The composer and his muse: Richard Strass and Pauline de Ahna



It is often said that behind every great man there is a great woman; but not every great composer can claim to have achieved a long and happy – if somewhat tempestuous – marriage to his muse. The soprano Pauline de Ahna was the powerful presence behind Richard Strauss: his wife, his inspiration and a diva in every sense. Over his many decades he drew on plenty of different spurs to musical action, but none more consistently or more powerfully than the soprano voice.

Strauss’s operas remain arguably his finest achievements and the Royal Opera House is marked the 150th anniversary of his birth with a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918), the most complex, symbolic and magical of his collaborations with the playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Despite its baffling fairytale premise – for example, the woman without a shadow is an Empress who is a transformed gazelle – it deals at heart with the human and domestic.

Richard Strauss enjoyed an impressive female following, particularly in the gallery of heroines that he brought to the stage as a composer. Yet by the time of his 37th birthday he was still a bachelor with no scandalous love affairs to his name. And so it came as a complete surprise when Richard proposed to his former student and operatic soprano Pauline Maria de Ahna in the middle of a turbulent rehearsal for his opera “Guntram” in 1894. Apparently, his student Heinrich Zeller was unable to master the insanely taxing vocal part and Strauss had to repeatedly interrupt the rehearsal. Then came the time for Pauline’s scene in Act III, which she knew well. In spite of this, she did not feel sure and envied Zeller because he had
Pauline in Richard Strauss' now obscure early opera "Guntram
been given so many chances of repeating. Suddenly she stopped singing and asked Richard, to whom she had been secretly engaged since March 1894, why he was not interrupting her. Richard replied, that she knew her part well. Pauline retorted, “but I want to be interrupted” and threw the piano score at Richard’s head, but to the delight of the orchestra it landed on the desk of the second violinist. Having thus made her point, she stormed off the stage and locked herself in the dressing room, with Richard hurriedly following her. Once Richard returned to rehearsal the orchestral musicians enquired as to what kind of reprimand he had in mind for the temperamental soprano, to which Richard replied, “I am going to marry her”! And so he did, with the wedding taking place in a small chapel adjacent to the castle in Marquartstein on 10 September 1894.

Richard Strauss composed “Cäcilie”, the second song of his Op. 27, as a wedding present for his future wife one day before their nuptial ceremony. Their marriage, which can properly be filed under the category of opposites attract, lasted almost fifty-five years. Although Pauline became the perfect housewife and mother, she really never lost her high-strung temperament. And Richard, who liked to have a couple of beers in the local brewery and play cards with his friends remarked, “my wife is often extremely harsh, but, you know, I need that”.


Anecdotes aside, their relationship was highly complex and based on a mutual passion for music. When he traveled without his wife, he wrote her long love letters nearly every day. And Pauline was entirely devoted to her husband’s well being. She made him concentrate on his work, provided regular meals, and the couple went for long nature walks every single day. In addition, she inspired and musically featured in a variety of his compositions. When Richard composed his autobiographical tone poem “Ein Heldenleben”, the Hero’s companion is clearly modeled after Pauline. Strauss writes, “It’s my wife I wanted to portray. She is very complex, very much a woman, a little depraved, something of a flirt, never twice alike, every minute different to what she was the minute before”.



And when the celebrated diva Lotte Lehmann visited the couple in Garmisch, she reports “I often caught a glance or a smile passing between her and her husband, touching in its love and happiness, and I began to sense something of a profound affection between these two human beings, a tie so elemental in strength that none of Pauline’s shrewish truculence could ever trouble it seriously. In fact, I rather suspect that they were always putting on a kind of act for their own benefit as well as for that of outsiders”. If we want to know about their sex life, we once again have to turn to Richard’s music. The “Symphonia Domestica”, portrays daily worries and joys, their son Bubi splashing around in the bathtub, a domestic argument between the couple and a passionate and all-consuming reconciliation. There has never been any suggestion or evidence that Richard was unfaithful to Pauline or vise versa. In fact, Pauline was intensely jealous of her husband. At the tender age of eighty, she told a friend “I would still scratch the eyes out of any hussy who was after my Richard”. When Richard died on 12 September 1949 Pauline’s will to live was also broken, and she died only a couple months later in May of 1950.

Beethoven and Napoleon: Beethoven's Eroica

 Beethoven in 1804 by Horneman (L); Napoleon in coronation costume by Robert Lefebvre1807.


