Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and Der Rosenkavalier

Strauss was the son of an important German musician, the horn-player Franz Strauss, and Josepha Pschorr, a fine amateur musician and member of the Munich Pschorrbräu brewing family whose establishment originally opened in 1416 and closed in 1998 (the beer is now brewed by Paulaner and is still available). He was not related to the family of Waltz Kings, even though the brilliant waltzes and waltz-like moments in Der Rosenkavalier would lead one to think so. Richard’s interest in music was greatly encouraged in his family environment, especially by the father who spent 42 years in the Munich court orchestra and played regularly at the behest of Richard Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival every summer. Although the father was not at all taken with the music of Wagner (nor of his philosophical beliefs), the younger Strauss fell under the spell of Tristan und Isolde at the age of 17 and was influenced for life. He began composing very early on and studied piano as well as the violin. Frequent visits to the Munich court orchestra rehearsals and studies in music theory, harmony and orchestration with their conductor furthered his musical education. At this time he began writing works for orchestra as well as chamber music and lieder. By the 1890s he was already a well-known composer. With conducting and artistic director posts at Meiningen, the Munich Hofoper, the Vienna State Opera and the Berlin Staatsoper he was also considered a leading figure on the concert stage and in the opera house, leading performances of other young German speaking composers like Korngold, Schreker and Zemlinsky.

Strauss’s opera career began with Guntram (1894), a work heavily influenced by Wagner, and continued with Feuersnot (1901) a comic work with erotic overtones that so scandalized the Kaiser that he ordered the Berlin production shut down. Strauss had a penchant for scandal, as is reflected in his choice of libretti for the next two operas, Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (1905) and a setting of Sophocles’ Elektra (1909) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The teaming with the younger Hofmannsthal proved more than satisfactory to the composer and it resulted in six operas including: Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Die ägyptische Helena (1928) and Arabella (1933).

Not entirely comfortable with each other face to face, Hofmannsthal and Strauss corresponded with each other on aesthetic, musical and dramatic issues constantly during their active years together. It is possible, therefore, to see in minute detail the transformation of these great works from seminal idea to completion. It was during the composition of Elektra that Strauss began to search for an idea for further collaboration with the poet, wanting to back off of the intense tragedy and lurid subject matter of the previous two operas and present something comic and sentimental, a kind of Der Fledermaus II. Hofmannsthal presented the idea of a sentimental sex comedy based on the novel Les amours du chevalier de Faublas by Couvray as well as some concepts from Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. It was this idea, with some modifications, that Strauss embraced.

The essence of the scenario was the outwitting of the lecherous Baron Ochs (literally, ‘ox’) by the 17-year-old Octavian who moves from being the much younger lover of the Field Marshal’s wife (Feldmarschallin) Marie Thérèse to the fiancée of the young Sophie, originally intended for Ochs. Through the fleshing out of the characters in collaboration with Strauss the Marschallin gained dramatic ground, eventually becoming not only the principal role in the opera but one of the most thoroughly drawn characters in all opera. Strauss immediately realized the genius of Hofmannsthal’s text, layered with psychological meaning and human detail, and met the challenge of the libretto by providing brilliant music for a large orchestra and 26 singers. The opera, under the stage direction of the great Max Reinhardt and the baton of Ernst von Schuch, was a great success at its premiere in Dresden on January 26, 1911 and immediately took other theatres in Europe by storm, quickly becoming audiences’ favorite Strauss score.

The Music of Der Rosenkavalier

Being a composer from the Austro-Germanic tradition (Mozart-Haydn-Beethoven and, above all, Wagner), Strauss was a composer who worked from small ‘cells’ or motives to derive a cyclical, through-composed texture for his scores. The influence of Wagner was so strong that Strauss was unable to break with the leitmotif practice, attaching certain motives (or brief, musical ideas) to characters, situations and psychological characteristics. Unlike Wagner he was much freer with his use of the leitmotif and not tied to any kind of dogmatic consistency. The use of motives that he then develops after they appear in the score (parallel to the development of the drama) is definitely Strauss’s starting point and in the complicated comic situations of Der Rosenkavalier the motivic play almost provides a ‘road map’ to the actions of the characters.

