Strauss – Ein Heldenleben Op. 40

Spurred on by the heroism of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Strauss began work on his eighth tone poem ‘Ein Heldenleben’ – a Hero’s Life – in 1898, while on holiday in the Bavarian Alps. Strauss himself is generally thought to be the ‘Hero’ mentioned in the movement subtitles, but he always denied this, answering “I’m no hero! I’m not made for battle!” On the other hand, he did accidentally write his wife a love theme called “The Hero’s Companion”…

Ein Heldenleben is a tone poem, which is basically a musical work which portrays a story, or picture. Debussy’s Images series, for example; each one having a separate story or inspiration, or Liszt’s Faust Symphony, after Goethe’s play ‘Faust’. Ein Heldenleben is in one continuous movement, however it was originally split into six individual movements, all of which ran without a pause. In the comments section, I have pinned the timecodes to the original movement titles – which do not appear in the score, since Strauss was under pressure by critics who thought he wrote the piece as an arrogant portrayal of himself.

Also a quick disclaimer – this is an extremely brief summation of this amazing piece. Entire books have been written on just a couple of minutes’ music from Strauss Tone Poems, and I’d really encourage you to read around on the internet to find out more; he’s an amazing composer, and I don’t have enough space or time to write about everything here 🙂

“The Hero” is the opening movement, beginning with a huge, monophonic (without accompaniment) leitmotif spanning three octaves in strings and horns. Strauss starts triumphantly – exactly as he means to go on – and it’s not long before he starts foreshadowing future motifs, such as that which opens the third movement at 1:47. There is a huge pause on an imperfect cadence before the second movement begins – “The Hero’s Adversaries”, dominated by a quirky-sounding chromatic motif, which is developed further in the battle later on, and a parallel-fifths lower brass motif, ominously symbolising evil. It has been suggested that this weird, uneasy section is Strauss mocking his adversaries – his critics… See, us composers love to get petty revenge like this… 🙂

“The Hero’s Companion” features a violin solo, with some fabulous cadential material, which Strauss did acknowledge was a portrait of his wife, Pauline de Anha, a German Soprano. Strauss uses this section to foreshadow more motifs, before erupting into a gorgeous love theme at 14:12 – This sort of music is what Strauss is most famous for, and quite rightly so. There are 8 tone poems by Strauss altogether – along with dozens of other orchestral works and operas, all of which use the same sort of music if you like this.

“The Hero at Battle” follows, which features a new rhythmic idea. This is also where the motif that… could have been his ‘critics’ comes back, and is proclaimed by the trumpets. This incredibly tense movement slowly dies down after the triumph of 27:28 (Recognise this?) before fading into “The Hero’s Works of Peace”. This time the harp develops the opening music while a solo bassoon sings above an accompaniment strengthened by the strings. This section is probably where people got the idea that this piece is autobiographical from – he quotes his previous music… 30 times… according to Wikipedia – My Strauss knowledge isn’t that good…

Strauss closes his masterpiece with “The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion”, as a gentle cor anglais theme closes the work with music from the third movement. Finally, at 44:50, you might notice one final Strauss quotation – the iconic opening to ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, this time closing one of the most epic tone poems ever written.

Hope you found this interesting! As I said, there is so much more depth to this music than I have written about, but hopefully this is a useful starter 🙂 Thank you also to this article by contemporary critic Richard Freed, which is where all quotes have come from.

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