There are times when he comes amongst us like one who might quite conceivably have been comrade to pelted warriors who fought with clubs and hammers, like one who might have beaten out a rude music by black, smoking hearthsides quite as readily as made tone-poems for the modern concert-room.
Whether this striving after nerve-shattering combinations is a dangerous tendency is quite beside the mark. Let us register the fact. Beginning in the path made by Brahms, he soon came under the influence of Liszt, and we were given a chaplet of tone-poems, sheer programme-music, but cast in a bigger and more flexible mould than the thrice-familiar Liszt pattern.
With the exception of "To a Water-lily," whose quality is uncomplex and unconcealed, these tone-poems in little are a curious blend of what, lacking an apter name, one must call nature-poetry, and psychological suggestion; and they are remarkable for the manner in which they focus great richness of emotion into limited space.
Despite his spiritual dependence upon Wagner, and in his Tone-Poems, upon Liszt and Berlioz, he has a very definite musical personality. He has amplified, intensified the Liszt-Wagner music, adding to its stature, also exaggerating it on the purely sensuous side.
Nevertheless, the work is by no means realized. It is formally impure, a thing that none of the earlier tone-poems are. Neither style nor shape are deeply felt. Both are superficially and externally conceived; and nothing so conclusively demonstrates it as the extreme ineffectually of the moments of contrast with which Strauss has attempted to relieve the dominant mood of his work.
In melody and general conception his tone-poems sprang spontaneously from his glowing fancy, but they were subjected to the most severe tests before they were permitted to go out into the world.
Just as the form of the concerto seems to have given his sense of the violin a play apparently denied it by the smaller mediums, so these larger orchestral forms seem to have liberated his imagination, his orchestral genius, and made him poet of his folk indeed. His personal quality, spread more thinly in his songs and tone-poems, is essentialized and developed in these other works.
I should call it one of the best modern piano compositions. Twelve "Fantasy Pieces" are included in opus 38. They are short tone-poems. The second, "Sylvan Spirits," is fascinating, and "Pretty Marie" has an irresistibly gay melody. He has dedicated the six songs of opus 6 to Robert Franz.
The tone-poems of Debussy and the ballets of Ravel and Strawinsky, the scintillating orchestral compositions of Strauss and Rimsky and Bloch, could scarcely have come to be had not Berlioz called the attention of the world to the instruments in which the colors and timbres in which it is steeped, lie dormant.
The shattering brass of which Berlioz had dreamt is realized. Violas d'amore, hecklephones, wind-machines, are introduced into the band; the familiar instruments are used in unfamiliar registers. Through the tone-poems of Strauss, the orchestral composer for the first time has a suitable palette, and can achieve a brilliance as great as that which the modern painter can attain.