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Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten

The Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten served several purposes: it was relatively brief, employed a smaller, more manageable orchestra, and contained music that was still unfamiliar enough to be novel.

Richard Strauss was born in Munich, Germany, on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on September 8, 1949. The opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman Without a Shadow”), one of his collaborations with the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was premiered by the Vienna State Opera on October 10, 1919, Franz Schalk conducting. While living in Switzerland after World War II Strauss created a single-movement Symphonic Fantasy using themes from the opera; this was premiered in Vienna under Karl Böhm’s direction on June 26, 1947.

The score of the Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten calls for 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, basset horn, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 percussion (bass drum, castanets, xylophone, glockenspiel, cymbals, triangle), celesta, organ, 2 harps, and strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses).

Richard Strauss, then thirty-five, met the up-and-coming young writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, ten years his junior, in 1899, but it was after seeing a stunning performance of Hofmannsthal’s play Elektra, based on the ancient Greek myth, in 1905 that he approached the playwright with collaboration in mind. So began the complicated and by turns fruitful and frustrating working relationship that would result not only in the masterpieces Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier but also such lesser-known works as the ballet Josephslegende and Der Bürger als Edelmann. The collaboration remained intense from Elektra through about 1917, when Strauss put the finishing touches on the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. After a hiatus of several years, they worked together once again on Die ägyptische Helena (“The Egyptian Helen,” first produced in 1928) and, finally, Arabella, which Strauss completed after Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929.

As can be gleaned from the source materials of these librettos, which include ancient Greek tragedy, the Hebrew Bible, French comedies of manners, and, in the case of Die Frau ohne Schatten, fairy tale, Hofmannsthal had both classicist and modernist tendencies. Decidedly fixed in early 20th-century aesthetics are the psychological and realist subtleties of his characters. On another level, though, these roles often exhibit the broad outlines of archetypes, whether of the old commedia dell’arte sort or of the Freud/Jung varieties that were very much current in the first decades of the century. In Die Frau ohne Schatten, for example, the significant role-names define their characters’ status in life, not their individualism: the Emperor and Empress, the Nurse, the Dyer, and Female Dyer, usually referred to in English as the Dyer’s Wife. (The Dyer does have a name, Barak, but his identity as a tradesman and merchant are central to his identity.) The narrative’s geography is also archetypal, stratified into the realms of the spirit world (i.e., heaven), the in-between realm of the Emperor and Empress, and finally the lower depths: the earth, inhabited by rough, flawed mortals who toil for a living. Finally, the theme of redemption through self-abnegation and sacrifice is itself a universal narrative.

Strauss, perhaps the greatest master of orchestral color in the history of the medium, had already proven himself equal to the task of illustrating a broad spectrum of characters and moods. In his string of orchestral tone poems stretching from Aus Italien in 1886 through Symphonia domestica in 1903—which is to say prior to turning his attention significantly to opera with Salome (first performed in 1905)—Strauss had delved into travelogue, the experience of death (Death and Transfiguration), episodes in the picaresque, legendary lives of Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Till Eulenspiegel, and into his own life made both legendary (Ein Heldenleben) and cheekily banal (Symphonia domestica). The inventive, symphonic use of the orchestra that he had developed through these programmatic works remained fundamentally the same in his operatic works. This is especially evident in transitional and interlude passages of the various operas, many of which he later excerpted for concert performance, such as the Love Scene from his 1901 stage work Feuersnot (which he conducted with the BSO in 1904, and which Andris Nelsons led here last week), the Interludes from his opera Intermezzo, and the “Moonlight Music” from Capriccio, to name a few examples.

Strauss’s Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten was, in a sense, an act of salvage. Just after World War II the composer was nearly persona non grata, ostensibly for not having fully condemned Hitler’s Nazi regime. While Strauss—who turned 70 in 1934—was not directly complicit with the regime, his voice as an artist of significance was deemed insufficiently loud in opposition to the Third Reich’s oppressive practices. Just after the war he spent an extended period in Switzerland, aware that his comfortable Munich home had been commandeered, performances of his music had all but dried up, and his resources were dwindling. It being easier to interest orchestras and promoters in unperformed works than in older scores, Strauss kept in touch with his conductor allies, offering them new works as he produced them. Several of his “new” scores were reconfigurations of decades-old music, including a concert treatment of the ballet score Josephslegende.

The Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten served several purposes: it was relatively brief, employed a smaller, more manageable orchestra, and contained music that was still unfamiliar enough to be novel. It also gave new life to music from the opera that the composer found compelling, notably concentrating on the mortals and their relationships. Writing to a grandson in summer 1946, Strauss stated, “In the meantime, at the request of my new, very capable London publisher Boosey & Hawkes, I have put together an orchestral fantasia from the best parts of Die Frau ohne Schatten, which should make the work somewhat more popular in concert, since opera performances will probably remain impossible for some time to come. You see, one can still accomplish something worthwhile before one’s 82nd birthday if one has been diligent beforehand.”

Die Frau ohne Schatten had originated with a suggestion by Hofmannsthal to Strauss in about 1911, right after the successful premiere of their comic opera Der Rosenkavalier in January. The initial basis for the libretto was a fairy tale by Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827), “The Stone Heart,” the fantastic and down-to-earth elements of which appealed to Strauss. According to Strauss biographer Norman Del Mar, Hofmannsthal had hopes of delivering the libretto quickly, but in developing its complex network of allegory and symbolism he was unable to do so. Meanwhile he interested Strauss in the multi-phase Bürger aus Edelmann/Ariadne auf Naxos project as well as being tempted by Sergei Diaghilev, successfully, to create a scenario for what would become Strauss’s ballet Josephslegende, composed for the Ballets Russes. Although Strauss completed work on Frau in summer 1917, the recent war’s specter delayed the premiere of this opulent opera for another two years.

The titular woman without a shadow is the Empress, a semi-divine being who has been seduced by the mortal Emperor. For this woman from the spirit world, a shadow is analogous to a human soul and also represents, writes Norman Del Mar, pregnancy or the capability of pregnancy, along with mortality. The Empress is the daughter of a divinity that’s never seen; he deems that if the Empress doesn’t acquire a soul within a year (of which three days remain), her Emperor will be turned to stone. Her guardian, the Nurse, reveals that the Empress can acquire a soul from a mortal; if this happens, though, she—as well as the Nurse—will be denied re-entry to the spirit world. They travel to earth, where dwells a mortal pair complementing the Empress and Emperor, the gentle Färber and his restless, frustrated wife, the Färberin (from the German “Farbe,” for color; both words mean “textile dyer,” the second being feminine). The plot revolves around the machinations of the Empress and Nurse to acquire the Dyer’s Wife’s shadow for the Empress, but the latter ultimately must find a more transcendent path forward.

The Symphonic Fantasy begins with the three-note descending motif in bass winds intoning “Kaikobad,” the Empress’s divine parent. This is entwined with a quick motif associated with the Nurse before the first main section ensues, based on a melody from an Act I orchestral interlude meant to show the Dyer’s goodness. The shimmering music of the following extended section comes from a scene in which the Nurse shows the Dyer’s Wife the glittering, luxurious world that could be hers if she sold her shadow. This is followed by a lilting theme representing the Dyer’s Wife’s ideal lover conjured up by the Nurse and a passage reconstructing an Act III duet between the Dyer and his wife, solo trombone taking the Dyer’s vocal part. The transformation that the Dyer and his Wife and the Emperor and Empress attain as a reward for self-reflection and self-denial surges through the final orchestral climax.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.

These are the first BSO performances of Strauss’s Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten, though Erich Leinsdorf devised his own suite from the opera, which he conducted with the BSO first in February 1961 at Symphony Hall and on a brief tour including New York City, Providence, and the University of Connecticut, then again after becoming the BSO’s music director, leading the suite in Boston in April 1964 and at Tanglewood that July. In July 2017 in Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, Andris Nelsons led Tanglewood Music Center Fellows (plus BSO tuba Mike Roylance) in music from the opera arranged for brass ensemble by BSO Associate Principal Horn Richard Sebring.