I'm writing a programme note about Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony for the next KSO concert at the moment, and it's an interesting contrast with the last one I did for Shostakovich 4. This is partly due to the fact that I just don't like Richard Strauss very much.
it's difficult to pin down just what it is that doesn't appeal to me; I can see that it's well written - Strauss is never less than effective with an orchestra - and there's plenty to say about the origins of the piece, what with the connections to Nietszche and Mahler. It's not even his dodgy Nazi links - the more I read about him the more I become convinced that he was naive and blinkered and self-serving rather than actually evil. It's that I can't see anything beneath the (admittedly attractive) surface. So I struggle at those sentences, desperately trying to convey an enthusiasm I don't really feel, talkign about hidden depths I'm not convinced are there.
He's the musical equivalent of a page 3 girl - very well built, but once you've got past the beautifully contoured orchestration, there's nothing to engage the intellect*. Someone once said something to the effect that of the three late-romantic Austro-German composers, Bruckner found God, Mahler searched for God and Strauss wondered what all the fuss was about. And that's the effect his music has on me. It drifts by, beautifully composed and utterly vacuous.
Composing to entertain the audience is a perfectly legitimate strategy, as valid as composing without a care for the audience, and on some level Strauss must be successful, because I certainly seem to be in a minority in my apathy. But as much as I like to look at a well built figure, it's more fun if there's a conversation to be had too.
*I'm not suggesting that all page 3 girls are air heads, of course. I'm sure there are plenty of them with degrees in comparative philosophy or quantum physics.