Beethoven called his Third Symphony Eroica (“Heroic”). The Eroica is two hundred years old yet still seems modern.

In this symphony Beethoven began to use broad strokes of sound to tell us how he felt, and what being alive meant to him. The piece caused a sensation and changed the idea of what a symphony could be.

When Beethoven called this piece “heroic,” he wasn’t kidding. It’s bigger, longer than a symphony had ever been. It’s confessional, even confrontational.

Just the scale of it was huge, unprecedented—and daunting for its first listeners. It foreshadowed the world that Wagner and, ultimately, Sigmund Freud would explore—the realm of the unconscious. That’s what was so revolutionary.


By late 1803, Beethoven had sketched out his new epic symphony, the Eroica. It was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and dedicated to its hero, who then seemed to be the great liberator of the people: Napoleon.

Beethoven thought of himself as a free spirit, and he admired the principles of freedom and equality embodied by the French Revolution. He thought he recognized in Napoleon a hero of the people and a champion of freedom, which was why he intended to dedicate a huge new symphony to him.

But when Beethoven heard the news in late 1804 that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor of France, he
was disgusted. “He’s just a rascal like all the others,” he exclaimed.Beethoven violently erased Napoleon’s name from his manuscript—so forcefully, in fact, that he erased his way right through the paper, leaving holes in the title page.

So this revolutionary piece of music that was originally to be The Bonaparte Symphony became simply Eroica—the heroic.

But if the hero of the music was no longer Napoleon, who was it? The Eroica explores what it means to be human. In facing his own demons and choosing to continue making music, to continue living, Beethoven embraced the heroic in everyman and, ultimately, in himself.

Beethoven said that this symphony was his favorite. In it, he envisioned where his music was going and in fact where the music of the future was going.

All the works that followed it—by Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler—would have been impossible without the pathfinding steps that Beethoven took in this symphony
.

Read more about the movements of Beethoven's Eroica


Fascinating Stories Behind Classical Music Compositions

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony

Dubbed the Eroica symphony, which means “heroic” in Italian (not “erotic”), Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was initially his tribute to Napoleon, whom he admired. But when Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven angrily declared that Napoleon had become a tyrant and tore out the score’s title page dedicating the symphony to the general-turned-emperor. The Eroica was the first work of Beethoven’s in which he finally arrived at the peak of his composing abilities.



Mozart’s Requiem

If you believe the fantastic 1984 movie “Amadeus,” then Mozart’s rival, Salieri, plotted to kill Mozart while helping the younger artist compose the Requiem, as Mozart lay dying. The truth is somewhat different, and the Salieri plot is a creative fiction. The youthful genius apparently completed only the first movement sometime before his death, while the remaining outlines were completed by others. How much Mozart actually did before he died is still subject to much debate.



Beethoven’s 9th symphony

As you may know, Beethoven eventually lost his hearing. The maestro composed some of his later pieces while literally pounding the piano with his ear close to the keys. When he premiered his magnificent 9th Symphony, he conducted it without hearing a single note. Because of his deafness—and perhaps the fact that he had not conducted in public for 12 years—Beethoven’s conducting was sporadic and unsynchronized with the orchestra. A member of the orchestra even had to turn him around so that he could see the enthusiastic approval of the audience.




Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

People with a passing knowledge of classical music would know this one: Igor Stravinsky’s ballet of pagan springtime rituals sounded, and looked, so bizarre to early 1900s audiences that during its first public performance the audience rioted. It didn’t help matters that the composer and his choreographer came to despise one another. The dance steps, costumes and intricate music didn’t sit well with some in the audience. Soon, supporters and detractors started fistfights, which degenerated into a riot—even though many could no longer hear the music. Musicians were even assaulted. Think about that the next time you hear of an audience going crazy at a rock or rap concert.




Liszt’s Les Preludes

The Nazis used parts of Les Preludes to be the official theme song for the propagandistic German Weekly Newsreel service, circa 1940-1945. (Can you imagine watching news footage of Luftwaffe Stukas dive-bombing Soviet troops and towns with The Prelude blaring, just like Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries was used during the helicopter attack in the movie Apocalypse Now?)



Reposted from Listverse.com

7 Famous Classical Piano Duels

Abbe Gelinek vs. Ludwig van Beethoven

It wouldn’t have made it onto this list were it not for the comment Gelinek made, when asked if he thought he could beat Beethoven in a piano duel. “I’ll make mincemeat of him!”

