Classics 05 – The Gilded Age in Paris and Vienna – 4 Februray 2023
By Laurie Shulman 8 2022
First North American Serial Rights Only

Richard Strauss was an excellent pianist and violinist, and made a name for himself early on as a gifted conductor. He also knew quite a bit about French horn. His father, Franz Strauss, was principal horn of the Munich Court Opera Orchestra from 1847 to 1889. Richard was only 19 when he began work on his marvelous First Horn Concerto. It is a concise work, without pause between its movements. Strauss takes a relaxed approach to sonata form in the opening section, adopting a rondo for his finale.  Throughout, his melodies breathe with the spirit, enthusiasm, and the healthy lungs of a young man with the world before him, ready to conquer.

Maurice Ravel had roots in the Basque country in the southwest of France, and Basque culture influenced many of his works. In Ma mère l’oye [Mother Goose], he favored neither the Basque region nor its neighbor Spain, but a more universal land of make believe inspired by the beloved tales of a 17th-century French author. Ravel’s original Mother Goose Suite of five pieces was a four-hand piano duo for the children of close friends. He eventually orchestrated it and expanded the music into a ballet score. Each movement captures the imaginary fantasy of such familiar tales as Tom Thumb, Beauty and the Beast, and the Fairy Garden.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales  is a salute to Franz Schubert, whose delightful waltzes for one piano, four hands have yielded countless hours of pleasure to pianists. The title translates to ‘Noble and Sentimental Waltzes.’ It is really a description of two types, easily distinguishable because Ravel alternates the character of these miniature jewels. Valse nobles et sentimentales was an important predecessor to Ravel’s La valse, but this work has more intimacy and elegance. It is vintage Ravel.

Strauss’s most beloved opera, Der Rosenkavalier, was conceived as a tribute to Mozart. He deployed a large, late romantic orchestra in an opulent 18th-century setting. Waltzes course through the score. With delicious irony, Strauss awards the most famous of them to the boorish Baron Ochs, who provides much of the comic relief in the plot. Ultimately, Rosenkavalier is a love story with comic and sentimental moments. The orchestral Suite encompasses both aspects, sweeping us along in the irresistible panache of Strauss’s music.

Concerto No. 1 for Horn and Orchestra, Op.11
Richard Strauss
Born 11 June, 1864 in Munich, Germany
Died 8 September, 1949 in Garmisch, Germany

The First Horn Concerto is a far cry from Don Juan and Strauss’s other familiar tone poems, and even more distant from the splendid operas on which Strauss’s reputation principally rests.  It is a piece of youthful exuberance, overflowing with melodic ideas and the sheer, uninhibited joy of being alive.  Listeners who know the larger orchestral and operatic works will do well to audit this piece with keen — and humbled — ears, for it is the work of a brilliant teenager.  Strauss was only 19 when he began work on it in 1882; he completed it less than a year later.

He was prolific as a youngster, producing a cello sonata, a piano quartet, and a number of important songs during the early 1880s.  The Horn Concerto stands out as the finest among all of them, and is the earliest of Strauss’s works to have earned a permanent place in the symphonic repertoire.

Why a horn concerto?  The answer lies in Strauss’s paternal heritage.  His father, Franz Strauss (1822-1905) was one of the great horn players of the nineteenth century.  The elder Strauss played first horn in the Munich Court orchestra for decades, and taught at the Bavarian Royal School of Music.  From all reports he was a magnificent player.  The eminent conductor Hans von Bülow (1830-1894; later one of Richard Strauss’s great champions) called Franz “the Joachim of the horn,” a reference to the great violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms composed his immortal Violin Concerto.

Ironically, von Bülow detested Franz Strauss.  Richard’s father was one of the first `musician-personalities,’ an outspoken, feisty activist who was supremely confident in both his musicianship and his opinions.  While conductors admired his technical and artistic expertise, they disliked him personally.  Both Richard Wagner and von Bülow are credited with an apocryphal quotation about Franz:  “The fellow is intolerable.  But when he blows his horn, one cannot be angry with him.”

Young Richard Strauss thus grew up with the sound of first class brass playing in the house, and a profound appreciation for the horn’s capabilities.  Franz both recognized and encouraged his son’s remarkable talent, and urged Richard to pursue his career in music and gain experience outside Munich.  In late 1883, Richard moved from Dresden to Berlin, where he met von Bülow.  The two quickly struck a strong rapport, all the more surprising considering the long-standing feud between von Bülow and Strauss’s father.  As a conductor, von Bülow had been a frequent visitor on the podium for the Munich orchestra in which Franz played. Richard’s composing was the bridge that drew the two older musicians together to reconcile their differences.

