This European tour has been particularly exciting for me because we are performing Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben in many of our concerts. In addition to its status as one of the greatest tone poems, Heldenleben also features the perhaps the biggest and most challenging concertmaster solo in the standard orchestral repertoire. For virtually every concertmaster audition, the Heldenleben solo is a requirement.
Today I will write about what makes this solo great, and how I approach playing it. Ein Heldenleben means “A Hero’s Life.” In this case, the not-so-humble hero is Richard Strauss himself. The first two sections of the piece introduce the hero, depicted by a majestic theme in the low strings and horns, and then the hero’s critics, who are depicted with sarcastic and cacophonous music by the winds and brass. The third section of the piece introduces Strauss’ wife, Pauline de Ahna, who is represented by the solo violin. Pauline was a soprano and, by all accounts, quite a character. Richard Strauss himself wrote of his wife:
“She is very complex, very much a woman, a little depraved, something of a flirt, never twice alike, every moment different from what she was the moment before. At the beginning, the hero follows her, goes into the key she has just sung, but she always flies away. Then at the end she says, ‘No, I’m staying here.’ He stays in his thought, far away. Then she comes to him.”
Strauss provides fantastically detailed performance instructions for the solo violin, writing descriptions such as “heuchlerisch schmachtend” (hypocritically langourous), “zart, etwas sentimental” (sweet, somewhat sentimental), “übermütig” (carefree) and “zornig” (angry).
Strauss’ writing for the violin solo is difficult and technically challenging. It poses the sort of technical difficulties that one would find in the violin concertos of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius or Paganini. I find an additional challenge in performance is that the concertmaster must switch suddenly from playing as a member of the violin section to an extended solo role. This requires an immediate change in approach for sound production and expression. The opening of the solo is quite literally composed to depict everything stopping in its tracks. The spotlight suddenly shines on the solo violin, as Pauline enters the room and commands Strauss’ attention. Throughout the “Hero’s Companion” section of the piece, there is a dialogue between Pauline and her husband. However, it is a bit one-sided at first. Pauline shows many sides of her character, changing constantly from sweet, to flirtatious, to melancholy. Strauss just sits there, lumbering around, as depicted by the low strings. I imagine him sitting in an armchair, enjoying a beer and responding his wife’s antics with a simple “Yes, dear.”
Pauline continues to egg him on though, becoming more and more agitated. Finally Strauss is aroused from his stupor. There is musical depiction of a slap to the cheek, and Pauline flies into a rage. She eventually calms, and the two reconcile. The full orchestra enters then with lush, romantic music.
Despite the technical challenges of the Heldenleben solo, I find it incredibly rewarding and enjoyable to play. Depicting Pauline Strauss with the violin requires imagination, humor and flexibility. When I practice the solo, I spend a lot of time experimenting with different timing and color. I take inspiration from Strauss’ description of his wife, in particular that she is “never twice alike, every moment different.” I cannot be too predictable in my musical depiction. Each performance is different. It has been a wonderful experience on tour so far, as I try to use each concert hall to inform my interpretation that night.
Ein Heldenleben there is another extended violin solo, this time a duet with the solo horn. As in many of Strauss’ works, the horn represents the hero. Richard Strauss’ father was a horn player in the Bavarian State Opera, which may explain how prominently it is featured in Strauss’ works.
For me, this final duet between violin and horn is the heart of the piece. After all the drama and consternation of the previous 40 minutes of music, husband and wife are reconciled, and retreat from the outside world together in harmony. I have the privilege to play this duet with Bill Caballero, who plays the horn sol with impeccable control, inspired timing and a gorgeous tone. It is truly inspiring to play with him.
As the music dies away, decreasing both in tempo and volume, the solo violin slowly ascends to the top of its range, while the horn simultaneously descends.
It requires total control and concentration, which is always a challenge at the very end of a concert.
Performing Heldenleben with the Pittsburgh Symphony in the great concert halls of Europe has been a dream come true for me. I am continually inspired by my colleagues. Each performance is a new challenge that I look forward to and enjoy.