It will be seen that Strauss’s last important works for orchestra, before he turned with the operas “Salome” (1905) and “Elektra” (1911) to the theater, constituted tonal autobiographies, in two parts–Vol. I. “Heldenleben” (1399) : the character, adventures, love, and creative achievements of the hero. Vol. II. “Symphonia Domestica” (1904): The hero’s family life. We are thus permitted to conclude that after all and notwithstanding his earlier associations with the minds of Shakespeare, Lenau, Nietzsche and Cervantes, our hero found himself the best of company.
Strauss told a reporter in 1902 that his next tone-poem would illustrate a day in the family life. It would be a work “partly lyrical, partly humorousa triple fugue, the three subjects representing papa, mamma and the baby.” The prophecy came true. The “Domestic Symphony,” Opus 53, “dedicated to my dear wife and our boy,” was heard for the first tirne in America, the composer conducting at the third concert of the Richard Strauss Festival, March 21, 1904, in Carnegie Hall. Europe did not hear the work till Strauss conducted it the following June at Frankfort-on-the-Main. His score asks for an orchestra of 108 pieces.
This symphony is in one continuous movement, of which the subdivisions correspond roughly to those of the classic form. The first part unfolds the theme of the parents and the child, with some development. The second part, the scherzo, is the child at play, followed by a cradle song. The third part is the slow movement, an adagio, labeled in the score, “Doing and thinking. Love scene.” The lively finale is a double fugue, extraordinary for the humor, vitality and virtuosity of the writing, based, as Strauss had told the reporter, on the themes of papa, mamma and the baby, and including other episodic ideas.
The husband has three themes, announced at the beginning, and in succession. They are marked in the score “Easy-going,” “dreamy” and “fiery.” There is a smaller theme, too, which the composer called “Miirrisch,” that is to say, grumbling or peevish. The first theme is announced by the cellos; the second, the dreamy one, by the oboe; the grumbling and less important motive, by clarinets and bass clarinets, and the fiery theme by the strings. Then come the wife’s themes. Her character is not as complex, or let us say as many-sided, as that of hero husband. Or has the composer underrated his spouse? Does he exclaim to himself, as a violinist who once burst in a fine frenzy, into the office of a music critic, and unburdened his soul concerning his domestic problems, “I am an eagle, she is a wren”? The wife has only two themes of which the first and most important is given violins, flutes and oboes, and the second, a gentler phrase and more melodic, given to solo violin, flute and clarinet.
The introduction of the child’s theme comes after preparation, and is sounded by the oboe d’amore, an instrument that fell out of general use after Bach’s time, but has been revived occasionally in late years. It is an alto oboe. Toward the end of this part of the sympliony Strauss has an ascending figure for clarinets and muted trumpets which he marked, “Just like his papa,” and an answering descending; figure, “Just like his mamma.” This introductory section also publishes the bath music, a highly ingenious splashing and squealing which, repeated later on, is laughably realistic.
The child theme, in a new and lively rhythm, marks the scherzo. There is again reference to the bath. The cradle song, reminiscent of a phrase of the F-sharp minor Barcarolle in Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” is played by clarinets. The clock–in the orchestra, the glockenspielstrikes seven and this marks the scherzo’s end. The slow movement is the love scene and it is Strauss in an eloquent and melodic vein. At its close the glockenspiel strikes seven again, and all the instruments wake up. There is much fun and racket, and splashing in the bath. The music is full of energy, riant, bubbling over with life. Its complications are as nothing. Melody and counterpoint flood the orchestra, as if the composer’s pen could not go fast enough, and there is very brilliant instrumentation. The child’s themes sing rapturously through the hullabaloo, which becomes always merrier, till the piece ends with a shout of the husband’s theme. The “Symphonia Domestica” is filled with Bavarian sentimentality, a certain heaviness, good humor, beer. Strauss has always had a vein of a certain native bad taste, which grew upon him in his later years. It is but the fact, however, to remark that while we might have, been spared this exhibitionism, and the same gifts been put to more distinguished uses, we have here, again, some living music.