At a time when photos and videos of you, me, and almost everyone else course through the internets, composer Richard Strauss (1864–1949) still vaults over most of us memes-in-waiting with not one but two huge orchestral works about, essentially, himself: Ein Heldenleben (1898) and the Sinfonia Domestica (1903). Maybe it felt like the natural thing to do: At the dawn of the 20th century, Strauss informed critic and novelist Romain Rolland, "I do not see why I should not compose a symphony about myself; I find myself just as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander."
Abetting the now-blurry distinction between a symphony and a tone poem, Strauss the Conqueror delivers the goods, especially in Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life). The hero, of course, is Strauss. Fortified by his Companion—heard in astonishingly beautiful arioso writing for violin—the Hero swaggers and fights, quelling the brass-blaring fanfaronade of his detractors in the section "Des Helden Walstatt" ("The Hero in Battle") with his own strafing, triumphant theme. After offering "Works of Peace" to the world in "Des Helden Friedenswerke," our hero retires sated, content, and suitably pensioned.
The Seattle Symphony faces a similar, optimistic tumult: Recent labor negotiations, along with the ongoing search for an executive director and a successor for conductor Gerard Schwarz may add extra voltage to the Symphony's upcoming performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 and Ein Heldenleben (Tues Feb 23, Meany Hall, UW Campus, 8 pm, free, though you must call 543-4880 to reserve tickets) with the UW Symphony. (The concerto features soloist Françoise Papillon.)
Late last month, the Symphony and the Seattle Symphony and Opera Players' Association reached an apparently amicable labor deal that attempts to address issues that threaten most companies and workers today: wage increases, whittled-down benefits, and declining revenue. With an annual deficit of $1.2 million and a $4 million debt, the Symphony is in wobbly fiscal health. The musicians, despite earning enviable salaries (base pay: $78,750), generally make less than their counterparts at similarly tiered orchestras. Unlike most workers, they remain responsible for owning (or more accurately, paying off), maintaining, and insuring instruments valued in the tens of thousands of dollars.
But instead of an allegory about the artist's (or worker's) struggle, Ein Heldenleben may offer a broader political parable. Writing soon after Strauss's autobiographical rodomontade began seeping into the symphonic repertory, Rolland heralded the composer's overweening self-regard as a troubling symptom of German society: "I see a heroic people, intoxicated by its triumphs, by its great riches, by its numbers, by its force, which clasps the world in its great arms and subjugates it, and then stops, fatigued by its conquest, and asks: 'Why have I conquered?'"