The concerto is concise, without pause between its movements. It takes about 16 minutes in performance, but one hardly notices the passage of time.  The clarity of Strauss’s orchestration — despite a rather large orchestra — bespeaks a Mozartian understanding of the solo instrument’s balance with the larger instrumental forces.  Strauss takes a relaxed approach to sonata form in the opening section, adopting a recognizable rondo for his finale.  Throughout, his melodies fairly breathe with the spirit, enthusiasm, and healthy lungs of a young man with the world before him, ready to conquer.

The score calls for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, timpani, solo horn, and strings.


Suite from Ma Mère l’Oye [Mother Goose]
Maurice Ravel
Born 7 March, 1875 in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France
Died 28 December, 1937 in Paris

Maurice Ravel loved children and had a gift for storytelling.  When the pianist Riccardo Viñes introduced him to Cipa and Ida Godebski in 1904, the friendship developed in large part because of the two Godebski children, Jean and Mimie.  By 1908, Ravel had become a frequent visitor at La Grangette, the family’s country home in Valvins, near Fontainebleau.  There he spent long hours with Jean and Mimie, reading to them from classic 17th- and 18th-century French fairy tales by Charles Perrault, Marie-Catherine Comtesse d’Aulnoy, and Marie LePrince de Beaumont.

From piano bench to the ballet stage

Elegant illustrations in the fairy tale books and the children’s rapt attention prompted Ravel to compose a suite for one piano, four hands between 1908 and 1910. He modified his demanding keyboard style to accommodate Jean and Mimie’s technical ability. The simpler approach is curiously apt for the tales.  In 1911 he orchestrated it, adding a prelude and several interludes for adaptation into a ballet.  The orchestral Suite consists of the same five movements as the original piano work.

Ravel once told an interviewer that he wanted to bring to life “the poetry of childhood” in these miniatures. In the opening movement, sobered courtiers dance their sedate pavane while gazing upon the slumbering princess, who has pricked herself with an enchanted needle. Petit poucet is Tom Thumb.  Ravel’s music suggests the boy wandering aimlessly, trying to locate the trail of breadcrumbs that will lead him home.  Chirping birds, who have eaten the crumbs, mock him cruelly.

Laideronette, one of Mme d’Aulnoy’s tales, is a child’s fantasy in the bath. The air fills with the tinkle of pentatonic bells, Renaissance lutes and theorbos.  Beauty and the Beast needs little introduction in our culture. The animated video found its way into millions of American homes in the mid-1990s. Ravel’s movement contrasts the grace of Beauty’s waltz with the low growling of the enchanted prince imprisoned within the Beast.  The Suite concludes with the awakening of the fairy garden, a musical breaking of the spell whose peaceful, melodious strains wreak their own sorcery.

Ravel scored his Suite for two flutes (both doubling piccolo), two oboes (both doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons (both doubling contrabassoon), two horns, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and strings.


Valses nobles et sentimentales
Maurice Ravel
Born 7 March, 1875 in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrenées, France
Died 28 December, 1937 in Paris

Valses nobles et sentimentales is one of several works that Ravel wrote for piano and later orchestrated.  Other examples are Menuet antique, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Alborado del gracioso, Ma mère l’Oye, and Le tombeau de CouperinValses nobles. . . has a special affinity with Le tombeau de Couperin in that Ravel conceived each as a tribute to a composer from another era.  It shares a bond with Ma mère l’oye because both works enjoyed a third incarnation as a ballet.

Ravel loved the dance and was entranced by dance rhythms.  Waltzes in particular held a powerful fascination for him; examples occur throughout his oeuvre.  His preoccupation with the musical seductiveness of the waltz culminated in one of his greatest works, La valse (1920).  Valses nobles. . .  is La valse‘s most important predecessor.  In an oft-quoted autobiographical sketch, Ravel explained his title:

The title Valses nobles et sentimentales sufficiently indicates my intent to write a set of waltzes in emulation of Schubert.  The virtuosity which formed the chief part of Gaspard de la nuit [for solo piano, 1908] has been replaced by obviously greater clarity, which strengthens the harmony and sharpens the contrasts.

The labels “noble” and “sentimental” both occur in Schubert’s waltzes.  Ravel’s music, however, is far more sophisticated than its simple and graceful Schubertian models.  His score includes a quotation from Henri de Régnier:  “. . . le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile” [“the delicious and always new pleasure of a useless occupation”].  Is he mocking us for listening with such enjoyment?  Or himself for writing derivative music?  The intoxicating mixture of charm, rhythmic and harmonic subtlety, and flirtatious mood changes keeps us wondering.

