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Journalist Miriam Cosic on the themes of Richard Strauss.

As Richard Strauss got older, he became fascinated by the textures in chamber music. Metamorphosen is one such example. Usually performed by 23 string players, Australian Chamber Orchestra strips it back to its raw, powerful core in a chamber program curated by Principal Cello, Timo-Veikko Valve (Tipi). Miriam Cosic explores the themes of Strauss, in conversation with Tipi for us below.

The pieces of the Transforming Strauss & Mozart program are all thematic: they are about love and death and sorrow, each evoked in the composer’s signature style. The Dowland and the Bach are quietly grounding and offer us musical resolution. The Wagner and the Strauss are the opposite: sweeping drama and experimentation in dissonance. Wagner’s famous “Tristan chord” is still heart-stopping.

“I would argue that, especially in the case of the Wagner and the Strauss, you are really getting to see the infrastructure and bare bones of the music much more clearly,” he says. “So the message should be more laser-like and therefore more understandable.” For instance, he says, the Strauss becomes less of a shouting match and more of a conversation. “In the more commonly known version, you have 23 people on stage, some playing the same part on opposite sides of the stage, so it becomes a competition, a means of survival. Now that we’ve paired it back to the original seven voices, you can actually hear the conversation held in a normal voice.” The plan across all four pieces is to give them a level playing field.

With the Strauss, we are plunged into the troubled waters of post-industrial modernity: the dissonance, the irresolution, the alienation, the nostalgia for a golden past. The magnificent Metamorphosen was written for a 23-piece chamber orchestra – 10 violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses. Here, we hear it in Rudolf Leopold’s pared-down adaption of Strauss’s original idea for seven string players. Tipi calls it “abstract at a cellular level”. He says, “It’s an incredible feat of contrapuntal writing, and yet Strauss wouldn’t have been able to do it if Bach hadn’t done it before him.” Strauss had already started work on this music, scoring it for string septet, but had left it on his work table, never finishing it. When a call came from Paul Sacher, the founder and director of the Kammerorchester Basel and the Collegium Musicum Zürich, asking him to write a larger piece, he took up the original material and started to expand and rework it. “Later on, that original score was found and nowadays this original version is performed quite a lot,” Tipi says.

Several themes permeate Metamorphosen, including another unsettling opening sequence and an invocation of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica. It was such a terrible time, for the world and for Strauss himself. Musicologists wonder if it was a memorial for Germany, destroyed by the war: he wrote “in memoriam” on the score.

Strauss is supposed to have started work on the Sacher commission on March 13, 1945, the day after the working sections of the Vienna Opera House – the auditorium and stage, the set and costume departments – were burned down in Allied bombing. He finished it a month later. A few days after that, his biographer, Michael Kennedy, notes, Strauss wrote in his diary, “The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the 12-year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.” The author Alan Jefferson, who connected the work to the bombing of Munich and its famous opera house in the absence of any explanation by Strauss himself, called Metamorphosen “possibly the saddest piece of music ever written”. 

Since classical times, musicologists, music-lovers and psychologists have strained to understand music’s effect on our nervous system. More recently, neuroscientists have joined the inquiries. Studies have observed physiological reactions in the heart, in the intestinal tract, in the air passage leading to the lungs. That is in addition to the tears, the quickened heartbeat, the chills we observe in ourselves. The Tristan chord and the deep rumination of Metamorphosen would have a physiological effect on us even if we didn’t know the composers’ inspiration. Planting ideas in our mind’s eye beforehand, from the simplicity of a love lost to the destruction of total war, only heightens the intensity of that effect: word painting in music, once named, gives us a hook, a reason, for our emotions. And those images remain long after the final chord fades.

- Miriam Cosic

Australian Chamber Orchestra performs Transforming Strauss & Mozart in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on Monday 10 September.

This piece is an excerpt of the Concert Program which will be available for free at the concert.

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