Well, it was the other way around. Gelinek turned out not to be all that formidable an opponent, although his nerves may have gotten the best of him. After the first round, in which both played their own best, and most difficult works, Gelinek looked a little paler to the audience, probably because Beethoven chose his Sonata 19 in G minor, Op. 49.

Once the improvisations began, Gelinek couldn’t seem to get his head in the game, and Beethoven walked all over him. Gelinek simply left the room when Beethoven began the third round.



Josef Lhevinne vs. Alexander Scriabin

This one never actually took place. But it would have, had Scriabin not strained several of the tendons of his right hand while preparing for the duel. He was practicing Liszt’s Reminiscences de Don Juan, after Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and also Islamey, by Mili Balakirev. Either of these works has a fair claim to the title of most difficult piano piece ever composed.

Lhevinne, however, went down in history as one of the finest pianists ever, having made several recordings of piano rolls, which have left other great pianists, Josef Hofmann and Vladimir Horowitz among them, in awe. You can find some of these on YouTube.

It’s for the best that Scriabin hurt himself, because he wrote his F minor Sonata as a sort of elegy for his right hand. His right hand did however make a full recovery, but he never challenged Lhevinne again.


Daniel Steibelt vs. Beethoven

Is Beethoven less than 31 years old? Then he can still hear himself play. Don’t challenge him. If only Steibelt’s foresight had been as clear as our hindsight. He is referred to as “a most unvirtuous virtuoso,” well-known during his day for spreading false rumors, cheating, stealing money from concert receipts, sleeping with married women, and, among other things, telling everyone he met, even announcing before and after his concert recitals, that Beethoven was a hack performer and scared of him.

Beethoven, for his part, really didn’t care what Steibelt had to say, until Steibelt finally worked up the nerve to challenge him to a duel. This happened in May 1800, when Steibelt traveled to Vienna for the sole purpose of beating Beethoven at his own game. The question most often asked in history class is, “What the hell was he thinking?!”

They met at the house of the Count von Fries, who was a patron and fan of the arts, especially music, and liked Beethoven’s irascible nature. He therefore favored him over Steibelt, but rooted for both fairly as did the rest of the audience, about 100 people, mostly the Count’s entourage.

The duel took place according to traditional conventions: the first round was whatever piece the performer wanted to play, by anyone, and thus the performers chose the most technically difficult piece they knew. Beethoven played a sonata by Mozart. Steibelt played one by Haydn.

The second round was a two-piano contest of alternating improvisations on themes each performer would give the other, making the themes up on the spot. Beethoven soundly won this round.

The third and final round was the most important for testing the true genius of a performer. Each performer would sight-read a new piece written by the other performer. Steibelt went first, playing Beethoven’s brand new Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, Op. 22. He did well enough, garnering a good amount of applause after his improvisations. The Count claims to have seen Beethoven roll his eyes at the applause.

Then Steinbelt tried to trip Beethoven up by giving him a new cello sonata, for cello and piano. This is a breach of the rules, technically, but Beethoven wasn’t about to win on a technicality. He took the score, turned it upside-down on the music rack, and sight-read it backward, then improvised on one of its themes for about 30 minutes.

Steibelt was thoroughly destroyed, and didn’t wait for Beethoven to finish. He walked out and never met with Beethoven again.



Louis Marchand vs. Johann Sebastian Bach


This story has been recounted by most of Bach’s biographers, and told and retold with more and more embellishments. The most authoritative biography of him is by Phillip Spitta, who tells the story as follows.

In September 1717, Bach had become well known throughout Europe as the greatest keyboard performer in Germany. He was not well-known or admired for his compositions, as the Baroque movement was going the way of the Dodo and Bach wrote in an extremely heavy, robust, meat-and-potatoes Baroque style.

Louis Marchand was equally well-known throughout Europe as an outstanding French organist and keyboard performer, and when he heard the tales about Bach’s virtuosity, he traveled to Germany with the express purpose of meeting and defeating Bach.

Bach worked in Weimar at the time, and when they met, Frederick II, the King of Prussia, who was a huge fan of Bach’s music, organized a little harpsichord playoff. Bach arrived first, early in the morning before anyone else, to warm up and stretch his fingers. Marchand walked into the palace, heard these warm-up exercises, turned right around and walked out, got in his carriage and returned to France. He never went to Germany again.


