Richard Strauss – Bardengesang op. 55
(b. Munich, 11 June, 1864 – d. Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 8 September, 1949)
for three four-part male choirs and orchestra
With the Bardengesang (Bard’s Song) op. 55, Richard Strauss created one of those politically loaded compositions of the early 20th century that very clearly express the overarching nationalism of the time. The chosen theme, the battle in the Teutoburg Forest between the Germanic tribes led by the Cheruscan Arminius and the Romans under the leadership of the commander Varus in 9 A.D., is just as typical of the Gründerzeit (founder’s period) and the Wilhelminian era: Strauss himself set excerpts from Die Hermannsschlacht (Hermann’s Battle) by Heinrich von Kleist for male choir, brass and harp as early as 1886 (this composition is now lost) and Hans Pfitzner wrote Gesang der Barden (Song of the Bards) WoO 19 for male choir, violas, cellos and horns in 1906, also on Kleist’s text. Finally, in 1906, the 41-year-old Strauss turned to the topic once again, this time in the adaptation by Friedrich Gottlob Klopstock, who wrote the play Die Hermanns Schlacht in 1766/67. In it, the numerous songs of the bards play an important role; they are used in most of the 14 scenes. Strauss selected the chants of the sixth scene and conceived them (following the three choruses in Klopstock’s play) for three male choirs of four voices each and large orchestra. He began the composition on 6 April and completed it a short time later on 26 April 1906 in Charlottenburg. It was printed under the opus number 55 by the music publisher Fürstner in the same year. Strauss originally intended to dedicate the Bardengesang to Emperor Wilhelm II., who granted him five free summer months during his position as the first Prussian Court Kapellmeister in Berlin; however, Strauss ultimately dedicated the composition to his friend and choir master Gustav Wohlgemuth. The premiere of Bardengesang took place on 6 February 1907 in Dresden under the direction of Friedrich Brandes.
Klopstock’s bard songs of the sixth scene of Die Hermanns Schlacht comprise twelve stanzas of four verses each; Strauss took over the allocation of the stanzas to the three choirs from the original text. In the first three stanzas, the warriors are called to battle to confront the three Romans Fabius, Aemilius, and Julius (presumably representing the three Roman legions that were defeated by the Germans in Hermann’s Battle) and their followers. The battle turmoil is impressively translated into music by a giant orchestra. Strauss creates a naturalistic effect by positioning additional brass instruments behind the stage, which repeatedly play a fanfare signal (a leap of a fourth). In addition, the percussion takes on a dominant role in this depiction of a battle, both in terms of content and acoustics. In stanzas 4–7, the Germanic tribes are enumerated and gloriously praised, before the seventh stanza tells of the defeat of the Romans. It is noticeable that Strauss never allows the three four-part male choirs to achieve a twelve-part harmony, but often has them sing in unison, sometimes in two voices. The scoring with three male choirs thus has more dramatic effect than musical and follows Klopstock’s model. In the eighth scene, the bards mock the rapid rise and fall of Rome. The last three stanzas are again addressed to the Germans and tell of the appearance of the ancestors who stood by the Germans in battle. Basically, it can be said that the Bardengesang lives less from the vocal parts than from the orchestral sound, for the male choirs are mainly assigned short melodic phrases that develop into real melodies only towards the end of the composition, which lasts about ten minutes. In the twelfth and final stanza, the initially distant brass players enter the stage and the victorious Germans finally hear Valhalla’s hymn of praise.
The text by Friedrich Gottlob Klopstock on which the choral work is based was considered very cumbersome and unsuitable for musical realization at an early stage. Above all, the almost schoolmasterly enumeration of the many Germanic tribes in stanzas 4–7, which was perceived as instructive, provoked scorn and disapproval of Strauss’s choice of text. Despite the criticism of the text, the musical arrangement of the choruses was very positively received and the piece became a success. The fact that the Bardengesang is hardly ever put on programs today is due, on the one hand, to the large scoring of the work (three male choirs with a large orchestra) and, on the other hand, to the content, which may well have caused enthusiasm among audiences in the Wilhelmine era, but with which today’s listeners can identify far less.
Matthias Guschelbauer, 2021
For performance material please contact Schott, Mainz.