Ein Heldenleben

Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), Op. 40, is a tone poem by Richard Strauss. The work was completed in 1898. It was his eighth work in the genre, and exceeded any of its predecessors in its orchestral demands. Generally agreed to be autobiographical in nature despite contradictory statements on the matter by the composer, the work contains more than thirty quotations from Strauss's earlier works, including Also sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Death and Transfiguration.

Strauss, 1898 portrait by Fritz Erler


Strauss began work on the piece while staying in a Bavarian mountain resort in July 1898. He proposed to write a heroic work in the mould of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony: "It is entitled 'A Hero's Life', and while it has no funeral march, it does have lots of horns, horns being quite the thing to express heroism. Thanks to the healthy country air, my sketch has progressed well and I hope to finish by New Year's Day."[1]

Strauss worked on Ein Heldenleben and another tone poem, Don Quixote, during 1898. He regarded the two as complementary, saying they were conceived as "direct pendants" to one another.[2] There was speculation before the premiere about the identity of the hero. Strauss was equivocal: he commented "I'm no hero: I'm not made for battle",[3] and in a programme note he wrote that subject of the piece was "not a single poetical or historical figure, but rather a more general and free ideal of great and manly heroism."[4] On the other hand, in the words of the critic Richard Freed:

The music, though, points stubbornly to its own author as its subject, and Strauss did concede, after all, in a remark to the writer Romain Rolland, that he found himself "no less interesting than Napoleon," and his gesture of conducting the premiere himself instead of leaving that honor to the respected dedicatee [i.e., Willem Mengelberg] may well be viewed as further confirmation of the work's self-congratulatory character.[4]

Structure and analysisEdit

The work, which lasts about fifty minutes, is through-composed: performed without breaks, except for a dramatic grand pause at the end of the first movement. The movements are titled as follows (later editions of the score may not show these titles, owing to the composer's request that they be removed):

  1. "Der Held" (The Hero)
  2. "Des Helden Widersacher" (The Hero's Adversaries)
  3. "Des Helden Gefährtin" (The Hero's Companion)
  4. "Des Helden Walstatt" (The Hero at Battle)
  5. "Des Helden Friedenswerke" (The Hero's Works of Peace)
  6. "Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung" (The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion)

Ein Heldenleben employs the technique of leitmotif that Richard Wagner used, but almost always as elements of its enlarged sonata-rondo symphonic structure.

    "The Hero": The first theme represents the hero.[5] In unison, horns and celli play E-flat major triads ascending through an almost three-octave span. A contrasting lyrical theme first appears in high strings and winds in B major. A second motive appears, outlining a stepwise descending fourth. Trumpets sound a dominant seventh chord followed by a grand pause, the only prolonged silence throughout the entire piece.[3]
    "The Hero's Adversaries": The movement opens with chromatic woodwinds and low brass: multiple motives in contrasting registers are heard. The adversaries represented by the woodwinds are Strauss's critics, such as the 19th-century Viennese music critic Doktor Dehring, who is memorably written into the score with an ominous four note leitmotif played by the two tubas in parallel fifths.[4] As the critic Michael Kennedy puts it, the Hero's theme goes dolefully into the minor and the critics renew their attacks until a fanfare from the brass diminishes them.[3]
  3. "The Hero's Companion": Strauss was evasive about whether he was or was not the hero depicted in the piece, but he explicitly confirmed that the hero's companion was a portrait of his wife, Pauline de Ahna. He wrote to Rolland, "She is very complex, a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute."[4] The section features a tender melody played by a solo violin. In an extended accompanied cadenza filled with extremely detailed performance instructions by Strauss, after the fashion of an operatic recitative, the violin presents new motivic material, alternating with brief interjections in low strings, winds, and brass. During this section, the violin briefly foreshadows a theme that will appear fully later. The cadenza concludes and the new thematic material is combined in a cantabile episode commencing in G-flat. Fragments of the motives from the previous movement briefly appear. A fanfare motive in offstage trumpets, repeated onstage, is then heard. The section ends with "a voluptuously scored love-scene".[3] The academic and critic James Hepokoski observes that the whole work is in a massive version of sonata form. The three initial sections comprise an elaborate exposition, with elements of a multiple-movement symphony evident in their contrasting character and tempo.[6] The remainder of the work comprises development, recapitulation, and coda, with occasional new thematic material.[6]
  4. "The Hero at Battle": In this first extended development section of the work, percussion and a solo trumpet are heard in the first appearance of 3/4 time: a variation of a previous motive. A sequence of clamorous trumpet fanfares occurs as the music approaches a harmonic climax in G-flat, and the related E-flat minor. Percussion is pervasive throughout the movement. 4/4 time returns in a modified recapitulation of the first theme as it appeared at the beginning of the piece, this time with a repeated quaver accompaniment. A new cantabile theme makes its appearance in the trumpet, and an extended elaboration of this serves to preface the next section.[6]
  5. "The Hero's Works of Peace": Yet another new motive appears, commencing in a rapid descending E-flat triad, which introduces a new development of the original theme: an elegy featuring harp, bassoon, English horn, and strings. The autobiographical aspect of the work is indicated most clearly in this section, in which Strauss extensively quotes his previous works. He quotes his early opera Guntram (eight times), his symphonic poems Don Quixote (five times), Don Juan (four), Death and Transfiguration (four), Macbeth (three), Also sprach Zarathustra (three) and Till Eulenspiegel (once). The lieder "Traum durch die Dämmerung", Op 29/1 and "Befreit", Op 39/1, are quoted once each.[7] The melodies lead into the final section.
  6. "The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion": The reappearance of the previous "Hanslick" motive brings in an agitato episode. This is followed by a pastoral interlude with what Kennedy calls "a bucolic cor anglais theme".[3] The descending triad now appears slowly, cantabile, as the head of a new, peaceful theme in E-flat: this is the theme foreshadowed during the violin cadenza. In a final variation of the initial motive, the brass intones the last fanfare, and a serene E-flat major conclusion is reached, signaling the Hero's completion and fulfillment.[3]


