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The Richard Strauss Edition

Magical moments among the staves

München, 07/03/2017

LMU musicologist Hartmut Schick is leading the effort to produce a modern edition of the works of Richard Strauss. The first volumes afford unique insights into the composer’s mastery of orchestration, and will inspire new interpretations.

Richard Strauss had composed nearly 500 works. Until now, the majority of his compositions have been available only in largely uncorrected reprints of older publications. Now all compositions in major genres are newly edited. (Source: Richard Strauss Institut Garmisch-Partenkirchen)

Macbeth, the first of Richard Strauss’ symphonic poems, was a work that the composer struggled with for years. He began it in 1886 and completed the first version in 1888. He subsequently revised the score several times, and the final version saw the light of day in 1891. Comparison of the second and third versions provides an object lesson in how a great composer can take a fresh look at a well-made work and turn it into an extraordinary piece. “The genesis of this work reveals how, at a decisive point in his career, Richard Strauss metamorphoses into a genius,” says Professor Hartmut Schick, who holds the Chair of Musicology at LMU and is the Coordinator of the first Critical Edition of the Works of Richard Strauss. The first two installments of this immense undertaking have just appeared. One of them includes two versions of Macbeth, which allow one to follow, note for note and bar for bar, how Strauss managed, with minimal alterations, to transform his original score. “One can observe how critically he views his own initial choices. Here he modifies the dynamics, there he revises the instrumentation, subtracting or adding a voice. This level of self-criticism is very rare in a composer of his stature. And he was certainly one of the finest virtuosos of the art of orchestration in the history of music – if not the greatest of them all.”

The mammoth project, which began in 2011, will for the first time collect and collate all available versions of the compositions written by Strauss during his lifetime and authorized by him for performance. The scores used in modern performances are all based on the first printed editions, which have simply been reprinted over the years and thus retain the errors introduced during the initial process of production. “Our aim is to present the works in precisely the form the composer intended – a task that was never satisfactorily accomplished in his lifetime,” Schick explains. In other words, he and his colleagues want to provide nothing less than the best possible text of each work, based on the best sources available.

This endeavor will undoubtedly have an impact on their future performance and interpretation. For instance, one of the upcoming volumes in the series will include a version of the opera Salome, which has never before appeared in print, and was last performed in 1940. Strauss originally undertook the so-called Dresden Revisions for a production at the Semperoper in that city in October 1930. The changes in the original score were made primarily with a view to making it easier for the singer of the title role to make her mark in often densely scored orchestral passages. “He thinned out the orchestration and reduced the dynamics to enable a lighter and more flexible voice to penetrate the orchestral texture,” Schick says. In doing so, Strauss also opened up the role for a different type of voice – lyrical, more agile and lighter than the highly dramatic and voluminous voices that had been required up to that time – because he saw his protagonist as a much younger, less mature and more child-like figure. “That is a quality that will certainly come into play in future productions of the opera,” says Schick. The new editions of other works will also lead to reconsiderations of issues of interpretation. “Our work on these volumes is complete, and the publishers will now produce practical performing editions. That will also make our editions of these scores more widely accessible,” says Schick’s collaborator Dr. Andreas Pernpeintner.

The online platform that accompanies the Critical Edition ( was designed by the Center for Digital Humanities at LMU, and is intended to complement the planned 52 printed volumes that constitute the core of the project. For instance, all song texts will be made accessible online, in their original forms and (where applicable) in the versions set by Strauss. In addition, the site will host letters and other texts, such as early reviews, that document the background to, and the genesis of the composer’s works. The documentation relevant to the scores contained in each new volume of the edition will be made available on the site 12 months after the publication of the newly edited scores. The platform also makes it possible for the editorial team to update the edition regularly by issuing corrections or incorporating new source material. The website is open to all, and will serve as a guide to the composer’s works for the public at large. “It will host a growing collection of sources that can be consulted and utilized by stage directors, for instance, and will be of interest even to people who are not familiar with musical notation.“

"Point of reference"
Richard Strauss was born in Munich in 1864, and enjoyed early success as a composer. As a young man, he rapidly won a popular following, and went on to become one of the most successful and most frequently performed classical composers of the 20th century. By the time of his death in 1949 at the age of 85, he had composed nearly 500 works. But his compositions were not unanimously admired by his peers and contemporaries in the music world. “Many were offended by Strauss’ continued allegiance to the long established tonal system of composition at a time when the barrier to atonality had already been decisively breached,” Schick explains. But this negative assessment has undergone significant revision over the last few decades: “When Strauss is seen in the light of post-modern music, which is quite happy to draw on older styles and ‘renovate’ them by distorting them in certain ways – without being decried as old-fashioned or reactionary – one can argue that he was already a postmodern composer before the term had been invented. For many of today‘s composers he has become a point of reference. They are now willing and able to admire Strauss’ compositional craftsmanship and the complexity of his scores,” Schick says. It is therefore high time for his scores to be re-examined with the philological care that is commensurate with their historical significance.

Interest in the composer has also increased among international audiences. “In the past 10 or 15 years, Richard Strauss’ music has experienced something of a renaissance, and is particularly popular in Japan and the USA.” This is reflected in usage of the website: More than a quarter of visitors live in Japan. “This underlines the international significance of the whole project,” says Schick.

This first Critical Edition of the Works of Richard Strauss is receiving long-term funding from the Bavarian Academy of Sciences over a period of 25 years. This timespan may seem excessive to many. But given the size of Strauss’ oeuvre, it actually sets a tight schedule for the musicologists. “The task of comparing musical scores which, in the case of the operas and orchestral works, may consist of up to 44 staves, is incredibly demanding,” Schick points out. In addition, the editors have to survey and transcribe the composer’s correspondence with collaborators, publishers and conductors. He wrote up to 10 letters in a day, and some of these may include information concerning errors, or alterations and cuts which he authorized for specific performances. His surviving correspondence consists of several thousand letters, all of which will be documented in the course of the project, and will ultimately be made available in a dedicated database which will be open to the public.

Minor changes, striking impact
The editors’ arduous task of painstakingly comparing scores and checking markings relating to dynamics, articulation and expression receives its rewards in the insights it yields into the workings of the composer’s mind – as in the case of the different versions of Macbeth: “As an editor, one sifts through and pores over the notes again and again, and then there are these magical moments when one recognizes that Strauss has done something out of the ordinary – and realizes why. These changes are usually minor, but their overall impact is so striking that it represents a huge step forward. Each one is a textbook example of compositional technique, and every student of composition should be confronted with them,” says Dr. Stefan Schenk, editor of the Macbeth volume.

His colleague Andreas Pernpeintner has also experienced such revelatory moments. He discovered a previously unknown version of the piano accompaniment for the song “Breit über mein Haupt”. “The manuscript of the later version of the song is well known, but nobody had noticed that the piano part was completely new. That was a real surprise.” Schick agrees: “It is a beautiful piece of writing, and very different in character.”

The first volumes of the new Strauss Edition also contain previously unpublished compositions. For example, in a Belgian museum, Pernpeintner came across the manuscript of a work that had never been printed. “This is immediately comprehensible to concert-goers,” he says. “We very often have to correct things like dynamic markings – that’s our day-to-day business – but works that have never before been published are also included in our edition.“

Not only first editions that have remained unknown even to Strauss specialists are exciting finds, even alterations in dynamics can open up new vistas. The team’s has also unearthed a version of a song that includes handwritten annotations made by the composer while rehearsing the song with his wife, the singer Pauline Strauss-de Ahna. “We showed this version to a well-known singer, and she was immediately convinced by the composer’s suggested alterations. She intends to perform this version in concert from now on,” says Schick. And when reminded of the magnitude of the task that confronts him and his colleagues in the coming years, he replies: “It is a matter of basic musicological research, and it is something we are happy to do, provided that the volumes we produce don’t just gather dust on bookshelves, but are brought to life in performance.“

For further information on the Critical Edition of the Works of Richard Strauss, see


Professor Hartmut Schick holds the Chair of Musicology at LMU. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Critical Edition of the Works of Richard Strauss, which appears under the auspices of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The project, which is based at LMU Munich and began in 2011, is funded by the Academies Program, which is financed jointly by the Federal and State Governments.