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Strauss and the cream on Vienna's musical cake

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


A man for all musical seasons: Richard Strauss

A man for all musical seasons: Richard Strauss

A man for all musical seasons: Richard Strauss

My mother would have loved Vienna. Her sweet tooth and deep appreciation of dairy products could have been indulged to her heart's content. In the old imperial capital, whether it's coffee or cake, you're never far from a hearty helping of schlagobers - the Austrian take on whipped cream. Schlagobers - literally, "that which is beaten to be placed on top" - translates into a huge dollop of an accompaniment that's part and parcel of a visit to a Viennese café.

In the context of classical music's spiritual home, it's but a small step from schlagobers to Strauss, though in this instance, it's not the family synonymous with the waltz, but their unrelated namesake from over the border in Bavaria.

Richard Strauss, born in 1864, was a man for all musical seasons. From his father, the principal horn in the Munich orchestra, he inherited a love of the music of Mozart and Beethoven, and his early works reflected this.

But hearing Wagner's operas proved seminal, and he would go on to create groundbreaking musical dramas of his own.

Salome, based on Oscar Wilde's play, caused scandal when it was introduced in 1905, not only because of the association with the notorious playwright. You can just imagine how Victorian audiences would have reacted to the heroine's startling Dance of the Seven Veils, featuring the head of John the Baptist on a plate.

Strauss followed this with Elektra, another to court controversy, not least because of its difficult and discordant score. Yet his later operas - Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos - couldn't have been further from the modernism of those that preceded, the epitome of post-Romantic charm and sumptuous melodiousness.

There were his magnificent tone poems, the best known, 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', providing the most recognisable hook from the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And you can think of Richard Strauss as the creator of those Four Last Songs, the most famous of an extensive catalogue of Lieder.

So what has whipped cream to do with any of this? Well, it simply confirms what an all-rounder this Strauss actually was.

'Schlagobers' is a "comic Viennese ballet" - his own description - born of a desire to build on something he had come up with while killing time between operas. World War I had done for the prospects of his first attempt. Whipped Cream was a kind of reaction to that.

The city was still coming to terms with what had happened. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more. They had lost the war. What was left was in a terrible place.

"I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time," he said, "I want to create joy."

So he came up with something like Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. A young lad's treat, after his First Communion, is a trip to to the Konditorei - a typical Viennese cake shop.

He overindulges, gets carted off to hospital, and ends up in the Land of the Sweets. The Marzipan marches, the Cocoa dances. You get the picture.

A wild notion, maybe, for it wasn't too well received when it was first presented in Vienna on this date in 1924. It was roundly dismissed as kitsch. But from a composer as inventive as Richard Strauss, it was worth a try. And I'm sure mother would have loved the Schlagobers, regardless.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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