Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Domesticating the Symphony

Richard Strauss's Symphonia Domestica has always been controversial, having both vociferous detractors and staunch defenders. The critics have been chiefly concerned about the programme behind the piece and the perceived mismatch between the programme's 'triviality' (and 'bad taste') and the gargantuan effects and forces employed. I'm an unashamed staunch defender of this domestic symphony and I think that Strauss's sense of humour is a good deal stronger than that of some of his critics. The composer's own defence against the charge of triviality - what is more important than a man's love for his wife and child? - seems sane and true to me. Anyhow, the work contains so much glorious music that, philosophy aside, it is worthy of being loved itself. Moreover, the astonishing thematic working is worthy of admiration.

This is a single-movement symphony but it falls into four distinct sections (Introduction, Scherzo, Adagio and Finale) and threads everything together (including all its many, many themes) such that it seems to be the ultimate cyclical symphony.

As in Don Quixote, it pays to listen closely to at the beginning as within the first five minutes Strauss has introduced us to five contrasting themes already, all associated programmatically with Strauss himself, and moved onto a second cluster of themes associated with his wife, Pauline. That's a lot to take in, but we're given a little extra time to digest them as Strauss immediately begins to develop them before introducing his next 'character' and, anyway, we have some forty minutes still ahead of us to get to know them all very well indeed. You might note that the main Strauss theme (with which the work opens) begins with a three-note figure that inverted becomes the opening of Pauline's main theme. You might also note the 'fiery' theme on violins for Richard - essentially a rising arpeggio - as this ardent motif always bring magic with it. 

The next 'character' we meet is the couple's baby and his theme is presented rather as you would expect the main character in a play to be presented. It's a brilliantly staged entry, the lighting being cast on his beautiful theme, played by the oboe d'amore accompanied by violins, and space is provided for the audience to register this new actor's starring role. This is indeed the score's main theme. The Introduction ends with the magically-scoring cooings of the aunts (trumpets) and uncles (trombones). 

The Scherzo follows straight on and its folk-like main theme, though you might not recognise it at first, is simply the baby's theme transformed by more of his father's creative magic. Both versions of the theme are shortly after counterpointed with an ingenuity so easy-going in the manner of its achievement that the genius behind it can too easily be taken for granted. Baby gets a bath in the Trio section and kicks up quite a rumpus! Here you will also hear a gorgeous new theme of exquisite tenderness on solo violin and an equally gorgeous, romantic theme on horn. Together they create beautiful music! A lullaby follows, begun by what sounds like an (unconscious?) echo of the music that introduces dawn in the second act of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, which has considerable tenderness too. The clock strikes seven (in the evening) and woodwinds serenade us with one of Richard's themes - adorable!

The Adagio section is made from the themes of Richard and Pauline and is a true symphonic slow movement as well as a passionate love scene. Here Strauss gives milk as only he can, weaving and transforming his themes into a seamless musical flow of the finest inspiration, at times tender, at times ardent, even erotic and very often ravishingly beautiful. Strauss then dreams and the result for this listener at least is a dream to hear.

Morning comes and the clock strikes seven again. Baby awakes and the Scherzo's take on his theme forms the basis of the Finale's opening double fugue, along with a second theme begun high up on the violins. The fugue represents Richard and Pauline arguing, but it's a merry argument and the composer's counterpoint is worn lightly, if lustily. The 'reconciliation' follows and the now very familiar themes mingle again, readying themselves for the joyous, brilliant big finish.

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