Cast in six interlinked sections and taking on the shape of a vast sonata movement, Ein Heldenleben begins by offering an idealised portrait of the hero, followed by charting his adversaries, his companion, his deeds in war, his works for peace and, finally, his retirement from the world. Yet the hero's companion takes on the shape of Strauss's wife, the opera singer Pauline; his adversaries are not military enemies but music critics; and the works for peace section consists of a brilliant tapestry of self- quotation from a host of Strauss's previous opuses.
It's all led some detractors to conclude that Heldenleben is little more than an overblown late Romantic and perhaps peculiarly Germanic piece of self-publicity. Which is perhaps to deny the obvious tongue-in-cheek nature of the entire enterprise, for the work abounds in wit and genial good humour. Yet leaving aside the autobiographical element altogether, one can't help marvel at Strauss's brilliant powers of invention or his ravishing scoring. He employs a massive orchestra, replete with elaborate percussion and a prominent octet of horns - instruments he described as "well versed in heroism."
The results amount to a splendid, vivid and virtuoso score which can test any orchestra and conductor to their limits. And even if the thrust of Ein Heldenleben is autobiographical, so what? It's a deliberately idealised form of autobiography, brimming with bathos. Irreverent and self-parodic, Heldenleben now comes over as an almost post-modern concoction which makes it as audacious today as it was when Strauss wrote it 99 years ago.
EYE ON THE NEW
A close friend of Grieg, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky and championed by, amongst others, Brahms, Beecham and Boult, yet half a century after her death (yes, her death), she is largely forgotten. The composer in question is Dame Ethel Smythe. The Dulwich Choral Society and the Ruskin Orchestra, conducted by Susan Farrow, attempt to make amends for this sorry state of affairs with an evening dedicated to her work. It features Smythe's March of the Women and Mass in D. Blackheath Concert Halls, (0181-463 0100), Blackheath, London SE3, tonight, 7.30pmReuse content