Woodwind Ensemble Program Notes
Suite in B-flat, Op. 4
RICHARD STRAUSS (1864-1949)
There is no particular reason why Richard Strauss should have ever composed any music for winds, even though his father, Franz Strauss, made his living as a hornist in the Bavarian Court Opera Orchestra and was renowned as one of the greatest wind players of his day. Nearly all of Richard’s early experiences with music were connected with the opera, its orchestra, and music-making within the extended family. By age ten, it was clear that the young Strauss was serious about composition, and so in 1875 he began a systematic study of composition (under Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer, an assistant conductor at the Court Opera), and over the next five years, Strauss produced Hausmusik for family use and also a modest series of larger works for orchestra that may have been his composition assignments. After completing his formal studies, Strauss began work on his most ambitious composition to date, a Symphony in D-minor, which was immediately followed by a String Quartet. Both premiered early the next year, and the Quartet was quickly published. From all outward appearances, Strauss was embarking on a career as a serious composer of art music.
And then, with no signs of any music for winds in the more than 100 works drafted by Strauss up to that time, he composed the Serenade, Op. 7 in 1881. His father was an avowed anti-Wagnerian, who barely tolerated any composers much beyond Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven, and thus the model for his son’s Serenade is Mozart’s seven-movement Serenade in B-flat, K. 361. Strauss’s ensemble does differ slightly from Mozart’s, who called for pairs of oboes, clarinets, basset-horns, and bassoons, augmented by four horns and a double bass. In contrast, Strauss uses the standard four pairs of orchestral winds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons), along with four horns and “contrabassoon or tuba.” Hans von Bülow added the piece to the repertoire of the Meiningen Orchestra in the winter of 1883-84, and it was an immediate success. Although many years later, Strauss would describe the Serenade as “nothing more than the respectable work of a music student,” it gave him his first significant triumph, and thus it is not surprising that he sought to recapture that success almost immediately.
Within a few months after the Meiningen performances of the Serenade, Strauss had begun drafting a multi-movement work for the same thirteen instruments. Around that time, Bülow wrote to Strauss with a detailed plan for a multi-movement work for the same ensemble. Bülow’s advice arrived too late for Strauss to follow completely, but he did use some of those suggestions in the four-movement Suite, Op. 4, which Strauss gave to Bülow in the fall of 1884.
As a whole, Strauss’s compositional technique is secure in this work, and his handling of the instruments is nearly symphonic at times. Nevertheless, the Suite has been somewhat less successful than the Serenade, perhaps because the Serenade is much more tuneful—like Mozart’s music it is essentially operatic. The Suite, on the other hand, looks forward to Strauss’s symphonic works (which began immediately following it), and is more motivically dense and a study in compositional craftsmanship.
The opening “Präludium” is a straightforward sonata-allegro movement based on the short motive that opens the work. Although there is a contrasting second theme, there is little development. This is a similar design to the Serenade, and may have been a way for Strauss to confirm his handling of the ensemble before venturing into the more varied music of the other movements. The second movement is a “Romanze” of similar design. The most concertante of all the movements, it has a prominent role for the clarinet.
As the first two movements perhaps look backward to the Serenade, the final two seem to be moving forward to Strauss’s mature symphonic style. The third movement is labeled “Gavotte,” but the movement has little to do with the eighteenth-century French court dance implied by that title. Rather, its playfulness suggests the mood of a scherzo (but in duple meter). The basic idea is a simple three-note chromatic descent, introduced in whole notes. After it is repeated twice in diminution, Strauss decorates the first two notes with upper neighbors and the third note with a descending fourth. Finally, only the basic rhythm of the decorated version is reiterated by the horns. All of this deceptively simple development takes place in just four measures, and when played in Strauss’s colorful, soloistic scoring it provides more than enough material for the movement.
The finale, an “Introduction und Fuge,” is compositional and instrumental tour-de-force. Strauss’s manipulation of his materials is impressive, and, with the benefit of hindsight, we can hear sounds that prefigure some of Strauss’s great orchestral wind writing.
(Adapted from Notes by Michael Votta)