I have written about Richard Strauss on a previous post (‘Adrenaline Rush’), but that was to share my love of his rich orchestration. Today I pose another challenge: did any composer, I wonder, understand – really understand – the true scope, range and possibilities of the soprano voice as well as Strauss? That is quite a bold assertion when you consider the huge competition; but my guess is that it would find a high level of support among sopranos anyway, of which his wife, Pauline, was one. She was about as fine a personification of the ‘prima donna’ as you could expect to meet, and their marriage was volatile; but their mutual love of music probably accounts for Strauss’s exquisite compositions for the human voice.
I will not deter you now on his operatic output, of which there were fifteen, except to allude to a comment I once heard made by Kate Royal, a fine English soprano, to underline Strauss’s mastery. The last twenty minutes of his opera ‘Der Rosenkavalier‘ would never lose its slot in my Desert Island Discs, being filled with the most sublime mingling of female voices: Royal said something along the lines of, “It’s one of those moments when you just stand and sing” – nothing else required.
Today’s piece will detain you for less than two minutes, but its three brief verses are all very slightly different, and a couple of hearings will reveal its subtle musical development. Strauss wrote over 200 songs, and many of those originally written for voice and piano were later orchestrated. ‘Zueignung‘ (‘Devotion‘) is one such, but the version I have chosen is with the piano, here played so sensitively by the renowned Strauss interpreter, Wolfgang Sawallisch. It is a little gem, composed in 1885, set to the words by the poet Hermann von Gilm. I remember seeing the American singer, Renee Fleming, perform Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs‘ at the proms a few years ago and mentally begging her to sing ‘Zueignung‘ as an encore. Never underestimate the power of wishful thinking! I have scrolled through a number of recordings, but it is the purity of Lucia Popp I cannot resist. The touching, pining, lyrics end with the lines ‘Heilig, heilig an’s Herz dir sank, Habe Dank.’ ( Joy and bliss shall thy love impart.Thanks, sweet heart!)
There are some who argue that German is an unmusical language. It was Lady Bracknell, of all people, who, when commenting on a programme of songs in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Ernest‘ said ‘French songs I cannot possibly allow…but German sounds a thoroughly respectable language‘. A slightly tenuous link on the face of it, but the two men had more in common than you might expect: Strauss’s controversial opera ‘Salome‘ was based on a play by Wilde.
I hope you enjoy this, it is gorgeous.