“He always had music in his head”

19 Apr 2022

Musicologist Hartmut Schick is opening up a new perspective on the musical oeuvre of Richard Strauss, a composer who was ahead of his time.

Professor Hartmut Schick stands in front of a piano

Prof. Hartmut Schick:

"You cannot help but marvel at the somnambulistic certainty with which Strauss wrote down hyper-complex scores." | © LMU

Editing the works of Richard Strauss is not just very exciting from an academic point of view, but also has far-reaching effects on current performances. We interview Hartmut Schick, Chair of Musicology and director of the Critical Edition of the Works of Richard Strauss, about the highlights and challenges of the project.

The Critical Edition of the Works of Richard Strauss is a 25-year project funded by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities. You have ten years of research work already behind you. When you take stock of your progress, which results of the project are you most pleased with so far?

Hartmut Schick: A highlight for us was being able to edit for the first time the early version of Richard Strauss’s cello sonata, which was hitherto completely unknown. Although it was performed in the 1880s, it subsequently vanished from public consciousness.

Then, two years ago, Raphaela Gromes and Julian Riem recorded this cello sonata for the first time and performed it at a large concert here at the university, in front of over 700 enthusiastic audience members. For the listeners and the music press, it was a bona-fide sensation, as two-thirds of this early version is a totally different sonata, yet scarcely any less beautiful than the final version. Strauss discarded it back then — probably because he was unsuccessful at a composition contest with the piece, which is very difficult to play.

As a result of your work, are we witnessing a sort of ‘rediscovery’ of Richard Strauss in performance?

Other versions that we edited for the first time have also had some resonance. Particularly interesting are the so-called Dresden retouches of the opera Salome, which we have just published in the second Salomevolume. Strauss revised the work in 1930 — that is, 25 years after the first performance — for the Dresden Court Opera with the intention of adapting the role of Salome so that it could be sung by a lyric soprano as opposed to a dramatic soprano. To this end, he pared back and toned down the orchestral setting such that a lyric soprano with less penetrating power can sing Salome as she is supposed to appear on the stage: as a young, almost naïve girl and not as a Wagnerian heroine in the mold of Brünhilde.

This was also the version that Strauss recommended to other theaters from 1930 onward. But it sank into total oblivion — and our edition is restoring it to public consciousness. We’re also excited to see whether the French version of Salome, for which Strauss reworked the vocal lines to fit Oscar Wilde’s original text, will be embraced by opera practitioners, or ditto the upcoming initial version of Ariadne auf Naxos, which has hardly ever been performed before now.

In this intensive engagement with the creative process of a composer, is it a special feeling to work with the original sources?

My six editors and I work together closely with the Richard Strauss Archive, which is located in the villa Strauss was able to build in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen from the royalties of Salome. The whole institute and library are preserved exactly as they were when Strauss was alive. And, yes, you absolutely feel the atmosphere when you walk in there and have the privilege of handling original sources, and of course the material itself is very informative. In the lieder, for example, we see notes that Richard Strauss’s wife Pauline wrote on her personal copies as a singer in their shared music-making endeavor. And this, too, is something we present in our editions, in chevrons, and thus separated from the actual text of the piece, but there nonetheless, such that you could imagine being present at a rehearsal or a lieder recital at the Strauss home.

Insights into the creative process

While systematically laying open the various layers of a work, what do we learn about Richard Strauss the musician, but also the person? What insights does the edition provide into his creative process?

Tradition has it that Strauss always had music in his head and was sometimes almost terrorized by it — seemingly only the card game Skat could offer him distraction. He was unlike some other composers in that he had a clear conception of a work in his head from quite an early stage. Although he made some sketches, he would then almost always set down on paper the definitive score at the first attempt, as if he was making a fair copy. When you look at the original source documents, you cannot help but marvel at the somnambulistic certainty with which Strauss wrote down hyper-complex scores comprising up to 40 staves in such a clear and orderly manner. You realize that a lot more went on in the mind of this genius than inside us mere mortals.

At the same time, your edition of his works reveals that he revised, rejected, and rewrote some pieces.

Our research shows that Strauss also really wrestled with certain works, such as with his first tone poem Macbeth, of which he wrote three versions. Here we can observe Strauss — and we lay this out clearly in the synoptic edition — as he rejects a first draft and then works away at a merely good version until eventually he obtains a final version that is perfectly orchestrated. This is very exciting, because you get a real glimpse into the atelier: seeing how Strauss is still not satisfied even with solutions we think are already perfect and finds ways of improving the instrumentation even further.

A website facilitates access to the works of Richard Strauss

Who is the comprehensive digital component of your edition designed for?

On our online platform, everyone can read the introductory texts and critical reports on the volumes free of charge at their own convenience. Also, they can browse to their heart’s content in hundreds, soon thousands of letters, early performance reports, and contemporary reviews of the works. People can immerse themselves in the period of first performances or see how creatively Strauss adapted his poetic source material — without having to be able to read music or visit a library.

Fifteen years of research still lie ahead of you in this long-term project. What are you most excited about and what results do you hope to obtain?

It will be exciting, no doubt, to work on the early work of the teenage Strauss — there are pieces there that have never been edited, and we might even unearth some lost works. In the early overtures and symphonies, for example, we will have to clarify what part Strauss’s father had in the scores, when he made fair copies of the works and quietly amended this and that — not always in line with his son’s wishes. But it will remain at the heart of our enterprise that our critical edition is not just intended for libraries, but should radiate directly out into musical practice. These scores are there to be played.

Critical Edition of the Works of Richard Strauss: online platform

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