Strauss Horn Concerto no. 1 in E-flat, op. 11

performed by Peter Damm and the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe, or below by Stefan Dohr and the Oklahoma Symphony under Hansjörg Schellenberger

This is very early Strauss. It was written by a very young Richard Strauss to his father, a horn player himself.

Richard Strauss’s first horn concerto was completed in 1883 and premiered that year in Munich, when the composer was only 18, and studying at Munich University. Its composition follows his violin concerto, another work listeners might recognize as being quite early.

Richard Strauss’s father Franz was a noted horn player, “and the fact that Richard grew up with the sound of the horn in his house led to his exploration of the great potential of the horn as both a solo and orchestral instrument,” says Wikipedia. It seems to come as a nice gesture for the young composer to write a piece for his father, but there might be a bit more to it than that. The young Strauss labeled the work to be played on the natural horn, which is apparently the instrument his father far preferred to play. Wiki says of the work’s difficulty that:

Whilst it is technically possible to play the concerto on an E-flat natural horn,[1] in practice it would be impossible to give a convincing performance. Alan Jefferson speculates that the title might in fact be a father-son joke.[2]

That’s cute. For a point of reference in time, this concerto was completed the same year as Brahms’s third symphony, which still called for (or at least Brahms preferred the sound of) the natural horn and its particular sound, so it was still in relatively common use at the time, unlike now. As we have seen with pieces like Don Juan and Eine Alpensinfonie, Strauss went on to write extravagantly and exuberantly for the modern valved horn, penning some of the most memorable (and challenging?) orchestral horn parts in the repertoire, just wonderful stuff.

Today’s piece, though, is far more conservatively Romantic in nature. Of this early style, Wiki says “The composition is typical of Strauss’ music at this time in being Romantic in style, showing the influence of Mendelssohn.” It’s in three movements, almost always played without pause, and lasts around 16-17 minutes. Interestingly, the premiere of the piano version was given by one the elder (Franz) Strauss’s students, Bruno Hoyer, and the orchestral version wasn’t premiered until 1885, “at Meiningen with Hans von Bulow conducting and the horn part played by the principal horn Gustav Leinhos.”

Do you hear any Mozart in the opening? I do. While it’s not made up of the long orchestral introduction before the soloist enters, and while it’s solidly more Romantic in nature, it’s equally operatic, with a freshness and excitement to it, the sound of youth, perhaps. The horn is energetic from the get-go, but also lyrical and delicate. This expressiveness and lyricism are clearly part of the charm of this concerto. It initially sounds as if we’re going hunting, but that lyricism balances out the initial boldness. The horn leads the show for the majority of the rest of the movement, with only small glimpses of the orchestra, but leaving not much to be desired, really. I’d say it still manages to have the vividness and color that would mark, to an even greater degree, the composer’s more mature compositions.

Toward the end of the movement, we do hear these echoes of that initial gesture, but it cools right down as the orchestra leads us without pause into the second movement, where the horn quickly appears in yet another lyrical, soft passage, almost whispered. The orchestral accompaniment to this lengthier lyricism is yet simpler still, with the same repeated figure over and over again, but it still somehow doesn’t get old. Of the three almost equally sized movements, this is the longest, at least in Damm and Kempe’s reading. There are a few little whispers of woodwinds, a clarinet, idyllic, almost magical sounding, but nothing overt, all quite subdued. There’s a more spirited passage, sounding even more operatic, like an aria for the soloist, before cooling back down. There’s one final little outburst that makes us think we’ve reached the finale, but woodwinds have the final say, and strings respond to mark the beginning of the finale. Such subtle drama here, no?

We’re still on kind of a long, slow, build from the second movement, but the horn re-enters to give us the most fun-filled, spirited music of the whole piece. It all sounds closely related to that opening call, but it’s finally managed to awaken the orchestra, and as a result, it sounds like we’ve arrived. It, too, is bucolic, but bright, never outlandish or garish. Throughout this work, we find a subtlety, I think, even in such a young piece from the composer, with much of the horn part requiring more control and delicacy than outward virtuosity and stamina, although I’m sure those are needed as well. We’ve heard more showy writing from the likes of Weber and Punto, but remember that Strauss noted that this be played on the natural horn, so that’s something else to keep in mind. I can’t speak to what that would entail.

In any case, it seems by the final minute and a half or so of the finale that we’ve reached the climax, the fulfilling last hoorah of the work. It is everything that the entire piece was, but finally gives us a little bit of the richness, the crunch, and some of the more outrageous virtuosity in the triple meter passage that rounds out the work, to create a really breathtaking, enjoyable experience in a small little unassuming package. It’s superb. Little wonder, then, that “The horn concerto has become the most frequently performed horn concerto written in the 19th Century,” says Wiki.

I don’t mean to downplay it as a work of subtlety or immature charms, but that kind of restraint and balance does take a healthy degree of maturity in any undertaking. While it’s one of the most famous, most performed, or perhaps truly the most performed 19th century horn concerto, I still wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near the greatest of Strauss’s works. He would go on to write gems of the orchestral repertoire, symphonic poems, operas, and on and on, but that doesn’t detract from this very fine concerto for the horn. It’s a tiny piece of perfection, unassuming, maybe, but don’t be fooled. There’s plenty here to enjoy.

We only had one piece on this week’s program, but this series is coming to an end, and there are only a few works left. Three of the remaining five pieces for this series will act asa sort of lead-in to what we’ll be doing next on the blog. Stay tuned; you’ll see. Thank you for reading and listening.

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