The very opening of the opera (a three or four minute introduction that describes quite frankly the intense lovemaking of the Marschallin and her handsome young lover Octavian) introduces the first two motives of the opera. The bold, virile and sexually-charged horn theme is a motive that is attached to Octavian; the string response that immediately follows is associated with the Marschallin. Thereafter in the score these ideas are used to develop further motives to be attached to these characters. The same technique is applied to the other characters Ochs, Sophie, Faninal, etc.

The use of the Viennese waltz form throughout the opera, although anachronistic (no such form of the waltz existed in 1740s Vienna), gives the right sense of ‘lightness’ and atmosphere to the score. Italian audiences were shocked by the inclusion of the waltz, the Viennese (critics, at least) dismissed it, but most audiences are charmed by the various appearances of the dance form. It’s been pointed out by Georg Solti that the waltz is a musical metaphor in the opera for characters lying, hiding their identities or practicing some sort of subterfuge. This description bears up extremely well throughout especially given the character of some of these waltz statements: something rustic (a ländler, perhaps?) for Octavian’s Mariandel, something awkward and bumptious for Ochs, something more elegant and operetta-like for the Marschallin. Think of Der Rosenkavalier as a multi-layered and more brilliantly orchestrated Die Fledermaus and one has a good basis for beginning to understand its music!

The Sources of Der Rosenkavalier

Hugo von Hofmannsthal was a brilliant dramatist, poet and Francophile (much like Puccini, a number of whose operas have a French source). Not surprisingly, therefore, the sources for Der Rosenkavalier are Molière’s comedies Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669) and Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671), and Louvet de Couvray’s novel-memoir Les Aventures du Chevalier de Faublas (1781), with touches of Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro (1784) thrown in for good measure. Hofmannsthal was also inspired by the diaries of Empress Maria Theresa’s Master of the Household whose formal ceremonial style the poet was able to impart to some of the characters in the opera. The diaries also helped place the story of the opera in the 1740s, assisting Hofmannsthal to capture the spirit and trappings of the Viennese imperial court for the Marschallin’s palace. For Ochs, Hofmannsthal acquired a kind of Viennese dialect, slang and idiomatic turns of phrase much of which are of the poet’s own invention. (Even the “tradition” of the Cavalier or Bearer of the Rose is wholly invented; there was no such tradition.)

Special mention should be made of Octavian, the “boy-lover” of the Marschallin who is played by a female singer (mezzo-soprano). This gender-bending tradition goes way back in opera and drama as Alan Jefferson points out in his Der Rosenkavalier monograph for the Cambridge Opera Handbook series: “Shakespeare exploited the fact that his girls were always played by boys anyway; Hofmannsthal had his boy played by a girl. This produces a sexual ambiguity which can be developed in various situations of misunderstanding: the young leading character moves in and out of sexual roles as he/she moves in and out of female/male costume”. Octavian is a cousin of Cherubino in Mozart’s Figaro who is an older adolescent just coming into sexual maturity; but in Strauss’ opera, like Faublas in Couvray’s novel, he needs the direction and security of an older ‘tutor’. It is as if (as Jefferson points out) Mozart’s Countess and Cherubino launch a torrid affair, something that Beaumarchais actually explored in the third of his Figaro plays, La mère coupable.

It is interesting to note all of the well-established plot elements that Hofmannsthal includes in his libretto of Der Rosenkavalier that are found even in ancient, classical literature: love at first sight, the promise in marriage of a young, beautiful virgin to a lecherous old man, the country bumpkin putting on airs, the mistaken gender identities. To top this the poet adds the touching release of Octavian to Sophie by the Marschallin at the end of the opera, an act of true sacrificial love that both the poet and Strauss hoped would draw tears from the eyes of the audience. It does. But it is also a true comedy. Strauss insisted upon it in a letter admonishing Hoffmansthal during the time of creation: “Don’t forget that the audience should also laugh! Laugh, not just smile or grin! I still miss in our work a genuinely comical situation: everything is merely amusing, but not comic!

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