Thursday, 24 September 2009

Richard Strauss' Kometentanz

As promised at the end of Wayne Heisler Jr’s post, Mr Mlakar and Richard Strauss, here is an excerpt from The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss, recently published by the University of Rochester Press:

In addition to tone poems, numerous songs, and nearly perennial operatic musings, several dance scenarios passed over Strauss’s desk (or may have done so) in the years leading up to Kythere. Here, a brief survey of this composer’s encounters with ballet in the 1890s is in order.

As early as spring 1895, the litterateur Otto Julius Bierbaum had his sights set on Strauss to compose the music for his ballet scenario Pan im Busch (Pan in the Rose Bush). However, whether or not this plan was presented formally to Strauss at that time remains unclear; in the end, Felix Mottl created a score for Pan, which had its premiere in Karlsruhe on March 20, 1900. Bierbaum was not the only writer who desired to collaborate with Strauss on a ballet during the 1890s. In February 1896, Frank Wedekind wrote to the composer proposing a ballet entitled Die Flöhe oder Der Schmerzenstanz (The Fleas, or The Dance of Pain), a text that had been in the works for several years. Although Strauss apparently took this prospect seriously (Schuh reports that the composer even began sketching music for it), he abandoned Die Flöhe shortly thereafter. Next, in March 1898, the writer Richard Dehmel offered Strauss Lucifer. From Dehmel’s surviving correspondence with the composer, the latter seems to have found the scenario promising. Strauss may even have begun one short musical sketch for Lucifer: on page 68 of the composer’s Sketchbook No. 7 (ca. 1900–1), there is a passage labeled “Ballet. Solo mit Chor. II. Akt Schluss” (Ballet. Soloist with choir. Act Two finale). The music, in C major and 6/8 meter, is not fitted to any text, but Dehmel’s project is the only one of the ballets that Strauss took into purview in the 1890s that employs choruses at the end of each of its seven acts. Nevertheless, like Wedekind’s scenario before it, Lucifer languished after initial enthusiasm.

Aside from his own Die Insel Kythere, the ballet that seems to have piqued Strauss’s interest most strongly in these years was Paul Scheerbart’s Kometentanz (Dance of the Comets). On February 25, 1900, the composer reported to his parents, “The author Paul Scheerbart sent me a very pretty sketch for a one-act ballet: Kometentanz, an astral pantomime, which I will immediately set to music. Because one at least does not have to worry about singers and can storm about in the orchestra.” This is an interesting comment given Strauss’s miserable operatic track record at the time. The composer also articulated his balletic intentions to Romain Rolland, who recorded an account of Scheerbart’s scenario as narrated to him by Strauss in his diary entry for March 9, 1900—the day on which he and Strauss visited the Louvre together. Rolland also recorded that “the maître de ballet in Berlin has turned down [Kometentanz] ‘as not serious!’” In light of this information, it is a further testimony to Strauss’s commitment to Kometentanz that he misrepresented (albeit lightheartedly) its fate in Berlin when pitching the ballet to Gustav Mahler, who was at the time director of the Vienna Court Opera:

I am in the course of writing a one- or two-act burlesque ballet . . . —naturally something departing wholly from the accustomed hopping-about—by Paul Scheerbart. Would you accept the ballet for the Vienna Opera, have the first performance and use some nice scenery? On the strength of my honest face? If there is a chance of doing it anywhere else, I should prefer not to put on the first performance here in Berlin. It will be ready to be performed about autumn 1901.

Mahler’s answer followed promptly:

Your ballet is accepted in advance!—If I seem to attach a condition, it is only an elaboration of my unconditional agreement: I must have a look at the scenario mainly on account of the cost of the scenery. Could you let me see it, and also allow our set designers, wardrobe master, etc. to make a very rough estimate? In a few days you will have my answer, which you can then take as a binding acceptance. . . . I regard it as a matter of honour for the Vienna Court Opera to have the première. That you will be pleased with the production I can guarantee!

Strauss appears to have taken the possibility of a Viennese premiere for his first ever ballet quite seriously. In his Sketchbook No. 6 (ca. 1899–1911) there are approximately twenty-five pages of musical jottings for Kometentanz as indicated by textual cues, including: “with kind queries and bows to the king,” the agent for the dance performances in Scheerbart’s scenario; “the poet,” also a central character; and “nightingales and among them the contrasting music of the spheres,” referring to the two principal acoustic motives that Scheerbart specified should recur throughout the ballet. Where these sketches are identified, they seem to correspond mostly to act one of Kometentanz, and unfold in chronological order vis-à-vis the narrative. Strauss’s music is, however, far from composed; it is no surprise, then, that in the extant correspondence between him and Mahler there is no further conversation about Scheerbart’s ballet. Perhaps it did not meet Mahler’s “condition,” proving too expensive an undertaking for Vienna.

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