Born in 1864, Richard Strauss is considered one of the most important composers of the late romantic and early modern era. From epic orchestral tone poems such as his Alpine Symphony and Don Juan, to tender lieder and chamber music, Strauss’ works are performed to this day across the globe in opera houses, concert halls and recital studios.
The composer, Richard Strauss circa 1925.
What you may not know is that Strauss had a particularly fondness for writing for the female voice, with such powerful heroines enshrined in the opera repertoire including Salome, Elektra, Ariadne, Daphne, and Helen of Troy. In fact, Strauss’ fascination only grew stronger after he married Pauline de Ahna an extroverted opera singer who he went on to share 55 years of marriage with.
Strauss composed lieder from a very young age. Before his marriage, and in fact, quite early in his career, Strauss explored writing for female voice in his Mädchenblumen Op.22. This song cycle, containing 4 pieces and written in the mid 1880’s, draws parallels between girls and flowers. The poetry was written by Felix Dahn, who was actually better known for being a historical novelist, and a scholar with great contributions to the field of German antiquity.
One of the movements, Kornblumen (Cornflowers) represent girls with peaceful souls whose company makes you feel at ease as if walking through a cornfield “rippled by the breath of evening”. Strauss’ accompaniment contains densely harmonized chords and syncopated rhythms, giving this piece a sense of broadness but also playfulness. This is of course joined by the beautiful lyrical melody that floats on top of the syncopation in a way that represents the innocence of the girl that Strauss was imagining.
Monblumen (Poppies) is a more playful piece representing merry and funny girls, who like to tease others, and hide their gentle and kind hearts. Strauss tempo indications, staccato chords and trills help develop this sense of playfulness and boldness, expressed in the text. This is also represented in the vocal line by using shorter note figures, making the piece sound a bit busier and cheerful with the words.
Epheu (Ivy), an absolute soprano favorite, talks about girls that, like the ivy, live to find their true love, and flower only once in their lives. Ladies who cannot with their own strength “rise from their root, who are born to twin themselves”, yet possess deep and strong feelings. Similarly to Kornblumen, the voice floats over a simple accompaniment of triplets that very subtly change the tonality, building a unique and mysterious sound world. This holds a resemblance to “Morgen”, one of Strauss’ most famous lied.
Waserosse (Water Lily), represents a girl whose ethereal qualities are similar to a character of fairy tale or legend. A girl who seems imprisoned on earth and whose general qualities resemble the rippling of waves, the stillness of moonlight and the brightness of stars. Starting with a similar mood to Epheu (Ivy), this movement begins almost spoken, and then moves to a right hand, high pitched ostinato that creates a sort of duet between the singer and the piano resembling the water and glittering moon reflection.
You can watch soprano Jolanta Kudra perform this exquisite song cycle at our next concert, Scenes of Nature, on Saturday 28th May, 7pm - Studio 1 of The Old Museum Building. Be sure to book your tickets now!