I find Ein Heldenleben to be the least interesting of Strauss’ tone poems. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy it, but I feel that it is now played more often today than, say, Don Quixote, or, Sinfonia Domestica, because it fits nicely into the second half of a program, not because of its inherent qualities, which are considerable. It has become the modern day equivalent to Scheherazade, replete with a taxing solo for the concertmaster.
Strauss began composing Ein Heldenleben in 1898. Writing to a friend he states, “It is entitled ‘A Hero’s Life’, and while it has no funeral march, it does have lots of horns, horns being quite the thing to express heroism. Thanks to the healthy country air, my sketch has progressed well and I hope to finish by New Year’s Day.” While it is played without stop, there are six distinct movements:
- “Der Held” (The Hero)
- “Des Helden Widersacher” (The Hero’s Adversaries)
- “Des Helden Gefährtin” (The Hero’s Companion)
- “Des Helden Walstatt” (The Hero at Battle)
- “Des Helden Friedenswerke” (The Hero’s Works of Peace)
- “Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung” (The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion)
Strauss himself conducted the premiere on March 3, 1899, in Frankfurt, but it was dedicated to the Dutch conductor, Willem Mengelberg, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It received mixed reviews at its premiere and continues to often divide critics, yet despite its often lukewarm response, it is programmed with affection by many conductors and orchestras.
With Strauss’ music there’s a fine line between sweet and saccharin, and the best performances of Ein Heldenleben are those that get on with it and don’t dawdle. Without doubt, one of the greatest recordings recordings remains one of the first recordings — Willem Mengelberg conducting the New York Philharmonic from 1928.
Another great recording is from 1941, with Toscanini conducting the NBC Orchestra.
Clemens Krauss’ recording with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1952 captures their special affinity for this composer’s music.
A great recording from 1940 with Fritz Reiner conducting the orchestra he had before the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
One of the most famous recordings, and rightly so, is with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Some may consider this performance slightly too driven, perhaps even Carlos Kleiber himself since he refused to have it released at the last minute, but his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic achieves something no other performance does except for Mengelberg’s, and that’s keeping the tension all the way until the Don Juan quote. It’s extraordinary!
Finally, here’s a wonderful video of Manfred Honeck leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on tour in Berlin.