When it came to his prodigious gift for tone painting, Richard Strauss was not exactly a modest man: he once said he could set a menu to music! But even by his standards Ein Heldenleben is a masterpiece of characterization and scene painting.
The subject is The Life of a Hero and, because Strauss was not a modest man, he chose himself as the heroic subject of his tone poem.
Thus, the Hero's enemies are the music critics with their barbed and cruel pens; the Hero's beloved companion is portrayed in a vivid and accurate portrait of the composer's own wife Pauline; and the Hero's good deeds are represented by quotations from the composer's earlier compositions.
There is no real story line to Heldenleben, rather it is a record of reactions and responses on the theme of heroism. It opens with the Hero swaggering, plunging, soaring, and striding in a theme spanning three octaves against a pounding rhythm, followed by several other themes that represent the gentler side of his character. Sometimes the music gets so complicated and opaque that we can hardly make out all the myriad voices - for, in Strauss' view, complexity, as much as power, is an aspect of heroism. In the two bars of silence that end the first section, the Hero seems to defiantly await the world's response to his challenge.
What follows is surprising indeed. The woodwinds, in their spikiest, meanest and most petty mode, represent the Hero's adversaries: the music critics. These narrow minded and smug enemies seem unworthy opponents of a great hero but their attacks succeed in affecting his mood enough to depress his heroic theme and cause him to fall into a doleful state. Finally he becomes angry and shakes them off.
With the entry of the solo violin we meet his companion and wife. What a character she is! At once seductive, shrewish, nagging and deeply loving, the section culminates in a glorious soaring passage expressing their passionate love for each other. It subsides in music of deep and real affection to which the critics' irritating bickering is merely a muted background. Suddenly, at the sound of distant trumpets, the Hero arises and, with his beloved's help, puts on his armor. His adversaries are routed in a splendidly cacopho-nous battle scene. We know that the love of his companion has been a major factor in the Hero's success, for when we return to the opening statement (the recapitulation) the Hero's theme is now accompanied by his companion's theme, whereas when it first appeared he stood alone. New ideas now burst out all over, suggesting the highly creative nature of the Hero who must not for a moment rest on his laurels, but be ever driven on by ambition. The music surges towards a great climax quoting themes from Don Juan and Zarathustra amongst the composer's mightiest conceptions.
Now we are told of the Hero's Accomplishments in Time of Peace, which are composed as snatches of themes from Strauss' other works- Don Juan, Zarathustra, Death & Transfiguration, Don Quixote and Till Eulenspiegel-all woven into a gorgeous tapestry of sound.
The Hero has one more skirmish with his enemies (internal ones this time, it seems) before he contemplates his Retirement and Life's Fulfillment. The Hero considers withdrawing from the world to the countryside (suggested by the quotation of the pastoral English-Horn theme from Don Quixote), but, by the end, he has learned renunciation and achieved peace of mind. That too, we discover, he learned from his wife, for the serene and noble violin song suggesting his transformation is the very theme with which the hero had lashed out at the critics, which in turn had derived from his companion's love theme. He has a brief nightmarish reminder of his struggles against the critics but his beloved companion is there to comfort him and restore his faith. The music almost dies out on the violin's high e-flat but is followed by a slow rising crescendo in the brass, outlining the first six notes of the Hero's theme from the opening of the piece, in a simple, profoundly dignified harmonization.
Perhaps, after all, it was not Strauss' immodesty that led him to dramatize his own life in Ein Heldenleben. Rather, it is that he saw that all experience, including his own, could be made to gain universality through the transforming process of art. The "critics" in Ein Heldenleben are not of course merely local music critics, but all those barriers and doubts, internal and external, that stand in the path of our most cherished dreams and aspirations. That the deep love of a companion can give us super-human strength and that creativity and virtuosity are our best armor in the struggle of life are universal truths. But the greatest truth of all is embodied in the final exquisite phrases of Heldenleben: that a warm, true heart wedded to noble ideals and shared with another is the highest, most heroic path for human beings.