Inter-textual Strauss

Composer Richard Strauss often dropped subtle references to other works into his scores. We’re accustomed to this in poetry, drama or film, where a quote can add depths to our experience, but it’s especially powerful when we recall how abstract music is, adding meanings that would otherwise not be available in a musical score. “Intertextual” is a word Julia Kristeva employed to call attention to the powerful relationships between texts.

By now we’re familiar with this effect in film-music.  Here’s a classic example from Gone With the Wind, as Max Steiner creates a medley of several songs whose associations amplify the effect of this scene.

I recently mentioned a Wagnerian allusion in the first act of Arabella.

In one of his last compositions, Metamorphosen (1945) Strauss quotes from the mournful slow movement of Beethoven’s Eroica, as though to write the epitaph for Germany in the darkest years late in the Second World War. It’s in the last minute of the work (if the link works you’ll start there). Strauss inscribed the words “In memoriam” at the pertinent passage of the score.

It sounds very much like what Max Steiner did in that excerpt above.  And it’s a bit surprising to recognize that Strauss wrote his work years after Steiner.

But Strauss is especially likely to quote his own music.  In his 1899 autobiographical symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben –or “A Hero’s life”—the composer is the hero, his exploits illustrated in quotes from several of his own compositions—Don Quixote, Death & Transfiguration and Also Sprach Zarathustra, to name three– while doing battle with the enemy: the critics.    Or in the last decade of his life, he wrote a series of songs assembled into the “Four Last Songs”.  The one usually sung last, “Im abendrot”—or “at sunset”—which was the first of the four composed, includes not just the passage from “Death & Transfiguration” that is usually discussed in program notes, but also a passage from Don Quixote.  Heldenleben was a marvelous opportunity to make self-reflexive music, bringing back the various characters—in a series of musical themes—as though he were on a psychiatrist’s couch introspecting about different aspects of himself. Strauss seemed to valorize the humble Don Quixote’s version of heroism above all others, returning to the Quixotic ideal in “Im abendrot” even if he gives us the big show of humility in the midst of a colossal display of ego.

He’s hardly the first one to do this kind of inter-textual reference.  In Die Meistersinger, Richard Wagner quotes his previous opera Tristan und Isolde, a poignant quote pointing to the impossibility of a relationship between Hans Sachs and Eva, who are as far apart in age as Isolde and Tristan’s uncle King Marke (Isolde’s intended husband).  OR in Don Giovanni Mozart gets comic mileage in the last scene of the opera when he quotes an aria from The Marriage of Figaro.

So when I was listening to Arabella, especially recalling it as an opera that was the last collaboration with Hofmannsthal, I expected to find other music.  This game of looking for quotes is an old-style musicology that is out of fashion, with roots in the dry leit-motiv lists for Wagner operas, searches for meaning in esoteric little quotes.  I would insist that any such commentary must be supported in the story.  For example Arabella’s longing for the mysterious stranger while being besieged by suitors for whom she has little or no interest, parallels Elsa’s dream in Lohengrin (which incidentally is the very first time we encounter that tune in the Wagner opera). While Lohengrin is no comedy, it might be the single opera most associated with romantic love & marriage, especially when we recall another theme, surely the most famous tune Wagner wrote.

I thought I heard something from Der Rosenkavalier the first time through Arabella.  Let me do this in reverse.  Before I went back for a look at the actual text, I couldn’t help noticing remarkable parallels in the stories.  Of the six operas Strauss did with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, it’s Rosenkavalier surely that we might think of, not the other four:

  1. Elektra
  2. Ariadne auf Naxos
  3. Die Frau ohne Schatten
  4. Die ägyptische Helena

The first and last adapt characters from classical myth (Elektra and Helena) while the other two are even further removed from reality via a magical story (Frau ohne Schatten) and a topsy-turvy juxtaposition of two different dramatic presentations presented simultaneously at a wedding (Ariadne).  Rosenkavalier and Arabella, though, are much more similar.

When I started to tally up the parallels between Rosenkavalier and Arabella I was drawn to look for something more in the music.

  • both explore romantic love
  • both call for an ambiguous portrayal:
    • Octavian is a young man portrayed by a woman, while Zdenka is a young woman who masquerades as a young man in the diegetic story itself
    • both Octavian and Zdenka attempt to bring two lovers together
    • both Octavian and Zdenka present a rose on behalf of the one for whom they’re advocating
    • both Octavian and Zdenka end up with the one they were touting to someone else

And no wonder, then that Strauss decided to gently underline some of those parallels in the score of Arabella.  The theme of the roses that are such a magical bit of colour in the opening of Act II of Rosenkavalier and echoed at the end of the opera for the starry-eyed young couple is what I thought I heard in Act I of Arabella.  And there it is right in the libretto. When Arabella is asking about roses, a moment before she utters the question the music reminds us of that rose presentation music.  The stage directions say “sie sieht die Rosen” or “she sees the roses”, and at that precise moment a version of the theme is heard in the orchestra.


Here’s the original, where Octavian meets Sophie while carrying his ceremonial silver rose.

Let me be clear. It’s not vitally important.  One can watch the opera without ever noticing this. But I think it’s worth observing that Strauss made the connection, perhaps encouraging us to think about the parallels and divergences.

Can we find any more? I wondered about something else, not in the score but in the libretti and this time it might be an allusion to Ariadne.  You’ll recall that the arrival on Ariadne’s island by Bacchus –the god of wine & intoxication—is announced by his offstage voice singing of Circe, who gave a drink to Ulysses’ men, turning them into swine.   The god is not transformed.  Similarly Arabella brings a glass of water to Mandryka, as a ritual show of love and readiness to marry; when she’s asked if she will remain the same she asks to be accepted as she is because she can’t be anything else.  But is this something Kristeva might call an inter-textual reference?  The formality of the moment suggests it might have been self-conscious but even so I tend to doubt it.  And in Act II we watch Mandryka get steamed up, drinking aggressively and somewhat transformed as a result.  Is it in any way an allusion to Bacchus or Ariadne?  No I don’t think so.  Yes it’s fun to peer into the score. But while this can be a nerdy way to get deeper into the music, if it doesn’t lead us to the theatre and something we can discern in performance, I question the value of that kind of close study.

I’m looking forward to watching the Canadian Opera Company production at least a couple of times, at which point I’ll be very susceptible to echoes from the other operas, especially Ariadne, which was one of the first operas I ever saw, a U of T student production of the opera at the Edward Johnson Building when I was 12 years old.  Come to think of it I think this was the first time I had seen an opera that really moved me, that really worked.  Strauss is a curious composer, largely under-rated or even dismissed as a creator of kitsch, a composer who self-consciously turned his back on avant-garde music with popular operas such as Rosenkavalier.  Yet just a couple of days ago TCM broadcast 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) featuring the two most famous minutes Strauss ever composed, and premiered the same year of that student Ariadne.

No matter what the critics say, everyone knows a little bit of Richard Strauss.  We will talk about him in the opera course that begins in September and also in the film music course early next year.

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