238. Feuersnot (Strauss)

  • A Singgedicht (sung poem) in 1 act
  • Composer: Richard Strauss
  • Libretto: Ernst von Wolzogen
  • First performed: Königliches Opernhaus, Munich, 21 November 1901

SCHWEIKER VON GUNDELFINGEN, the bailiffTenorFranz Petter
ORTOLF SENTLINGER, the mayorBassFranz Nebuschka
DIEMUT, his daughterSopranoAnnie Krull
ELSBETH, her friendMezzoAuguste Lautenbacher
WIGELIS, her friendContraltoIrene von Chavanne
MARGRET, her friendSopranoMinnie Nast
KUNRAD, the alchemistBaritoneKarl Scheidemantel
JÖRG PÖSCHEL, the LeitgebBassErnst Wachter
HÄMMERLEIN, the haberdasherBaritoneJosef Höpfl
KOFEL, the blacksmithBassFriedrich Plaschke
KUNZ GILGENSTOCK, the baker and brewerBassHans Geißler
ORTLIEB TULBECK, the cooperTenorAnton Erl
URSULA, his wifeContraltoFranziska Schäfer
RUGER ASPECK, the potterTenorTheodor Kruis
WALPURG, his wifeSopranoGisela Staudigl
Citizens, women, children, retainers  

SETTING: Mediaeval Munich; Midsummer Night.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

According to Uncyclopedia, in this opera, “the hero dies horribly of severely inflamed sinuses and his girlfriend succumbs to embarrassing flatulence”. That’s not entirely accurate – but Feuersnot is pretty off-colour.

Strauss succumbs to megalomania and declares he is Wagner’s successor, and a girl is deflowered while the entire town stands outside her window, encouraging the young man. The chaotic score is a mêlée of children’s choruses, folksongs, and waltzes (like Mahler gone mad), quarrelling townsfolk, snatches of Wagner, and some wonderful Straussian orchestration. For obvious reasons, Feuersnot is seldom staged.

The story is based on a Flemish legend, The Extinguished (or Quenched) Fires of Audenarde: a sorcerer magically puts out every fire in town when a girl rejects his advances, plunging the town into magical darkness. The spell is only broken when the girl stands naked in the marketplace, and a flame shoots out of her arse. (Dr. Science points out that, yes, farts are flammable.) The villagers then relit the fires one by one from the magical arseflame.

“Needless to say, this sensitive and engaging little story could hardly be transferred to the operatic stage without some alteration,” commented Charles Osborne.

Strauss’s opera, like Meistersinger, takes place in a German town at Midsummer. The sorcerer, Kundo, tries to kiss Diemut, the mayor’s daughter, at the Midsummer bonfire; later, the insulted maiden invites him to climb into a basket, and she will hoist him up to her window, but she leaves him dangling halfway up the wall, exposed to the ridicule of the public. In revenge, the magician extinguishes the fires. In the opera, the girl has to lose her virginity to the wizard; then the town’s fires are rekindled. “When love unites with the magic of genius, light dawns on even the most hopeless of philistines!” Wolzogen declared.

The midsummer night’s sex comedy was Richard Strauss and his librettist Ernst von Wolzogen’s revenge on conservative Munich. Wolzogen’s cabaret in that city had collapsed, while Strauss’s first opera, Guntram had failed there: the leading singers refused to sing it, the orchestra went on strike, and the newspapers published a lampoon accusing Strauss of assassinating music. After that single performance, Strauss recalled (1942), he lost the courage to write for the stage for six years.

“The Flemish legend, however, gave me the idea of writing, with personal motives, a little intermezzo against the theatre, to wreak some vengeance on my dear native town where I, little Richard the Third (there is no ‘Second’, according to Hans von Bülow) had, just like the great Richard the First [Wagner] thirty years before, had such unpleasant experiences.”

Strauss finished the score on Wagner’s birthday, 22nd May 1901: “Completed on the birthday and to the greater glory of the ‘Almighty’.” Another Wagner connection: the librettist was the younger brother of Wagner’s friend Hans von Wolzogen, the fiercely anti-Semitic editor of the Bayreuther Blätter.

