Eros and Thanatos in Selected Orchestral Songs by Richard Strauss around 1900
(Magister Artium [M.A.] thesis, submitted in December 2009)
Is there anything left to sing in terms of love, life and death after having listened to Tristan und Isolde for more than four hours? Is it justifiable to seek the inspiration for thoughts developed in music from around 1900 on drawings such as Gustav Klimt’s Tod und Leben? Can anything be gained by analyzing Strauss’s scores on the background of Nietzsche and Freud simultaneously focusing on the terms of Eros and Thanatos? Why should this be of special interest with regard to orchestral songs?
These are some of my guiding questions when dealing with more than 660 bars of Strauss’s music in five selected orchestral songs: Verführung Op. 33/1, Hymnus Op. 33/3, Nächtlicher Gang Op. 44/2, Das Tal Op. 51/1, and Der Einsame Op. 51/2. These songs were originally composed for a single voice and orchestra (instead of being orchestrated at a later date). The selection of pieces my study deals with was composed between 1896 and 1906, almost half a century after Tristan und Isolde, somewhere between Also sprach Zarathustra, Salome and Elektra.
Today, apart from his song cycle Vier letzte Lieder, most of Strauss’s orchestral songs are rarely performed anymore. Also, to this day, musicologists have paid them only little tribute despite the importance of the pieces as a major part of Strauss’s career as a composer and conductor. This master’s thesis is based on the assumption that the concept of Eros and Thanatos represented a widespread cultural phenomenon at the turn of the century that undoubtedly had a significant effect on both lyrics and music.
The introductory chapters deal with the following topics: the paradox of Eros and Thanatos, the bearing of Tristan und Isolde on Richard Strauss, and the specific qualities of orchestral song. This is followed by a reflection upon the relationship between the poems chosen by Strauss and the theme of Eros and Thanatos. The main body contains a detailed analysis of the five compositions with special emphasis on Strauss’s text alterations, the outline of the pieces, the voice, and elements of motif, harmony, and instrumentation.
In conclusion, this master’s thesis confronts text and music with one another in order to assess whether Richard Strauss’s compositional technique gives form to the complex phenomenon of Eros and Thanatos in the examined pieces, and if so: In which way?