Music and Vision homepage



has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

30. Richard Strauss's tone poem, Der Hund von die Baskervilles



Strauss first came across the Sherlock Holmes stories during a visit to London in 1902, and immediately became an avid fan. In fact he became so infatuated by Conan Doyle's hero that he decided to celebrate him in musical terms. The result: his tone poem, Der Hund von die Baskervilles (1904).

Conan Doyle's mystery is given full epic treatment by Strauss, who follows almost every detail of Dr Watson's narrative. (At 67 minutes, it is the longest of his tone poems, even outdistancing Ein Heldenleben.) The work abounds in leitmotivs, the most important of which are those relating to Holmes and Watson. Holmes is usually depicted by the solo cello, with some four or five themes to show the varied aspects of his personality. In the score, Strauss has labelled them as 'The Heroic Man of Action', 'The Sensitive Intellectual', 'The Pipe-Smoker', 'The Opium-Taker' and 'His Genius for Friendship'. Watson is mainly depicted by viola and bass clarinet and has themes of a more jolly, knockabout character. One of the most poignant moments is when Holmes, thought to be lost in the treacherous moorland bogs, reappears and is embraced by the worried Watson: Holmes's 'Friendship' theme here entwining with Watson's bass clarinet. The eponymous 'Hund' is depicted by a chorus of eight horns, braying out fortissimo, 'Schalltrichter auf!' over thick dark chords on bass tubas and double bassoon, whilst the dreary Dartmoor landscape is represented by novel percussion extras: not only Strauss's favourite wind- and thunder-machines, but a rain-machine as well. The landscape has inspired some of the finest passages in the work; for example, the sections 'Through Thicket and Underbrush', 'On the Torr-top' and, particularly, 'The Fog Rises and the Sun is Observed'.

Strauss, the orchestral wizard, certainly expects miracles from his players yet, though demanding, he is ever practical. Take, for instance, the long sustained notes he has given his wind instruments between figs. J and K (the tenor tuba is expected to sustain a low E-flat for 27 bars). Fully cognisant of the difficulty that this imposes, he has thoughtfully suggested that aërophors are fitted to all instruments.

Though one must agree with one critic's view that there are 'not many jokes' in the work, not all is doom and gloom, and the delightful episode, 'Will-o'-the-wisps by moonlight', has become a popular concert item in its own right. There are several touchingly autobiographical moments in the score. One of these occurs during the 'Triumphal March' that ends the work, when Strauss himself makes an unexpected appearance (main theme from Ein Heldenleben) to congratulate Holmes and Watson on solving the mystery. This incident may not be in the original story -- there again, nor is the passage where Moriaty is torn to sheds by the 'hound' -- but it adds a further dimension to Conan Doyle's narrative. The work ends with a long, tranquil coda, 'The Hero's Works of Peace', in which the 'Pipe' theme comes to the fore.


Copyright © 7 December 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK



 << Music & Vision homepage            Elgar >>