Richard Strauss (1864-1949) needs little introduction here. One of opera’s great composers, his career lasted from the last two decades of the the 19th century until the middle of the 20th. He was, along with Monteverdi, Handel, and Mozart, equally adept at instrumental and non-operatic vocal music as he was at opera. All the other great opera composers aside from these four were specialists.
Strauss’ father Franz was perhaps Europe’s greatest horn player. He made sure his precocious son received an early and thorough musical education. Richard’s first composition was written when he was six. His piano sonata in B min was composed when he was 17. It’s a fine work that shows the influence of Beethoven and Mendelssohn. The sonata has been recorded a number times, most notably by Glenn Gould. It was his last recording made in the final month of his life.
But there’s another composer lurking in the sonata’s 2nd movement, marked Adagio Cantabile – Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-88). Alkan was one of the 19th century’s greatest piano virtuosos and the composer of some of the most prodigiously difficult pieces for the piano. He was on close terms with both Chopin and Liszt.
His compositions are almost entirely for the piano. Several 21st century pianists, such as Marc-André Hamelin, have taken up his work and he is on the way to achieving the recognition that his genius deserves. He was a great Hebrew scholar and made his own translation of the bible which is lost. Additionally, he wrote scores of manuscripts in Hebrew or on Jewish subjects, also lost.
Stravinsky said that good composers borrow, while great ones steal. You can judge for yourself from the excerpts below. First here is the theme from Alkan’s Le festin d’Ésope (Aesop’s Feast) played by Hamelin – the work is a set of variations. Now here is the middle section of Strauss’ Adagio Cantabile from the Gould recording. As is apparent, the two are virtually identical.
Alkan’s music predated Strauss’ by about 25 years. So great was Alkan’s reputation as a pianist that Strauss certainly knew the Frenchman’s work. Surprisingly, I haven’t found any mention of Strauss’ use of the Aesop theme by any commentator on his youthful piano sonata. So did he borrow or steal?