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‘Love Scene’ from Feuersnot

Can a desire for revenge be the main source of inspiration for writing an opera? Richard Strauss seemed to believe so.

Richard Strauss was born in Munich, Germany, on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on September 8, 1949. He wrote his one-act “Singgedicht” (“sung poem”) at the end of 1900 and completed the orchestration at the start of the following year. It was premiered at the Dresden Royal Opera on November 21, 1901, Ernst von Schuch conducting.

The score for the Love Scene from Feuersnot calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (4 players: bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tamtam, glockenspiel), 2 harps, and strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses), plus offstage harmonium and optional offstage harp and glockenspiel.

Can a desire for revenge be the main source of inspiration for writing an opera? Richard Strauss seemed to believe so:

“After the failure of Guntram I had lost some of my courage to write for the stage. It was then that I came across the Flemish legend The Quenched Fires of Audenarde, which gave me the idea of writing, with personal motives, a small intermezzo against the theater, to wreak some vengeance on my dear native town where I, little Richard the third (there is no ‘second,’ Hans von Bülow once said) had just like the great Richard the first (i.e., Wagner) thirty years before, had such unpleasant experiences” (Strauss, Recollections and Reflections, 1949). In Ernst von Wolzogen, a multi-faceted writer known for his social-critical novels and founder of the Free Literary Society of Munich, he found a kindred spirit as he too was a victim of Munich’s bourgeois provincialism and conservativism. Together, they decided to mock the city that, on top of rejecting them, had also failed to recognize Richard Wagner’s genius thirty years before.

“In the last weeks of my stay in Munich, I met with Richard Strauss, who resented his hometown as much as I did because of the bad reception it had given his first opera Guntram. And so we sat down and hatched a plan of revenge which later took the artistic form of Feuersnot…” (Wolzogen, Wie ich mich ums Leben brachte [How I Killed Myself], 1922).

Wolzogen suggested to move the action of the Flemish tale to Munich and tone down some of the lewd aspects of the original. He wrote the libretto within a few days during the summer of 1900. Strauss then composed the music between September and December 30, 1900, completing the orchestral score within the following five months. It is worth mentioning that, in the meantime, Wolzogen opened one of the first literary cabarets in Germany, the “Überbrettl” in Berlin, modeled after the Parisian “Chat noir” and famous for its irreverence toward the petits bourgeois.

The resulting work, Feuersnot (literally “famine of fire”), is a highly original and provocative plot with an erotically charged atmosphere, ironic-parodic use of rhymes using Bavarian dialect, innumerable textual and musical allusions (Wagner leitmotifs, traditional folksongs, and even quotes from Strauss’s own works). Its use of colorful and huge orchestral forces reminds one of the composer’s very successful symphonic poems, such as Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and A Heroic Life, composed a few years before.

The story, set in Munich on midsummer’s night in a “fictional time,” revolves around a craftsman named Kunrad (representing Strauss himself) who publicly humiliates Diemut, the mayor’s daughter, by stealing a kiss from her. With her friends, Diemut plots her revenge. She tricks Kunrad into believing that she loves him and convinces him to climb into a basket so he can come visit her in her room. Then she leaves him hanging halfway up, exposed to the ridicule of the townsfolk. Outraged and humiliated, Kunrad—who turns out to be the apprentice of the great magician Reichhart (meaning Richard Wagner), who himself was once expelled by the people of Munich—uses a mysterious power to extinguish all the fires in the city. He curses the “philistines” and tells them that only when Diemut returns his love will he give them back the light. A submissive Diemut realizes that the town is suffering because of her prudery and leads Kunrad indoors. As the couple consummates their love behind closed doors (the orchestral interlude Love Scene leaving little to the imagination!), lights finally blaze again all over the town.

Feuersnot was premiered at the Dresden Royal Opera (today called the Semperoper) with considerable success and inaugurated a long collaboration between that company and Strauss: no less than eight more of his operatic works were to be premiered there. Staged in Vienna shortly after with Gustav Mahler conducting, Feuersnot made its way throughout Europe before finally arriving in the U.S. (Philadelphia) in 1927. Between 1901 and 1938, Richard Strauss conducted an impressive forty-five staged performances of Feuersnot. Never losing an opportunity to make his music better known, he also conducted the Love Scene on several occasions as part of orchestral concerts (including with the BSO at Symphony Hall in 1904) and even recorded it as early as 1906 for the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano company.

The Love Scene is the culmination of the opera. Rather than a mystical Wagnerian “redemption through love” à la Tristan und Isolde, it expresses a very Straussian—and, seen with today’s eyes, slightly disturbing — “redemption through sex.” It begins immediately after the townspeople have gathered eagerly to watch Diemut’s window, hoping to get their fire back. In the score, one reads: “It is pitch black. Through Diemut’s window a faint, ghostly flicker can be seen.” Depicting the couple’s feverish passion, the orchestra gains momentum as displayed by the score indications: “very solemnly,” “animated,” “expressive,” “more passionate,” “very agitated,” “very passionately moving,” “very passionate,” “increasingly animated.” As the music finally reaches its climax, a short pause; the score indicates, “At that moment, all the fires (the pyre in front of the gate, the citizens’ lanterns, the torches of the armed men, the lights in the houses) blaze up at once. The people greet the regained light with shouts of joy.” The orchestra resumes, fortissimo, and Richard Strauss, the magician of sound, can once again display his symphonic panache.

The operas Salome, Elektra, and The Rosenkavalier, to name only a few, will continue in that direction.

“All warmth springs from woman,
All light stems from love…
For that is the very moral of this little poem.”

-Wolzogen, Wie ich mich ums Leben brachte, 1922

Jean-Pascal Vachon

A freelance musicologist based in Vienna, Canadian-born Jean-Pascal Vachon writes liner notes for BIS records and gives music history courses and lectures in Europe and North America at various institutions, including Webster University (in Saint Louis and Vienna) and the Donau-Universität in Krems, Austria.

The first BSO performances of the Love Scene from Feuersnot, which may have been the first American performances, were led by Wilhelm Gericke in March 1902. Strauss himself led a performance of the Love Scene here on April 19, 1904, and Max Fiedler led it here and on an East Coast tour in 1908. The most recent performances of this music by the BSO were under Max Fiedler’s direction in December 1911.