- Composer’s life: Born June 11, 1864, in Munich, Germany; died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, Germany
- Year completed: 1923 (opera); 1929 (concert version)
- First performance: November 4, 1924, Staatsoper Dresden
- First BSO subscription performances: April 28-30, 2022
- Approximate duration: 9 minutes
The score of the Interludes from Intermezzo calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (cymbals, triangle, snare drum), harp, piano, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The second interlude, “Dreaming by the Fireside,” is about 9 minutes long.
“What could be more serious than married life?” Richard Strauss once remarked about Symphonia domestica (1904). “Marriage is the most profound event in life and the spiritual joy of such a union is elevated by the arrival of a child.” On the surface the remark appears to be a pointed defense of his early 20th-century domestic symphony, criticized by a press who saw the sacred art of music desecrated in a sonic celebration of everyday family life. Strauss, of course, was quite serious, and his preoccupation with marriage and fidelity—with domestic relationships—formed a continuous thread throughout his mature career. Indeed, Strauss proudly asserted in a letter to his wife, Pauline, that his life was concerned with only three things: “nature, notes, and his family.”
Strauss created a triptych of marriage operas beginning with Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), continuing with Intermezzo (1924), and completed with the composition of Die ägyptische Helena (1928). The bookend opera libretti were written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, while the centerpiece was an autobiographical domestic comedy with text by Strauss himself. Die Frau ohne Schatten explores marriage on metaphysical and human levels; Intermezzo uses the topic of fidelity as material for an autobiographical bourgeois sex comedy; while Die ägyptische Helena delves into the symbolic implications of the marital bond through classical mythology. There are certainly other Strauss operas that deal with betrothal, but none of them ever explored what that matrimonial bond might actually become. That sense of “becoming,” in the worldview of Strauss has partly to do with the “elevating” phenomenon of a child, who plays a small part but large role in all three of the operas, born and unborn.
With his Symphonia domestica, Strauss shocked his critics with a depiction of banal family life that debunked this sacred German genre of symphony by removing it from its elevated aura, which the composer believed had become moribund in a modern world. Idealized, romantic notions of the eternal feminine, or its turn-of-the century inversion, the femme fatale, no longer interested Strauss, who never returned to such constructs after Elektra. Strauss recognized in Wagner an inability to reconcile passion and fidelity, and, beginning with Ariadne auf Naxos, such reconciliation became his own artistic goal. Wagner was the first major German composer for whom the dual personae of bourgeois and artist were in constant conflict, as it would be for a generation of composers to follow. Strauss, however, rejected this conflict, judging such a late-Romantic opposition as unfeasible for the 20th century and embracing the bourgeoisie of a new generation.
Intermezzo, a controversial autobiographical stage comedy and prototype of the Weimar-era Zeitoper (topical opera) with its workaday, prosaic qualities, throws the vicissitudes of married life into high relief. In all three of Strauss’s marriage operas, the troubling domestic themes involve such eternal and topical issues as infidelity, mistrust, vanity, impotence, infertility, and separation (and in Intermezzo, even a call for divorce). As Strauss’s work on Die Frau ohne Schatten wound down in early autumn 1916, he was thinking of new operatic projects, which he suggested to Hofmannsthal: among other things, a modern domestic comedy. Hofmannsthal begged off, it was so crassly autobiographical, and he suggested that Strauss work with the Viennese writer Hermann Bahr, who soon withdrew. Unrattled, Strauss pushed ahead with his comedy, ultimately deciding to write the libretto himself.
The opera’s story curiously dates to the very time when he was devising his Symphonia domestica while touring on the Isle of Wight in 1902. In a state of domestic bliss, the composer devised his “symphonic self- and family portrait,” originally to be called “My Home.” The earliest sketch was a little verse, an extension of his triangular focus on “notes, nature, and his family”:
My wife, my child, my music,
Nature and sun, they are my joy,
A little calm and much humor,
There even the devil can teach me nothing!
While still indulging in domestic fantasy, Strauss received a bolt from the blue, an angry letter from his wife Pauline, accusing him of adultery and demanding an immediate divorce. Pauline, who routinely read his mail, had opened a letter from a young woman who wrote:
Sorry, but I waited in vain for you yesterday at the Union Bar. Would you thus be so friendly and make available a pair of tickets for Monday or Wednesday of this week?
Strauss was dumbfounded and entirely innocent, the victim of mistaken identity. But even after he got to the bottom of the mystery—the letter was intended for the conductor Joseph Stransky (whose nickname was “Straussky)—Pauline was not easily assuaged. In a characteristically Straussian way, he turned this painful period in their relationship into material for an autobiographical comedy where Richard became Robert Storch (the opera’s baritone principal) and Pauline, Christine (the principal soprano role).
He had composed comedies before, but this one Strauss believed to be unique, an “anti-opera,” as he explained:
By turning its back on the popular love-and-murder interest of the usual opera libretto, and by taking its subject matter perhaps too exclusively from real life, this new work blazes a path for musical and dramatic composition which others after me perhaps will negotiate with more talent and better fortune.
Strauss subtitled his new work as a “Bourgeois Comedy with Symphonic Interludes.” One of the most innovative aspects of Intermezzo is the filmic structure of this stage work. Over two acts there are more than a dozen “Kinobilder” (cinematic scenes): short, open-ended, and (with stage lighting) often employing “cinematic” dissolves. The scenes are quite chatty, while the lyricism is given to the orchestral interlude. Act I revolves around Christine as she makes her accusations and threats, while Act II belongs mostly to Robert as he gathers facts for his defense, though they sing a lovely duet of reconciliation at the end.
Within a few years of the opera’s 1924 premiere in Dresden, Strauss put together a suite of his four favorite interludes, which also express the emotional variety of the score. The first and longest interlude, “Travel Fever and Waltz Scene,” conflates two orchestral scenes: the first where Christine nervously prepares her husband for a concert tour and, second, at a dance where Christine, now absent from Storch, flirts and dances with a young baron.
“Dreaming by the Fireside” is not a true interlude, but this lyrical moment of rhapsody is one of the most poignant and intense in the entire opera. Christine sits alone by the fireplace yearning for her husband. The orchestration is luminescent, with a beautiful soaring theme in the clarinet playing in depth, radiance, and beauty against the strings. She drops her posturing and expresses her honest feelings of love towards her husband. “ ‘Now here I sit, alone again! My dear man! He is so good and faithful. Oh, these long, lonely evenings’ (she sinks into dream).”
The third Interlude, “At the Card Table,” begins Act II, with Storch playing Skat—Strauss’s favorite leisurely activity, and in the fourth, “Happy Conclusion,” Storch has been vindicated and joyfully returns home to be reconciled with his wife, Christine.
Though it is hard to believe, the Strauss family has always maintained that Strauss’s wife, Pauline, had no idea that she was about to see an opera based on a very private moment in her own domestic life. It is to her credit that, whatever the case, she took it in stride.
Professor Emeritus of Music at Duke University, Bryan Gilliam is a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century German music. He is the author of The life of Richard Strauss in the Cambridge Musical lives series as well as editor of several volumes of Strauss scholarship. His most recent book is Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera.