Of all the divisive figures in music history, perhaps none inspires as much debate as Richard Strauss. He is a genius, a schlocky Romantic, a master. Too playful, too saccharine, too heavy, not serious enough. A first-rate composer, or a first-class second-rate composer as he himself said. Excessive, simple, arrogant, profound. Truth be told, he’s all those things and then some, but above all else he’s a showman, and no one can top him for sheer listenability. Of all the great composers Strauss, to me, is the most likely to inspire someone to listen to more classical music, and it’s obvious why: his shit is entertaining as hell.
Strauss has moments of incredible depth: the string chorale in Also Sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, almost anything involving Jokanaan in Salome. There is no more moving piece of music than the Four Last Songs, whose strains I would love nothing more than to pass away to holding hands with the one I love in an assisted suicide clinic. Strauss is not only capable of pulling at the heart strings, he excels at it. But he does it so God damn cool that critics think it fake and decry the lack of emotional toil lurking in the scores, and Strauss has consequently developed the reputation of being the less neurotic, less penetrating, less gifted answer to Mahler.
And yet I would argue that no composer ever made writing music sound more effortless than Richard Strauss. It’s a virtue when Mozart does it (at the expense of the vastly superior Haydn I might add), but when Strauss displays similar ease it’s because he lacks a spiritual element present in the “great ones.” Even though I disagree with that sentiment on its face, it doesn’t change the fact that Strauss’ music is a fucking blast to listen to. And it’s on that note that we come to perhaps Strauss’ most oft-criticized work, the Symphonia Domestica.
Domestica was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1904 and was popular enough with the New York audience to warrant two additional performances in Wanamaker’s Department Store in Manhattan. As a brief aside, can you imagine a piece of music being so well-received nowadays that they would clear out a Super Walmart to play it a couple more times? Anyway, the press disagreed with the audience reaction, dismissing the work as blatant commercialization and a slap in the face to Music with a capital M and in a lot of respects this opinion prevails to this day, especially in light of the ever-increasing hegemony that Mahler is enjoying among the late Romantic composers.
So what does the title of this post mean? Two things: 1) I’ve been listening to Symphonia Domestica lately and 2) I’ve come up with a completely not revolutionary theory as to why it’s great. Make sure you’re sitting down.
The simple answer is it’s rad, a sonic orgy of excess and grandeur, the musical version of a 3-pound hamburger with all the trimmings that’s free if your fat ass can finish it, only it’s made by Bobby Flay so it’s fucking tasty and you’re actually excited to eat it and not just trying to finish it because you’ve come this far. Symphonia Domestica just never stops coming at you, especially the finale. Every time you think you’ve had the perfect bite, there’s a pickled jalapeno relish tucked away to make the next bite even better. Is it as meaningful a meal as a five-course chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings by an award-winning sommelier? Perhaps not. But you’re an asshole if you wear sweatpants to Nobu and dammit all if I just wanna have a great fucking time and knock back a top-shelf burger.
I suppose “it’s mindless entertainment” isn’t the best defense out there, but it’s the most appropriate defense for the piece, and let it be known that mindless is a compliment in this instance. One look at the score will reveal the dirty secret that beneath the glossy veneer hides a meticulously crafted cyclical work that is nothing short of impressive. But I don’t need to know any of that bullshit to understand that we’ve got a hell of a good time on our hands. So instead of looking for something to probe the very depths of your soul, just embrace Domestica for what it is: the classical music equivalent of a great porn scene with a memorable money shot. I’m fairly certain that Strauss would love that I possibly worked a Jenna Jameson reference into a discussion of his music.
Look no further than this video of Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra abandoning all sense of musical decency and taste in favor of making your nether regions excited by the sweet, sweet sounds of Strauss. Holy shit do they play the balls off this: