Concertgoers who enjoy song recitals are often treated to songs by Richard Strauss, many of which offer memorable melodies, a chance for vocal display, and colorful and rewarding piano accompaniments. But in my experience, the range of songs audiences encounter is often quite small and mostly limited to Strauss’s early output. In fact, Strauss (1864-1949) wrote songs throughout his long career with a fluency remarkable even for such a highly skilled and prolific composer, writing of his own composition habits:
I will have no desire to compose for a month. Suddenly one evening I will pick up a volume of poetry; leaf through it carelessly; then a poem will strike me and a musical idea will come to me for it, often before I’ve finished reading it properly: I sit down; the song is finished in 10 minutes.
Strauss’s songs display the gamut of human experience from flirtatious playfulness to the most somber and philosophic reflections. Songs of successful and unsuccessful love abound but so do songs about parents and children, nature, and mortality.
The sixth annual Juilliard Songfest will feature the songs of Strauss with five gifted singers from the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts as well as a narrator, drama alumnus Jacob Fishel, who will read some of Strauss’s letters as well as writings about him by Stefan Zweig and Romain Rolland.
Researching some of the more unfamiliar songs of Strauss was a great adventure. His tireless musical imagination sought new harmonies, new approaches to prosody, and new vocal effects at every turn. The songs we’ll perform range from the depths of the bass voice in “Der Einsame” to the stratospheric, floating lines for high soprano for which he is so justly famous. I hope the audience will come away with a broader appreciation of Strauss as a major song composer.