Richard Strauss, though better known today for his tone poems and operas, received initial recognition as a composer through his early, smaller-scale works. These include this Suite in B flat for thirteen Wind Instruments and an earlier Serenade in E flat, similarly scored for double woodwind, four horns and contrabassoon or bass tuba.
The encouragement to compose the Suite in B flat came from Hans von Bülow, then the influential conductor of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, who received a score to Strauss's single-movement Serenade in E flat (composed c. 1881) in late 1883. So impressed was Bülow that, in addition to adding the work to his orchestra's repertoire, he invited the precocious young composer to write this more substantial work for the same combination of instruments. Only after drafting the first two movements (an Allegretto and an Andante) did Strauss discover that Bülow actually desired the new piece to employ Baroque forms, including the gavotte and the fugue. To conceal the misunderstanding, Strauss gave the typically Baroque title 'Praeludium' to his drafted first movement, composed the third movement as a gavotte and incorporated a lengthy fugue into the finale.
The Suite was premièred at a matinée performance before an invited audience on 18 November 1884, by the Meiningen Orchestra during their tour to Munich, Strauss' home town. Bülow asked Strauss himself to conduct both this work and his Serenade, which was performed in the same concert. The composer subsequently described himself as having conducted 'in a state of slight coma'; this, his first conducting experience, was made more daunting in that the Suite was entirely unrehearsed (Bülow insisted that an orchestra on tour had no time for such matters!).
Strauss' compositional genius is demonstrated throughout the Suite in his blending of the strikingly individual timbres of the various wind instruments to create remarkably homogeneous, yet constantly changing textures. No doubt the young composer acquired this skill in part through the strong orchestral connections of his father, who, in addition to other positions, played principal horn in the Munich Court Orchestra for forty-nine years. Furthermore, Strauss ably brings the Baroque forms of the last two movements up to date, juxtaposing them with the Classical and Romantic tendencies of the first two movements without any impression of anachronism.
The opening Praeludium, which is reminiscent of the Serenade, builds its initial, majestic tutti theme largely from a single triplet figure. In the following transitional passage, a melody played by clarinets and bassoons is punctuated by oboes and horns. This gives way to a lyrical oboe solo, accompanied by clarinets and bassoons, with countermelodies in horn and (later) bassoon. The germinal triplet motif is gradually introduced into the ensuing darker, sparsely-scored passages. This prepares the way for the recapitulation, first of the majestic opening theme, then of the oboe solo, and lastly of the transitional material, which draws the movement to its end.
The Romanze also extensively uses a triplet figure, initiated by the opening clarinet solo (accompanied by horns). This is followed by a bleaker theme which is passed in dialogue between oboe and horns, and flute and lower woodwind. The ensuing horn solo (accompanied by upper woodwind) leads to a more extended clarinet solo (to which oboes and flutes are later added). After this, the themes of the movement are recapitulated, and the music reaches its passionate climax at the outset of the coda, before fading to a sustained, pianissimo close.
The somewhat lighter Gavotte starts with a lively, humorous theme, introduced by the bassoons, in which interaction between the different families of instruments is a prominent feature. After a short interlude in which flute and clarinet melodies are gently accompanied, the main theme returns. The next section, which is in the style of a Baroque musette, exploits the dark, predominantly double-reed timbres of the bassoon drones which accompany the oboe, low in its register (joined by the second oboe, and later by a clarinet in dialogue). The energetic gavotte theme returns following a flourish in the flutes, and, after one further reminder of the musette, repeats before the music calms to its quiet, sparsely-scored finish, and ends with one last burst of humour.
The introduction to the final movement starts with material drawn from the Romanze, including the lyrical clarinet melody (this time heard on the oboe). Following this quotation, the music steadily builds, and accelerates into the fugue section, at which point a steady beat is re-established. The fugue subject (which consists of four accented minims followed by a string of legato crotchets), initially heard in the first horn, is passed to the various other instruments of the ensemble in turn. The fugue is developed by a variety of techniques including inversion, displacement, stretto, and augmentation. Twice it is interrupted by more relaxed, melodious sections which provide a temporary release from the restless energy generated by the fugue, which is subsequently re-constructed. The music ultimately accelerates to a climax and the work is brought to its triumphant close. CMW