Strauss conducting (circa 1900)

The work is scored for a large orchestra consisting of piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, cor anglais (doubling fourth oboe), E clarinet, two soprano clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, eight horns in F, E and E, three trumpets in B (briefly used offstage) and two trumpets in E, three trombones, tenor tuba in B, tuba, timpani, bass drum, two snare drums, cymbals, tenor drum, tam-tam, triangle, two harps, and strings, including an extensive solo violin part.[8]

Dedication and performancesEdit

Strauss dedicated the piece to the 27-year-old Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. However, it was premiered by the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester on March 3, 1899 in Frankfurt, with the composer conducting.[9] The first American performance was a year later, performed by the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Theodore Thomas.[5] The work did not reach England until December 6th 1902, when the composer conducted Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra.[10]

Béla Bartók wrote a piano reduction of the piece in 1902, performing it on January 23, 1903, in Vienna.[11] The conductor Joolz Gale was more recently given permission to arrange the work for chamber orchestra, which was commissioned and premiered by ensemble mini on October 16, 2014, in Berlin.[12]


The German critics responded to Strauss's caricatures of them. One of them called the piece "as revolting a picture of this revolting man as one might ever encounter".[1] Otto Floersheim wrote a damning review in the Musical Courier (April 19, 1899), calling the "alleged symphony ... revolutionary in every sense of the word". He continued, "[t]he climax of everything that is ugly, cacophonous, blatant and erratic, the most perverse music I ever heard in all my life, is reached in the chapter 'The Hero's Battlefield'. The man who wrote this outrageously hideous noise, no longer deserving of the word music, is either a lunatic, or he is rapidly approaching idiocy."[13] The critic in The New York Times after the New York premiere in 1900 was more circumspect. He admitted that posterity might well mock his response to the piece, but that although "there are passages of true, glorious, overwhelming beauty ... one is often thrown into astonishment and confusion".[14] Henry Wood, with whose orchestra Strauss gave the British premiere, thought the piece "wonderfully beautiful".[15]

In modern times, the work still divides critical opinion. According to Bryan Gilliam in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, this is "mainly because its surface elements have been overemphasized."[16] In Gilliam's view:

Various critics see the work as a flagrant instance of Strauss's artistic egotism, but a deeper interpretation reveals the issue of autobiography to be far more complex. Ein Heldenleben treats two important subjects familiar from earlier works: the Nietzschean struggle between the individual and his outer and inner worlds, and the profundity of domestic love.[16]

Whatever the critics might have thought, the work rapidly became a standard part of the orchestral repertoire. It has been performed 41 times at the BBC Proms since its premiere there in 1903.[17]


There are many recordings of Ein Heldenleben, with three conducted by the composer himself. Important recordings include the following:

