A few weeks ago we finally introduced Richard Strauss to this ongoing feature, and now we continue! When I wrote about Eine Alpensinfonie, I noted that I came to Strauss at the end of his tone-poem career: though he composed a great deal of music after that work in the thirty years or so he had left, he never wrote another tone poem. Now we’re rolling things back to the beginning of Strauss’s tone-poem career, with a work that, like Eine Alpensinfonie, is generally not ranked among his great masterpieces of the genre. But unlike that work, this one is seen as showing the promise of a young composer just entering his prime. The work is Aus Italien, or, From Italy.
Aus Italien is a four-movement work that seems somewhere between a proper abstract traditional symphony and a purely descriptive work. In terms of form, one can sense the influence of Hector Berlioz, but Strauss goes even farther than Berlioz did; Berlioz may have incorporated descriptive elements into his first two symphonies, but they are still primarily symphonies. Strauss, on the other hand, eschews the traditional forms of the classical symphony for a sequence of four movements of descriptive, programmatic music tied together by stated theme. The movements are:
- Auf der Campagna (On the Roman Campagna)
- In Roms Ruinen (In the Ruins of Rome)
- Am Strande von Sorrent (On the Sorrento Beach)
- Neapolitanisches Volksleben (Neapolitan Folk Life)
The work is lyrical and colorful throughout, and if it lacks the profound insight that marks Strauss’s finest tone poems, it still abounds with orchestral flash and pictorial color. In the fourth movement one will note the familiar strains of the song “Funiculi, Funicula”, which Strauss used thinking it was a folk song and not a composed work that was under copyright. This ended up costing Strauss a legal judgment, which must have annoyed the composer greatly. Strauss was always aware of his finances, and there is a story, possibly apocryphal, in which Strauss was greeted by his son upon returning home from a conducting engagement. When his son asked, “Did they pay you, Father?” Strauss wrapped his son in an embrace and said, “Now I know you are my son.”
The moral is, make sure your folk material is actually folk material!
Here is Aus Italien by Richard Strauss.