From the programme booklet
Maximum Diversity within the Whole
Sir Donald Runnicles’ Thoughts on ARABELLA
To me, the key to understanding Richard Strauss’ music lies in his aspirations and self-conception as an orchestral composer. If you examine other composers’ music – including Richard Wagner’s – it is obvious that it was thought up at the piano, while the instrument Richard Strauss had in mind is the entire orchestra. He wrote his scores without taking the detour via the piano, starting with a perfect orchestral sound he fully imagined in his head. He was also one of the greatest conductors of his time – to Strauss, the orchestra was the lynchpin of the creative process, which is one of the reasons he left relatively little piano and chamber music.
One consequence of this was that his profound knowledge of all the orchestral instruments enabled Strauss to increase the virtuoso demands on each instrument, and thereby its expressive range, considerably. Furthermore, Strauss combined this mastery of orchestral art with the goal of expressing all aspects of life through the orchestra – whether extreme passions as in ELEKTRA, philosophical concepts as in “Also sprach Zarathustra”, or daily life, as in the “Sinfonia Domestica”. The latter is an aspect Strauss was often criticized for; he was not forgiven for finding space for the supposedly banal in his sonic world. To me, however, this is the essence of Strauss’ modernism: his compositions illustrate the coexistence of very different elements, both sublime and concrete. This is true not only of the objects of the outside world, but also – and this is, of course, mainly relevant to his operas – human psyche.
Unlike the 19th-century composers with their fondness for moral judgments, Richard Strauss’ music has no prejudice. On the contrary, his aim is to simultaneously portray all the diverging thoughts, urges and feelings propelling people through life, thereby creating maximum diversity within the whole of his orchestral sound-world. Just as profound thoughts and illustrative sounds of nature intermingle in works such as the “Alpine Symphony”, creating one overarching image of life as it waxes and wanes, his operas too are marked by extreme contrasts.
ARABELLA accommodates drastic dissonance – for example when Mandryka describes his fight with a bear – alongside Arabella’s gossamer cantilenas, the hectic throng of the carnival ball, but also semi-obscure musical insider jokes such as the repeated LOHENGRIN quotations. However, ARABELLA also contains another remarkable stylistic means, and by employing it Strauss was surely also out to demonstrate that he had his ear to the ground in all aspects of the composer’s craft: the score contains recurring polyrhythmic passages, with various instruments simultaneously playing duplets, triplets and quadruplets, or a 6/8 metre rubbing up against a 3/4 one, etc. Incidentally, this makes ARABELLA one of the most difficult operas to rehearse – for singers and orchestra alike. The effect Strauss thereby achieves is certainly a very special one: even though dance idioms, such as the waltz or the polka at the end of Act II, have a strong presence, occasionally even dominating the piece’s pulse, Strauss manages to create a fragmented sound. On the one hand, this polyphony appears modern; on the other, it reflects and refracts the world of Old Imperial Vienna as if through a kaleidoscope.
Despite his ambition of integrating the expressive means and perspective of musical modernism within his orchestral idiom, I still believe, however, that in his heart of hearts, Strauss was conservative, and that he wrote ARABELLA with a feeling of nostalgia and longing for the “good old times”. In the same way, he uses dissonance as a “means to an end”, but ultimately has his works end in brilliant tonality. To me, it is essential that despite all his virtuosity, Strauss never loses sight of the goal of musical theatre: to put people on stage whose fate moves us, thanks to their musical portrayal. These people exist in ARABELLA too: consider the title figure, who undergoes a touching development process towards maturity, or Mandryka, whose tale of the death of his first wife reveals his profound goodness of heart. When Strauss grants these people an opera finale full of beauty and harmony, I am with him wholeheartedly.
Translation: Alexa Nieschlag