Mozart vs. Muzio Clementi

On Christmas Eve, 1781, Clementi and Mozart met at the court of Franz Joseph II. They were amiable at that time, not bitter rivals, and Clementi’s skill at the keyboard was such that he was able to hold his own with Mozart, all the way to the end. The Emperor called it a draw. They were both required to improvise variations on a theme the Emperor devised on the spot, and Clementi managed to draw equal amounts of applause. They both improvised fugues, waltzes, variations in minor and major.

Mozart and Clementi both agreed afterward that Mozart had won, but these were dubious statements, since Clementi was just being polite, as was his nature, and Mozart did not like Italians, in general. He considered them terrible at music. He wrote to his father, “Clementi plays well, as far as execution with the right hand goes. His greatest strength lies in his passages in thirds. Apart from that, he doesn’t have a kreuzer’s worth of taste or feeling. In short, he is a mere mechanics [robot].” Mozart wrote later, “Clementi is a charlatan, like all Italians. He marks a piece presto but ‘plays’ only ‘allegro.’”

Clementi, for his part, had this to say about Mozart, “Until then I had never heard anyone play with such spirit and grace. I was particularly overwhelmed by an ‘adagio’ and by several of his extempore variations for which the Emperor had chosen the theme, and which we were to devise alternately.”


Joseph Wolfl vs. Ludwig van Beethoven


Beethoven had a bad habit of being good at what he did. That made him a bigger target for other performers trying to carve reputations out of his hide. Wolfl and Beethoven were friends at one time, both having dedicated various works to each other. But Wolfl apparently became malcontent with his status as second in pianistic greatness behind Beethoven, and thus challenged Beethoven to a piano duel, in 1799, at the home of Count Wetzlar, one of Beethoven’s admirers and patrons, and a patron of artists in general.

By the time the duel took place, Wolfl had made a point of playing many recitals and concerts all over Europe, especially in Germany and Austria, where Beethoven would catch wind of his rise, for the sole purpose of building the hype. It worked. Beethoven was informed by his friend, Aton Schindler, that he was no longer without performance competitors. Wolfl was about 6 feet tall and had gigantic hands that could stretch a thirteenth on the piano. Beethoven was only 5’3 and 3/4” and could just manage a tenth. He countered this as all good pianists must by using the pedal to sustain the first note and then quickly hitting the second note, if two notes of a tenth or more have to be spanned. Good pedaling technique renders the results nearly indistinguishable.

But the duel played out in much the same fashion as that of the next year, versus Steibelt. Beethoven and Wolfl were evenly matched after the first round, but in the second and third, Beethoven wiped the floor with Wolfl. When it came to improvisation and sight-reading, Beethoven had no equal during his life. Wolfl was much less spoken of in Austria after this encounter.


Franz Liszt vs. Sigismond Thalberg


The rivalry between Liszt and Thalberg lasted from 1836 to 1842, during which time Thalberg made as many concert tours of Europe as Liszt, playing in the same venues, immediately before or after Liszt, in order to show the musical world that he was the greatest pianist in the world.

The fact that their contest lasted as long as it did is a testament to Thalberg’s virtuosity, since every classical pianist of the 20th Century has agreed that none of them, not even Vladimir Horowitz, could hold a candle to Liszt.

Liszt and Thalberg did not follow the traditional duel format as described earlier. Instead they first tried to trounce each other’s popularity throughout Europe with their concert tours. Both were very well admired, and finally they agreed to meet and settle the score. It all came to a head on March 31, 1837. They had both prepared a new composition each, of the most extreme technical demands, neither knowing that the other was preparing a piece of music expressly for their showdown.

When they met and discovered this, they laughed and readied themselves for a heck of a fight. They were watched by about two-dozen close friends and admirers in the Paris salon of Princess Cristina Belgiojoso. They first played a few pieces each that they had played many times in concerts. Liszt played his Grand Galop Chromatique, which Thalberg countered with his fantasy variations on Bellini’s “Norma.”

They then played their grand finales, the new pieces. Thalberg’s was “Fantasy,” Op. 33, on melodies from Rossini’s “Moise.” Liszt’s was “Reminscences de Robert le Diable,” from Meyerbeer. Both pieces are still played today, although Liszt’s is more well-known, but the result of the duel was reported as a toss-up. Both received standing ovations, but, whereas Thalberg had for years been after Liszt’s crown of the greatest pianist in the world, he never again challenged Liszt to a face-to-face duel. They continued to perform throughout Europe enjoying success, but Liszt’s lasted longer.

Read more at Listverse