Richard Strauss – Ein Heldenleben op 40
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40, is a tone poem by Richard Strauss. The work was completed in 1898. It was his eighth work in the genre, and exceeded any of its predecessors in its orchestral demands. Generally agreed to be autobiographical in nature, despite contradictory statements on the matter by the composer, the work contains more than thirty quotations from Strauss’s earlier works, including Also sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Death and Transfiguration.
Strauss began work on the piece while staying in a Bavarian mountain resort in July 1898. He proposed to write a heroic work in the mould of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony: “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.”
Strauss worked on Ein Heldenleben and another tone poem, Don Quixote, during 1898. He regarded the two as complementary, saying they were conceived as “direct pendants” to one another. There was speculation before the premiere about the identity of the hero. Strauss was equivocal: he commented “I’m no hero: I’m not made for battle”, and in a programme note he wrote that subject of the piece was “not a single poetical or historical figure, but rather a more general and free ideal of great and manly heroism.” On the other hand, in the words of the critic Richard Freed:
The music, though, points stubbornly to its own author as its subject, and Strauss did concede, after all, in a remark to the writer Romain Rolland, that he found himself “no less interesting than Napoleon,” and his gesture of conducting the premiere himself instead of leaving that honor to the respected dedicatee [i.e., Willem Mengelberg] may well be viewed as further confirmation of the work’s self-congratulatory character.