performed by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolfe Kempe
We’re finally doing Strauss! It’s about darn time.
(Featured image is the View of the Ponte Nomentano in the Roman Campagna, by Jean Achille Benouville)
As one of the few multi-movement tone poems in our series, this is one of the more traditional works we’ll be talking about. There are a few other pieces on the schedule that are in three or four movements, but this one corresponds much more closely to the traditional four-movement layout of a traditional symphony, making it by far the longest work in the series.
I find this interesting because when someone throws out the term ‘tone poem,’ one of the first people most people would think of is Strauss, but this comes at a period of time for him where it almost seems like he’s processing his conservative upbringing with the Strauss that would come later.
Interestingly, Strauss’s trip to Italy in 1886 was encouraged by one Johannes Brahms, whom you may have heard of. The work was begun while Strauss was still on his journey, and finished the same year, on 12 September, listed as a “symphonic fantasy” and “is dedicated to his mentor Hans von Bülow. It is the only work by Richard Strauss for which he himself wrote a specific program,” says the Wikipedia article. The piece was premiered six months later, in March 1887 in Strauss’s hometown, Munich, conducted by the composer himself, and there are varying accounts of its reception. Strauss’s sister said the first three movements were well received, while the fourth brought “derisory whistles … from various quarters.” Another, perhaps more neutral (or negative) recollection, from Norman Del Mar, states that the entire thing was received lukewarmly, and the final movement gaining much derision. Despite tie criticism, the composer was apparently quite pleased with the work. The American premiere was given almost exactly a year later.
There are fantastic program notes for the piece here, written by Dr. Richard E. Rodda, in which the story of Strauss’s eventual trip to Italy and some of the happenings along the way are shared. A man in his early twenties takes a trip to Italy and is amazed by the culture and history and has a ball. Per the program notes, Strauss himself said that the work is “the connecting link between the old and the new method,” and describe the “general amazement and wrath because I, too, have now begun to go my own way, to create my own form and bother the heads of indolent persons.” At least he was confident about what he was doing. While the composer called it a ‘symphonic fantasy’ I’m still including it in our Symphonic Poem series.
The piece is in four movements:
I. Auf der Campagna- Andante
II. In Roms Ruinen- Allegro molto con brio
III. Am Strande von Sorrent- Andantino
IV. Neopolitanisches Volksleben- Finale
The program notes linked above refer to the first movement as a prelude, and the second as a “great symphonic first movement.” They’re both quite ‘sunny’ pieces, first introducing the peaceful, pristine view of the Campagna “bathed in sunlight.” It does begin peacefully, a certain ethereal magic to the opening, as if the morning fog is burning off to reveal the Italian landscape we will explore. As the piece builds, it shows charm and romanticism. We have harp and horn calls here and there, and it does almost feel like movie music, quite a hefty movement to be a prelude, but it I can almost see the wide-angle shots flying over the Italian countryside, the Roman Campagna in all its glory. It’s grand, but at turns bucolic and quaint, a sunny way to open the work.
The second movement begins in the sunny disposition with which we ended the first movement, but ends up being a more pensive movement, viewing the ruins, the leftovers of a once-great empire. It’s not a funeral march or anything, but it’s a crunchier, more poignant, stirring movement, and far more symphonic feeling in content and presentation.
The third movement, “the spiritual content of this mood-picture,” fills a role as the slow movement of this symphonic work, especially after the more stirring passages that ended the previous movement. We open with harp and strings, and this is by far the most peaceful, reserved, pastoral passage of the entire work, connecting with and enjoying nature, almost hearing birdsong and the rustle of leaves and all the rest.
It’s in contrast with the final movement, which begins with a cacophonous bang and crash and furious strings, only to calm almost instantly and introduce what Strauss thought was a Neapolitan folk tune, but was actually Funiculi Funicula by his fellow composer Luigi Denza, who later sued Strauss for the use of his work and won. This is by far my favorite movement. It effectively communicates the hustle and bustle of modern-day people through ancient streets, the exciting energy and mild frenzy and excitement in the air, especially as a foreigner experiencing it in a foreign land. There’s a balance of charm, chaos, energy, and lyricism, albeit largely indebted to Denza’s very charming theme. Despite that, Strauss uses it to great effect, and it’s the most outwardly “Italian” of the four in the way people maybe stereotypically view Italian life, but also through the eyes of an enamored, young, energetic composer.
While Strauss didn’t call this a tone poem, it is, as he stated, a transitional work, a bridge between the old and the new, and gives musical representations of very non-musical ideas.
I hear in this work, to some extent, a similarity to the works of Liszt that we discussed last week, a certain epic, majestic scope and grandeur to the work, but not as rawly expressed (yet). It was with another work, tomorrow’s article, that Strauss’s real career began, one in which he was known for his tone poems.
Also, this is not the first ‘Italian symphony’ in the repertoire, and certainly isn’t the last. Mendelssohn was inspired enough to write his Italian symphony, and Strauss wrote his, granted with a far more direct, programmatic nature to it.
Strauss’s Italian fantasy is a nice work, but it pales in comparison with tomorrow’s work, and I’m excited to talk about it. See you then.