Symphonia Domestica, finale by Richard Strauss
You may not have suspected that Richard Strauss would place on a list like this, considering he’s known for tone poems. In fact, most commentators tend to describe both of Strauss’ mature symphonies as tone poems anyway, which may be 10% true, but both Eine Alpensinfonie and Symphonia Domestica are symphonies, admittedly with unique structures and approaches. Domestica in particular is symphonically constructed, whatever that may mean, with the movements connecting thematically and motivically with the sublime effortlessness that is synonymous with Strauss.
And speaking of sublime effortlessness, this finale…holy shit. If I were trying to get someone uncontrollably hooked on Strauss, there’s a good chance that I’d start with this movement, which is as “Jesus Christ Almighty, this motherfucker can really bring it” as Strauss gets. It has essentially everything you could possibly love about Strauss distilled into one 15-minute orgasm (actually that was the previous movement, but that’s another story!) of beauty, intensity, and the kind of energy normally reserved for injecting espresso directly into your heart Pulp Fiction-style. It’s an absolute clinic in orchestration, the musical equivalent of getting the entire Berlioz book tattooed on you and reading it in your bathroom mirror. Strauss pushes the band to the absolute limits of their technical abilities, ranges, and sense of musical decency.
And I haven’t even mentioned the form, a staggering triple fugue that would make Bach’s head explode. It’s extramusical connotation is that of a jolly dispute between husband and wife and seemingly obnoxious kid, but quite frankly it doesn’t matter. It’s a formal masterpiece that doesn’t feel like a formal masterpiece (which in many ways is the great downfall of many composers who write in a given strict form…you don’t want to appreciate the form without analyzing it, you just want to hear good shit). And all the music is already there, culled from the previous movements and unleashed in a frenzy of raw excitement.
I wrote about this work a while back in an effort to explain its appeal and address the charge that it’s like musical soda, empty calories that won’t sustain you like the gluten-free wheat bread that is Bruckner or Sibelius. In a lot of ways the program for this piece gets in the way of the music, above and beyond a typical Strauss tone poem. The musical imagery in his most famous works is every bit as over the top, but because of the subject matter we accept and embrace it. Of course we need all that crazy entertaining shit in Till Eulenspiegel…have you seen that dude? He’s crazy entertaining! But when the subject is a dude, his old lady, and their whiny kid, the excess is the worst kind of self-aggrandizement and the work is devoid of musical integrity.
This, to put it simply, is fucking stupid. Ignore the programmatic elements to this or any other Strauss work and they still crush it unlike any other composer who ever walked the earth. I don’t need to know who Don Juan is to like Don Juan anymore than I need to care about what Strauss’ family was like. The fact that the music is so utterly illustrative of the program that Strauss intends is just further proof of his genius, but it’s unnecessary proof, like a digestif after the greatest meal of your life or the gag reel from the first Rush Hour.
Strauss is a virtuoso of the orchestra in the same way that Heifetz is a virtuoso of the violin. He can manipulate the orchestra to his every whim with unparalleled dexterity, and like any virtuoso he’s a God damn showman of the highest order (I apologize if I’m repeating shit from the previous post I linked to above…the points still stand). Everything I said in the first couple paragraphs about his masterful orchestration and breathtaking formal control really doesn’t mean anything at all. What matters is that this is about as entertaining and satisfying as symphonic music gets, and there’s not a thing wrong with just letting it wash over you like an ecstatic wave.
And it will. It’s terribly exciting and it builds to an overwhelmingly bad ass ending. The last 3 minutes or so literally never stop building. Even when things slow down and breathe a little, it’s only because we need the reserves to catapult this shit over the mountaintop, or at least to properly intone the NBC jingle with the ferocity of a hippopotamus returning to water.
Sit back and enjoy. And for God’s sake, crank it the fuck up!