The shadow of Wagner looms over the music. Quotations from The Ring and the Flying Dutchman (an oddly waterlogged choice for such a fiery, land-based story) are scattered throughout. Halfway through, Strauss gives us his version of the Tristan Act II love duet: Kunrad the sorcerer evokes fire as sexual desire (stuttering Stabreim, in Wagnerian words, alarmingly alliterative), Diemut stands at her balcony, and the scene culminates in an orgasmic “Mittsommernacht! Wonnige Wacht!” as bonfires leap up. Like Tristan, it ends on a coitus interruptus.

Kunrad’s very long, nearly 10-minute monologue upbraiding the townspeople for their ingratitude to Wagner and presenting himself (Strauss) as Wagner’s successor shows a Wagnerian want of proportion. It’s self-indulgent, as is the satire on the bourgeoisie in the following scene, all the burghers falling over themselves to recognise Kunrad’s genius. The chorus writing, however, is excellent. Strauss considered Kunrad’s address “the important thing… the rest of the plot was an amusing accessory”, but lamented that audiences used to Verdi’s Il trovatore and Flotow’s Martha did not appreciate it.

The Love Scene at the end (YouTube) is as sexually explicit as classical music can be: pornophony, one might say. Romantic opera is full of swooning, sensuous love duets, but this (like Massenet’s Esclarmonde) is one of the few that describes the physical act itself. Strauss’s orchestration is magical.

Feuersnot was first performed in Dresden (21 December 1901) – a success. Strauss conducted it a fortnight later in Frankfurt. Mahler conducted it in Vienna two months later, in January 1902. According to Alma Mahler, Strauss’s horrible wife Pauline complained that it was “a shoddy work – There wasn’t an original note in it, all stolen from Wagner and many others.” Eduard Hanslick, the doyen of Viennese critics (now 76), complained of “little buds of melody drowned in floods of modulation”, remonstrated that “orchestral arts are no substitute for soul”, and that “the ear is not a magnet, and melodies are not iron filings”.

Others thought it immoral: when it was performed in Berlin, in October 1902, the Empress had it removed from the repertoire after the seventh performance. The Generalintendant, Count Bolko von Hochberg, resigned in protest. Wilhelm notes that the work was later revived, in response to general demand. Thirty more theatres – including La Scala, Milan, and Covent Garden, London – performed the work, but it did not hold the stage.

Its composer blamed the opera’s complex demands. “Unfortunately, Feuersnot is comparatively difficult, requiring a superior baritone who can reach the heights, a good many solo singers capable of good characterisation, and containing difficult children’s choruses, which have always been a handicap in repertory performances.” (Hanslick, in fact, proposed “a society for the prevention of musical cruelty to children”.)

Critical opinion on Feuersnot is divided. These days, it is one of Strauss’s most obscure works. Charles Osborne judged the libretto weak, and Strauss’s music uneven and, at times, trivial: “Though one might enjoy hearing Feuersnot in the theatre when hearing it for the first time, this is not a work of which, having once heard it, one is likely to anticipate future performances with delight.” Michael Kennedy thought the drama creaked, and the satire had lost some point, but admired the music. “The score is brilliant, light and varied, with the warmth and the colour of Rosenkavalier and the transparency of Ariadne.” Kurt Wilhelm deemed it theatrically effective and full of life, even though (by its period’s moral standards) the text is salacious, the action coarse, and the polemic makes its points with a flail rather than a rapier.

But Feuersnot is also the opera, as Kennedy argues, where Strauss developed his style. The composer himself seems to have seen it as a turning point: “One forgets that this admittedly by no means perfect work (especially in the all too unequal handling of the orchestra) still introduces into the nature of the older operas a new subjective style right at the beginning of the century. It is, in its way, a kind of prelude.”

(Great minds think alike: this post was written and scheduled a few days before m’colleague Phil’s review.)


Listen to: Markus Eiche (Kunrad), Lars Woldt (Ortolf Sentlinger), Simone Schneider (Diemut), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Jörg Pöschel), with the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and Münchner Rundfunkorchester, conducted by Ulf Schirmer; CPO 777920-2, 2015.

Works consulted

  • Kurt Wilhelm, Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait (Thames & Hudson, 1989; English translation of Richard Strauss persönlich, 1984)
  • Michael Kennedy, The Master Musicians: Richard Strauss, London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1988
  • Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Strauss, London: Victor Gollancz, 1992

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