We know Richard Strauss was portraying himself, tongue in cheek, in Ein Heldenleben. The companion piece Don Quixote was written one year earlier and Strauss felt the two pieces where linked together even though this seldom, if ever, is taken into account in concert programming. For those who think Strauss was taking himself too seriously it is worth considering Don Quixote was first side of the coin.
Ein Heldenleben; did you ever notice the opening theme has a few odd notes? In the seventh bar the grand theme in Horn, Violas and Celli has a minor infliction of flats before reaching its last eb as a suspension on top of a dominant Bb7 chord: ex 1
Never thought much of it?
Ok, I know this is just two notes with flats but it seems to me that we have a little joke here. The Hero is magnificent – but – these are spots that could still be improved….
Look at how the theme almost half an hour later comes roaring out in triumph (number 77 in the score); he has just won the war! Cl, Bass CL,Violins, Violas, Celli and Double Basses: ex 2
Fuller sound, no flats anymore… Notice how, after the theme, 8 [yes! in unison...] horns repeat twice the tonality “correct” [eb-d-c-bb] Eb major scale fragment. Self assured, feeling good – no doubt about it!
Now, as you could hear, the “minor” flaws are gone – he has matured and is greater than ever. The theme ends in an enormous Cadenza and his beloved companion joins him for a copy of bar 17 -22 with the Heroines melody singing in joined ecstasy. ex 3
The piece is full of these storytelling games if you enjoy this line of thought. As pure music it works too, of course, but reading the score you cannot help but smile in awe at the witty way he unfolds the story.
If you look at how the battle was won; from number 71 in the score you see the beginning of a long series of descending half note duplets with added flats: ex 4
They are however rising in sequence one after the other until a Dominants Dominant F7 chord is reached and the enemies are heard running away scattered and defeated. These duplets are the same idea as the flat notes we heard in the beginning. Through working on his own flaws he has been able to reach victory, and this is the place of cadenza and the full main theme entering without blemishes (earlier, in ex 2).
Here is the full section discussed above in one go: The final blow of the fight, enemies scattered, triumph, a better man, immaculate, selfassuredly (8 heroic horns) steering towards the spectacular Cadenza followed by hero and heroine in joined ecstasy…