240. Guntram (Strauss)

  • Opera in 3 acts
  • Composer and librettist: Richard Strauss
  • First performed: Grossherzogliches Hoftheater, Weimar, 10 May 1894, conducted by Strauss
  • Revised: Weimar, 29 October 1940

DER ALTE HERZOG [The old Duke]BassKarl Bucha
FREIHILD, his daughterSopranoPauline de Ahha
HERZOG ROBERT, her husbandBaritoneFranz Schwarz
GUNTRAM, singerTenorHeinrich Zeller
FRIEDHOLD, singerBassFerdinand Widey
DES HERZOGS NARR [The Duke’s jester]TenorHans Giessen
Poor people  
An old womanContraltoLuise Tibelti
An old manTenorLutz
Two young menBassesHermann Bucha Barth
Three vassalsBassesSchustherr Fischer Hennig
A heraldBaritoneHermann Bucha
Four MinnesingersTenor
Von Springer
The Duke’s vassals, Minnesingers, four monks, servants, and journeymen  

SETTING: Germany, around the middle of the 13th century

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Everything has to start somewhere. When Strauss composed Guntram, he was already famous for the tone poems Don Juan (1888) and Tod und Verklärung (1890). But he began his operatic career with a tedious reworking of Wagnerian themes.

The plot derives from Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850), yoked to a score based on Tristan und Isolde (1865) or Parsifal (1882). Guntram takes place in the mediaeval world of early Wagner: Minnesingers, singing contests, and champions of righteousness, and a great deal about guilt, sin, redemption through love, and renunciation of the world.

The troubadour Guntram is a member of a secret society, the League of the Champions of Love, that protects the poor from the tyrannical Duke Robert. He falls in love with the Duke’s wife, and kills the Duke. At the end, Guntram walks off to become a hermit, leaving the girl behind with a dead husband. Overcome by his nobility, she prostrates herself before him, and they look forward to their reunion in heaven. (It’s hogwash, but at least Wagner sincerely believed in this stuff.) Kurt Wilhelm considers the story naïve, clichéd, and lacking any theatrical excitement or spectacle, and it’s hard to disagree. Confusingly, too, major characters are named Friedhold (a champion of love) and Freidhild (the duchess).

Strauss thought the libretto no worse than that of Verdi‘s Il Trovatore (1853), but he was fighting a losing battle. Critics have generally condemned the text: Charles Osborne called it “an ill-written, turgid piece of pre-Raphaelite Romanticism”; and Michael Oliver (Gramophone) said it was “written while Strauss was suffering from a very severe attack of Wagnerian ’flu, with mystical complications”, and thought the style was “a mess of alliterative doggerel … a feeble imitation of the less attractive attributes of Wagner’s own texts”. When Strauss next wrote his own libretto, 30 years later (Intermezzo, 1924), it was utterly unWagnerian: a bourgeois comedy, conversational in style.

Easily the best music is the overture, as transcendentally warm as Wagner at his best; it presents the major themes: spiritual love, the League, Guntram. Otherwise, the score is lugubrious and unmemorable, full of grand, sweeping, rhetorical gestures that go nowhere, punctuated by the jester’s inane “Hei di del dum die”. Wilhelm calls it “a lot of pomposity, hothouse emotion, and self-indulgent histrionics – though there is also a lot that sounds like nobody except Richard Strauss”. Much of it echoes Parsifal: soporific piety, Heldentenors declaiming over the orchestra, and basses imitating Gurnemanz. Strauss later famously complained that the tenor wasn’t a voice type, it was a disease. In each act, he saddles the tenor with long-winded monologues; that in Act III, the climax of the opera, is ecstatic, and (barring the overture) the only piece worth salvaging. Strauss himself called it “an insanely taxing vocal part”: it contained more bars than Tristan. When he rehearsed the opera at Carlsruhe, the tenor found the rôle unsingable, while Mahler cancelled it at Hamburg.

Strauss considered Guntram a succès d’estime: according to Michael Kennedy, the première was mildly successful, despite the orchestra only being half the size needed. Osborne, however, states that the work did not please its audiences, and critical reaction was discouraging. The publisher Spitzweg lost nearly 5,000 marks on the score, Wilhelm notes. Strauss sent the score to Verdi, who wrote: “I perceive that your Guntram is a work fashioned by a knowing hand.” (The Italian composer, though, wondered if Richard was a relation of the Viennese operetta king Johann Strauss.) Strauss also married the soprano, Pauline de Anha.

A single later performance in Munich was disastrous: two of the principals refused to sing it, and the orchestra asked the Intendant to spare them “this scourge of God”. Strauss erected a gravestone to the memory of Guntram, his “child of sorrow”: “Here rests the honourable and virtuous young man Guntram … who was horribly slain by the symphony orchestra of his own father.”

Crushed, the composer refused to compose another opera for seven years; but he had his little revenge on the Bavarian philistines first with the self-aggrandising tone poem Heldenleben (1899), and then with his burlesque opera Feuersnot (1901), his return to the stage. Later attempts to revive Guntram in Prague (1901) and Frankfurt (1910) were unsuccessful.

A concert performance of Guntram was broadcast on German radio for Strauss’s 70th birthday. Strauss considered the work still viable: “It contained so much beautiful music that Guntram well deserved a revival, if only because of its historic interest as the first work of a musical dramatist who was later to become successful.” In 1940, Strauss revised the work, with substantial cuts; on the rare occasions that Guntram is performed, this is the version used. Even in this state, Guntram is undramatic and static; God knows what the original was like.

“All of Guntram is a prelude,” Strauss later declared. Certainly, he would do much better.

Suggested recording

Listen to: Reiner Goldberg (Guntram), Ilona Tokody (Freihild), Sander Sólyom-Nagy (The old Duke), István Gáti (Herzog Robert), János Bándi (The Duke’s Fool), with the Hungarian State Orchestra, conducted by Eve Queler, 1984; Sony 88697448162.

Works consulted

  • Michael Kennedy, The Master Musicians: Richard Strauss, London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1988
  • Michael Oliver, Gramophone, January 1985
  • Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Strauss, London: Victor Gollancz, 1992
  • Kurt Wilhelm, Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait (Thames & Hudson, 1989; English translation of Richard Strauss persönlich, 1984)
  • See also Phil’s review

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