Macbeth, op. 23.

Macbeth is Strauss' first symphonic poem. He began it at the age of 23 in 1886. Naturally, he used Liszt's symphonic poems as his most important model. It is characteristic that while Liszt largely placed heroes at the centre of his essays in the genre, heroes who have done some deed that causes later generations to think of with gratitude (Tasso, Prometheus etc.), Strauss takes as the centre of his work the profoundly evil Lady Macbeth and her husband, who she entices to join her moral world. The work begins with the themes that introduce Macbeth. The first is a fanfare, comprising of just fourths and fifths – this evokes precisely the austere, unearthly feel of the play. The second melody is characterised by frightening leaps. The Lady's theme (proceeding largely in thirds) is prophetically seductive. One passage, perhaps not by accident, is reminiscent of the theme Wagner uses for approaching danger in the Ring Cycle. We can also recognise the cackling of Shakespeare's three weird sisters throughout the work. Some passages of the work are naturalistic. We can empathise with the moment when Macbeth is suddenly gripped by the fear of death, seeing that events are turning against him, as predicted by the witches. Strauss even contributes a literally heart stopping moment in the orchestral scene painting. The finale of the work is a kind of march. Originally, it was to have been the triumphant music of Macduff, music to herald the triumph of “justice.” Hans von Bülow, Strauss' teacher and supporter, talked him out of this happy-ending solution to the work. Strauss accepted Bülow's opinion and finishes the work quietly, with very dark colours indeed.