German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was a true Wunderkind, with over 100 compositions to his name by the age of 18. The vast majority of these were juvenilia, but some them, like his Serenade for Winds, written when he was 17 and given opus 7, sound like mature pieces and remain in the repertoire. Strauss’s early career was distinguished by his tone poems, including Don Juan, Don Quixote, Sinfonia Domestica, Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel, and others. Through his deft handling of the orchestra in works like these, Strauss is alleged to have claimed that he could depict a knife and fork (and other such mundane objects) through music. His later career involved writing some of the most shockingly modern of early 20th century operas, including Salome and Elektra, a later gradual return to a more conservative, tonal style, a brief period of questionable association with the Nazi party (from which he was later absolved), and a final distinguished resurgence. He was writing up to his death: some of his last compositions are marked as “opus posthumous,” despite being premiered during his lifetime.
Strauss’s contributions to the wind band are substantial, beginning with the aforementioned Serenade and extending to the two multi-movement sonatinas written in the last years of his life, with some fanfares and a Suite in between. The Happy Workshop is one of the two sonatinas from the 1940s (written in 1944-1945, to be precise). Its original title was Sontatina no. 2 “Fröhliche Werkstatt”. This was changed to Symphonie für Bläser “Fröhliche Werkstatt” by Strauss’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, and that title has stuck. B&H had their reasons for the change: the work is in four movements in a traditional symphonic plan, and it is nearly 50 minutes long in total. It was premiered in 1946 in Switzerland with the very living Strauss in attendance, and yet it still contains the designation “opus posthumous,” as noted above.
This is not a piece to be trifled with. Aside from its length and the concentration required to stay engaged for so long, it is technically challenging for each player and full of ensemble traps. (To put it in the words of one of Arizona State’s wind faculty, who played on a recent performance of this, “pick a key and stick to it for more than a bar!!”) Also, it requires some unusual instruments. There are parts for clarinet in C and basset horn, as well as a bass clarinet part written in bass clef! I made alternative versions of some of these while doing TA work at ASU:
- Bass Clarinet (bass clef) rewritten in treble clef
- Clarinet in C transposed for a combination of e-flat and b-flat clarinets (one player)
Here it is, played by the Netherland Wind Ensemble (unfortunately in four chunks):
For more on Strauss (and this just scratches the surface), see his Wikipedia bio, his Encyclopedia Brittanica entry, this profile on mfiles, this profile on a website about music and the Holocaust, an essay about him in the New York Review of Books, and the official website dedicated to him and run by his family.
The Happy Workshop is no stranger to recording or writing. Find out more about it at Presto Classical, Philly.com, and this blog. It is also on IMSLP, though it is not in the public domain in the US just yet.