are plotting against him, with increasing dissonance and anticipation of something bad about to happen. 

“The Hero’s Companion” is announced by a fanfare, followed by an extended violin solo, that embraces many moods.  Strauss confirmed that this section was inspired by his wife, Pauline de Ahna, “…very complex, a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute.”  The range of emotions expressed shows a complex relationship, not a sentimental stereotype.  Eventually, the hero must go off to battle.  A call is sounded by distant trumpets, and the hero bids adieu, full of resolve and purpose.

Next is “The Hero’s Battlefield,” an extended development section that features plenty of orchestral fireworks and an obvious march into battle, led by brass and percussion.  The various leitmotifs are traded around to different instruments and manipulated to have different rhythms, harmonies, etc. creating the increasing chaos of battle.  One can imagine the cannon fire, clashing of swords, charges and retreats of the armies, and the eventual triumph as the full orchestra finally comes together in the opening theme as a sign of victory.

“The Hero’s Works of Peace” is a stark contrast to the preceding battle, a period of reflection and evaluation.  Scholars have identified this section as the most autobiographical, because it is here that Strauss quotes his previous works. “The Hero’s Retirement from this World” is a little unsettling, with hints of melancholy, uncertainty, anxiety, and agitation.  Finally, in “Completion (Renunciation),” peace of mind and body are achieved, and a lifetime of work is pondered and confirmed.  Occasional doubts and concerns bubble to the surface, but in the end, the legacy of the hero is affirmed and celebrated.  The heroic horn and the lovely violin share the final moments together, and, after a final fanfare from the brass, the piece ends quietly, signaling fulfillment of the hero’s life and legacy.

Dedicated to Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the work was actually premiered in Frankfurt on March 3, 1899, with Strauss conducting. Ein Heldenleben is considered one of Strauss’s greatest works, an interesting representation of the struggle between the individual and his/her outer and inner worlds.

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2018