The piece opens with a proud waltz that clearly fits the “noble” designation, then follows it with a sentimental one.  In the five succeeding segments, the distinction between the two types blurs somewhat.  Ravel uses his Epilogue to sum up the variety he finds in the waltz.  Rollo Myers describes it thus:

The Epilogue, marked Lent [slow], is a kind of résumé of all the seven preceding waltzes, disembodied fragments of which come floating to the surface in the course of this highly evocative movement in which Ravel passes in review, as it were, what has gone before, not insisting on, but alluding discreetly and nostalgically to, the seven links which have formed his golden chain.

Ravel orchestrated Valses nobles for a ballet produced in 1912 entitled Adélaïde ou le langage des fleurs.  An orchestral premiere followed in 1914, with Pierre Monteux conducting.  The score’s panache and sensuality have made it a favorite ever since both on the ballet stage and in the concert hall.

Ravel’s score calls for two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, tambourine, celesta, glockenspiel, two harps, and strings.



When Valses nobles. . . was premiered in the original piano version, the audience was oblivious of the composer’s identity.  The Société musicale indépendante presented a concert series in 1911 at which composers were not named.  They provided the audience with work titles, then polled them as to who might have written each work.  Amazing as it seems today, the guesses as to the author of Valses nobles. . . included Zoltán Kodály, Erik Satie, and Charles Gounod!

– L.S. ©2022



Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59
Richard Strauss
Born 11 June, 1864 in Munich, Germany
Died 8 September, 1949 in Garmisch, Germany

Is there any more joyous opening in all opera than the exuberant horn fanfare of Der Rosenkavalier?  In those seven upward-swooping notes are compressed all the optimism of youth, the zany machinations of practical jokes, and the compassion and humanity inherent in the Marschallin (the opera’s central character).  Strauss was far too good a man of the theatre to forego such a pregnant and promising beginning.  The fanfare begins the Suite, which takes much of its pacing and chronology from the operatic source.

Der Rosenkavalier was a surprise to almost everyone in 1911.  Strauss had concentrated on orchestral tone poems for much of his youth.  Works like Till Eulenspiegel, Don Juan, and Ein Heldenleben all predate 1900.  After the turn of the century, however, Strauss focused almost exclusively on opera.  The two stage works that preceded Rosenkavalier, Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), were both expressionist canvasses with deliberate and powerful shock elements.  Rosenkavalier, which is set in Maria Theresa’s Vienna and was actively planned as a kind of tribute to Mozart, could not be further from them in spirit.  It is Strauss’s masterpiece: a brilliant combination of romance, farce, sentimentality, and human compassion.

After the beginning horn call, the music moves directly to that of the opening scene in the opera, which takes place at the end of a lovers’ tryst between the Marschallin and Octavian in her private apartments.  Next we move to the ineffable sweetness of the “Presentation of the Rose” music from Strauss’s Act II.  Here Octavian presents the silver rose to beautiful young Sophie on behalf of the Marschallin’s country bumpkin cousin, Baron Ochs.  Time stands still as the two young people fall instantly in love, and momentarily forget that there are others about them.  It is one of the most enchanted moments in all opera, and translates magnificently to the orchestral idiom.\

The Suite proceeds to an excerpt from Act III, when Octavian’s henchman are booby-trapping an inn, preparing to publicly embarrass the oafish Baron Ochs.  From here Strauss makes a smooth transition to the Baron’s waltz, the most famous melody from the opera.  How ironic that the clumsy, conceited Ochs should have the music that best summarizes the spirit of Maria Theresa’s eighteenth-century Viennese court society!

If the Baron’s waltz is the most characteristically Viennese, the segment that follows is the most Straussian. In the final Trio, the Marschallin relinquishes Octavian, recognizing that her youth has passed and that the two young lovers Octavian and Sophie should have the opportunity to bring theirs to full fruition. Making her final exit from the stage, she drops a handkerchief. The opera closes with her blackamoor dashing back to the room to retrieve it.

The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), three clarinets, bass clarinet (doubling basset horn), three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, snare drum, military drum, bells, castanets, celesta, two harps and strings.


Over the years, different performing traditions have evolved concerning the Suite from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.  Its history has been somewhat complicated by the fact that Strauss revised the opera’s unforgettable waltzes during World War II, expressing an objection that they had been “unjustly vulgarized.”  He favored the longer, brilliant conclusion that is familiar to listeners who know the Suite from recordings.

Tradition opts for a reprise of the Baron’s Waltz.  The late Josef Krips, who was also an experienced conductor of Strauss’s operas, chose to close the Suite the way the opera ends, with the blackamoor’s exit.  Maestro Alasdair Neale prefers the brilliant recap of Baron Ochs’s delicious Waltz. Either way, Strauss’s orchestration is so sparkling that the spirit of the horn’s opening fanfare bears delicious fruit.

– L.S. ©2022