In which I use the words “sesquicentennial” and “fucking,” one of which may have been in my 7th-grade spelling bee

640px-DBPB_1954_124_Richard_StraussIn spite of whatever I have going on this month, I couldn’t let today pass without saying something about the sesquicentennial anniversary of the birth of one of music’s all-time legendary figures, Richard Strauss. The great Mark Berry, of whose talent I am supremely envious, wrote a piece for The Conversation that is a must-read for anyone who likes good writing and Strauss. Deutsche Welle has an alternate perspective that touches on a couple of the same themes with admittedly less journalistic pizzazz. I certainly don’t have anything to add from a scholarship perspective. I will gladly, though, talk about the important place Strauss holds in my life. I’ve written about the man many times before, so if some of these obviously salient points are repeats from days gone by, please accept my apologies, or just be polite and pretend like they’re new.

In point of fact, I owe my interest in classical music to two legendary and dead composers and two gifted and very much alive musicians from Vegas. When I was a freshman and sophomore in high school I had the joy of sitting next to Chris Castellanos every day for two years and realized several things, the two most important of which were 1) I would never be that good at horn and 2) I’m an ass who doesn’t know anything about classical music and I better change that. The first thing I really remember Chris getting me interested was Wagner Overtures, Preludes, and excerpts, and one of the first CDs I ever purchased was the decidedly “meh” 2-disc set of Adrian Boult conducting most of the Wagner we know. I didn’t know it was “meh” at the time, though. I thought it was awesome, especially Siegfried’s Funeral Music.

The first CD I ever owned was a disc my parents got me of John Williams and the Boston Pops playing his most famous shit (it’s great and I still have it…I still have every CD I ever bought, as far as I can tell), but the first “proper” classical CD I ever owned was a birthday gift from my first horn teacher, a dude named George Bosnos who had a great beard, a better music collection, and, if memory serves, a pet chinchilla. It was also a 2-disc set, this one of Tone Poems by Richard Strauss conducted by Sir Georg Solti. Needless to say, for a young French horn player, it was like crack and ecstasy all in one (if I developed a drug called Crackstasy, I feel like I could retire tomorrow). I played the living shit out those CDs, especially the first one with Heldenleben and Also Sprach, and that was really it for me. 1300 CDs, 500 LPs, 150 gigs of digital music, a monthly Spotify subscription, two academic degrees, and $35,000 of student loan debt later, here I am. George was exactly the kind of teacher that kids are supposed to have, whether it’s private instruction, a public school, or a doctoral program. He found an interest, nurtured and cultivated it, and sent me off into the universe better prepared and more knowledgeable than when I arrived, and I’m ever grateful for it; thank you, George.

In the purely subjective universe of “favorites,” Strauss has been the constant for me across the nearly 20 years of my borderline obsession with classical music. I don’t know that he’s ever been at the top of my list, but he’s never left it either. In college my favorite composers were Mahler and Strauss (especially Mahler, or so says the unconscionable amount of recordings I purchased during those years). After college I started getting more into Sibelius and Shostakovich, but it was Mahler who fell a bit to the wayside (relatively speaking here, of course), not Strauss. At this point in my life, Bruckner and Schubert are the centers of my musical universe more than Mahler, Sibelius, and Shostakovich, but Strauss is right there where he’s always been.

Perhaps that says something about his music, that it’s somehow incapable of generating the sort of passion I have for the other composers I mentioned. Truth be told, I think that’s a common criticism of Strauss, that he lacks some sort of pathos or even that his music is superficial. In my own experience, Strauss doesn’t have the same transcendent power of Mahler (or Bruckner), and he doesn’t elicit the same intense feelings that Shostakovich and Sibelius do. As I get older and desperately try to understand my place in the world, though, Strauss’ music speaks to me with much more meaning now. Why?

If I may make a fairly ridiculous comparison that invokes religion, the music of Mahler and Bruckner is the devout Christian (or Muslim or Jew) who aspires to something greater than this existence we inhabit, whether that something is an actual God (Bruckner) or a universal principle that unites us all (for Mahler, perhaps something like Love or Death). The music of (their contemporary, lest we forget) Strauss is more like one of those “Heaven is a place on Earth”-types, atheist if I dare use the word in this dangerous metaphor. Strauss wrote music of this Earth on purpose, and its accessibility and intellectual appeal reward me in a far different way than every composer mentioned above.

This is obviously in no small part a reflection of the upbringing and personal life of the composer. Strauss, while certainly on the receiving end of his fair share of life just like the rest of us, led a life that you’d put in a textbook if there were one: successful marriage to a woman who by all accounts was a perfect complement to him, a healthy child, and a highly successful career in something that he was really fucking good at from an early age. Unfortunately, like the closest thing to a musical twin Strauss has (Haydn, another staggering genius who is somehow underrated in spite of his popularity), the narrative of success and general happiness doesn’t jive much with the tortured artist ideal we’ve grown familiar with.

Regardless, Strauss’ music overflows with such natural and overwhelming skill that I can’t help but enjoy the hell out of it whenever I spend time with it. It’s the perfect glass of bourbon or sunny day with a refreshing breeze or beautiful woman or Cristiano Ronaldo wonderstrike of music, a demonstration of mankind and the limitless possibilities of human existence at its apex of creativity and inspiration. All jokes about his own self-deprecating view of himself as a “first-class second-rate composer,” there is no finer composer of music than Richard Strauss and there never will be. He left behind a monstrous output for us to plow through, and I hope to continue doing so until the bicentennial or my death in a Mexican knife fight, whichever comes first.

 

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2 thoughts on “In which I use the words “sesquicentennial” and “fucking,” one of which may have been in my 7th-grade spelling bee

  1. “Die Frau ohne Schatten” rocks my world.

    Sometimes I think it might be my favorite of all operas… (right behind Debussy’s Pelleas)

  2. Hi, very nice lines! Apart from the music, in a road following the title of the blog, I point out these as a hope for every student and teacher: “He found an interest, nurtured and cultivated it, and sent me off into the universe better prepared and more knowledgeable than when I arrived”
    cheers!

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