Thoughts and Insights on Capriccio by ECO Principal Oboe Phil Harmer

Three years ago I was asked by my mother what I wanted for Christmas. After the usual deliberation I decided I could do with building up my opera CD collection, as I only had a couple of Mozarts plus a few highlights albums. As Richard Strauss has always been a favourite of mine both to play and to listen to, I thought I’d expand into really knowing his operas. I’d played most of his orchestral tone poems and touched on some of his beautiful songs for voice and orchestra, so I knew I couldn’t go wrong with this request…. unlike asking for a new shirt! I ended up with a recording of Capriccio with the role of the Countess sung by Dame Felicity Lott. It quickly became one of my most prized recordings, due to the sublime singing combined with an exquisite score. I had read of Strauss` love of the soprano voice, and you can hear throughout this work and indeed in all his operas (of which I now have several more) his genius at letting the vocal lines soar over vivid orchestration and shifting harmonic structure.

So you can imagine when the Grange Park Opera programme for 2010 was announced as including Capriccio I was thrilled at the opportunity to play it. I have friends and colleagues in full-time opera houses who have never played the work, so I knew it was something to cherish.

Why is Capriccio performed less than say Rosenkavalier or Salome? Well when Strauss completed the work in 1941 he decided it would be his last opera. He wasn’t sure it would be popular with audiences and felt it more a connoisseurs piece; he also knew he could write nothing better. When asked if he could continue writing more music-dramas his reply was: “Isn’t this D flat major the best winding up of my theatrical life work? One can only leave one testament behind”. Whereas Rosenkavalier can be lavish and Salome is an edge-of-the-seat thriller with frightening music that shocked audiences at the time, Capriccio is a ‘conversation piece’ set in a house in Vienna; the focus of the opera being the superiority of either words or music. Admittedly, it’s maybe not a subject that would enthrall the youth of today, yet the pure simplicity and innocence of the subject gives Strauss the vehicle to write one of his most tender and wistful scores.

Capriccio is a philosophical piece that harkens back to the carefree days of genteel pastimes, words, music and love. This said, the music is not without drama, and requires a very powerful voice to carry over the large orchestra, notably in the famous fifteen minute closing scene where the music builds to a large climax before finishing in a reflective mood. Strauss` colourful orchestration includes two harps and no fewer than five clarinets, ranging from high C clarinet down to basset horn and bass clarinet, and Strauss contrasts the large orchestral forces with trios, quartets and sextets, some for solo strings, again reminiscent of the chamber music played in such houses at the time.

The reflective Metamorphosen for strings, the Oboe Concerto and his Four Last Songs were also written at the end of Strauss` life, and some wonder how he could have produced such beautiful, heartfelt music while the atrocities of the Second World War were ongoing. But maybe it was Strauss` way of achieving healing, both for himself and for those lucky enough to hear his music.

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