Richard Strauss' symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben occupies a special place in the history of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. A tradition was begun after the appointment of Willem Mengelberg as the second chief conductor of the orchestra in 1895 that has continued to this day: the invitation of composers to conduct their own and other composers’ works. Of course a composer is not automatically a good conductor, but he can always convey his intentions concerning his music. Mengelberg soon invited one of his idols: Richard Strauss. Strauss, however, was an excellent conductor and could make his most complicated music sound simple. Strauss was so impressed with the orchestra after several visits that he promised to dedicate his next symphonic work to Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. This was Ein Heldenleben. For practical reasons its premiere was given not in Amsterdam, but in Frankfurt. The Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mengelberg played their gift for the first time in the Netherlands some six months later on 26 October 1899.
The hero of Ein Heldenleben is Richard Strauss himself. We hear him in the sturdy and self-aware principal theme that is presented at the very beginning of the piece. We hear his opponents, the music critics, as a band of cackling complainers. His beloved wife, the capricious and overbearing Pauline, is depicted in a passage for solo violin that leads into a love scene. The hero goes into battle in the following section; he makes short work of his enemies to spirited martial music. After a glorious victory we hear quotations from other works by Strauss; these include Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung and Also sprach Zarathustra, representing the hero’s work in times of peace. After recalling various earlier Heldenleben passages, the hero retires in search of peace after a full and active life.
The work’s first Amsterdam audience, who had already been informed about Strauss’ promise by the press in 1897, greeted the work with explosive joy; a few members of the Dutch musical press nonetheless had their reservations, as they found the work’s autobiographical content to be a sign of arrogance. The piece has nonetheless entered the standard repertoire of every self-respecting symphony orchestra. Mariss Jansons, who conducts this work here, has a particular liking for Strauss’ orchestral works and Ein Heldenleben is one of his party pieces. He has conducted it 22 times with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, including during his inaugural concert on 4 September 2004, which was dedicated to William Mengelberg. The recording that you can watch and listen to here was made on another red-letter day in the orchestra’s history: its 125th anniversary concert on 3 November 2013.
Translation: Peter Lockwood