Orchestra Conductor Date Label
Staatskapelle Berlin Richard Strauss 1926 Classical Recordings Quarterly
New York Philharmonic Willem Mengelberg 1928 Pearl Records
Bayerisches Staatsorchester Richard Strauss 1941 Deutsche Grammophon; Dutton Vocalion
NBC Symphony Orchestra Arturo Toscanini 1941 RCA; Naxos Historical
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Willem Mengelberg 1942 Teldec; Naxos Historical
Wiener Philharmoniker Richard Strauss 1944 Preiser Records
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Thomas Beecham 1947 Testament; Biddulph
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Fritz Reiner 1947 RCA
Wiener Philharmoniker Clemens Krauss 1952 Decca
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra Antal Doráti 1953 Mercury; Pristine Classics
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Fritz Reiner 1954 RCA
Staatskapelle Dresden Karl Böhm 1957 Deutsche Grammophon
Berliner Philharmoniker Herbert von Karajan 1959 Deutsche Grammophon
Philadelphia Orchestra Eugene Ormandy 1959 CBS
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Thomas Beecham 1959 EMI (stereo)
Philadelphia Orchestra Eugene Ormandy 1960 Sony Classical
San Francisco Symphony Pierre Monteux 1960 RCA
London Symphony Orchestra Sir John Barbirolli 1969 EMI
Los Angeles Philharmonic Zubin Mehta 1969 Decca
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Bernard Haitink 1970 Philips
London Symphony Orchestra Sir John Barbirolli 1970 BBC Classics (live recording)
Staatskapelle Dresden Rudolf Kempe 1972 EMI
Berliner Philharmoniker Herbert von Karajan 1974 EMI
Wiener Philharmoniker Karl Böhm 1975 Deutsche Grammophon
Wiener Philharmoniker Sir Georg Solti 1978 Decca
Philadelphia Orchestra Eugene Ormandy 1980 RCA
Cleveland Orchestra Vladimir Ashkenazy 1984 Decca
Berliner Philharmoniker Herbert von Karajan 1985 Deutsche Grammophon
Wiener Philharmoniker André Previn 1988 Telarc
Staatskapelle Dresden Giuseppe Sinopoli 1992 Deutsche Grammophon
Cleveland Orchestra Christoph von Dohnányi 1992 Decca
Wiener Philharmoniker Carlos Kleiber 1993 Sony (unreleased)
San Francisco Symphony Herbert Blomstedt 1994 Decca
Minnesota Orchestra Eiji Oue 1998 Reference Recordings
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks Lorin Maazel 1999 RCA Red Seal
Czech Philharmonic Vladimir Ashkenazy 2000 Exton
WDR Symphony Cologne Semyon Bychkov 2001 Avie
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Daniel Barenboim 2003 Erato /Warner Classics
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich David Zinman 2003 Arte Nova Classics
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Mariss Jansons 2004 RCO Live
Berliner Philharmoniker Sir Simon Rattle 2005 EMI
Wiener Philharmoniker Christian Thielemann 2006 Deutsche Grammophon
Staatskapelle Dresden Fabio Luisi 2007 Sony
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Manfred Honeck 2008 Exton
Philharmonia Orchestra Christoph von Dohnányi 2009 Signum Records
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Bernard Haitink 2010 CSO Resound
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra Yannick Nézet-Séguin 2011 BIS
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester Sebastian Weigle 2013 OehmsClassics
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Mariss Jansons 2015 BR Klassik
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Andrew Davis 2016 ABC Classics
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra Valery Gergiev 2017 MPHIL


  1. ^ a b Glass, Herbert. Ein Heldenleben, Los Angeles Philharmonic, accessed September 6, 2013
  2. ^ Youmans 2010, p. 81.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Kennedy, Michael, Ein Heldenleben, notes to Chandos CD Chan 8518 (1987)
  4. ^ a b c d Freed, Richard. "Ein Heldenleben, Op 40", The Kennedy Center, accessed September 6, 2013
  5. ^ a b Ferguson 1968, pp. 571–575
  6. ^ a b c Hepokoski in Youmans 2010, pp. 102–103
  7. ^ Günter Brosche [de] in Youmans 2010, p. 223
  8. ^ IMSLP.
  9. ^ Phillip Huscher. "Ein Heldenleben program notes" (PDF). Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
  10. ^ "Richard Strauss's Heldenleben conducted by the composer in London", The Manchester Guardian, December 8, 1902, p. 5
  11. ^ Chalmers, Kenneth. Liner notes to Philips CD 456575 (1999)
  12. ^ "Fortsetzung der Richard-Strauss-Trilogie des ensemble mini Berlin".
  13. ^ "Perlman to appear in concert", News OK, October 11, 2002
  14. ^ "The Philharmonic Society", The New York Times, December 8, 1900.
  15. ^ Wood 1938, p. 163.
  16. ^ a b Bryan Gilliam, "Strauss, Richard, §7: Instrumental works", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, accessed September 6, 2013 (subscription required)
  17. ^ Proms performances of Ein Heldenleben


External linksEdit