I have an interesting assignment that I’m working on today. I’m preparing projects for the first week of the school holidays, and one of them is a 2-day workshop exploring musical ideas in three pieces – Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony No. 3, and Beethoven’s overture to his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus.
Why these three pieces in a project for children? The group of participants will later go to hear a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert, and these are the pieces on the program. They’ll spend 2 days with me and a team of 4 MSO musicians first, exploring the musical themes and compositional ideas in the music, playing their own instruments, and experimenting with the composers’ ideas to make new compositions of their own.
The links between the pieces are interesting – it’s an elegant piece of concert programming! I’ve started my explorations in preparation for the workshops with the Strauss. This is a masterpiece of contrapuntal writing, composed in 1945 near the end of Strauss’ life (having said that, it was an Indian summer time for the composer, during which he also wrote masterworks like the Four Last Songs, and the oboe concerto), and it takes as one of its principal themes a motif from the funeral march which is the second movement of the Eroica Symphony. There’s the first link.
The Creatures of Prometheus is a creation myth from ancient Greece (I came across this blog where the author has taken the myth as the inspiration for his whole blog and gives a great synopsis of the tale – worth a read!) and Beethoven uses motivic material from it in the finale of the Eroica symphony.
But that is not the only link. Scholars now wonder if the Eroica is in fact an allegory of the entire Prometheus tale. It is well-documented that Beethoven intended to dedicate his symphony to Napoleon, being a great admirer of his leadership, but that he removed the dedication in a rage when he learned that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor. A question among scholars therefore has remained unanswered – why write a funeral march in the second movement only to follow it with a joyous scherzo and finale? Who has died? Beethoven’s interest in the Prometheus story dates from the same time, and the emotional narrative in the Eroica follows the narrative of the myth quite closely. (Read here for more about the Eroica).
Part of the Prometheus story has Prometheus scultpting human figures out of clay and bringing them to life with fire. (The ‘creatures of Prometheus’ are in fact the human race). Thus there is a transformation that is taking place. Strauss’ Metamorphosen works with musical ‘transformations’, where a small number of principal musical motifs get adapted, varied, shortened, lengthened, cut in half, joined to other halves, etc, and layered upon each other to create an extraordinary contrapuntal tapestry of ideas.
It’s an emotional work, and quite dark for much of its tone. Its composition, too, has a back story, as it was composed in response to the bombing (in World War 2) of the Munich Opera House, which for Strauss also heralded the loss of the German artistic culture, history, and tradition that he was continuing, which was such a significant part of his life, and for which he was a custodian and icon.
You can’t start digging into music composed by Richard Strauss at that time without also considering his position and life within Nazi Germany (as I read of his despair at the destruction of the opera house I could not help but reflect on the millions of lives being destroyed at that time by the Nazis… and the impact that has had on the generations that followed. The opera house was rebuilt twenty years later). This isn’t an area that I’ll be introducing into the workshop, but I acknowledge it here.
This is one of the parts of my work that I really enjoy – digging into pieces of music and drawing out those elements that I think young children will engage with strongly, and will enjoy exploring creatively and building their own relationship with, and will learn a lot from. I approach each piece with an open mind – I listen to it, study the score, read about its genesis and events in the composer’s life that may have influenced its creation…. I learn a lot of new things, and I can pass both this knowledge and the excitement and intrigue with which I engage with the music, on to the children. Hopefully, when they go along, both the information and their creative explorations with the composers’ ideas will give them multiple listening pathways into the music they will hear in the concert when they go.