From the Mailbag: Why so many breath marks in Strauss 1?


We get a variety of questions and this one recently is one that I am sure is wondered often.

I have a question that’s been bugging me for decades and that is, why are there so many marked breaths in the standard edition of the Strauss Concerto #1? … Clearly, there no need to breathe nearly every 2 measures or so. Even as phrase markings, it just chops it up unreasonably.

Yes, there are far too many printed breath marks in Strauss 1. There are two theories on this.

Strauss-1-breathsOne would be that it reflects the actual horn playing of Franz Strauss. Early in his career he actually had to stop playing horn for a time that must have been close to two years, after a period of personal tragedy. First a 10-month-old son died of tuberculosis, and then cholera took the lives of his wife and young daughter, leaving him a widower at the age of thirty-two in 1854. He is reported to have performed the viola (!) on the Munich premiere of Tannhauser in 1855.

The exact nature of the problem with his playing which led him to suspend horn performance at that time I don’t believe has been stated. The comprehensive February 1999 article by William Melton in The Horn Call does quote Strauss that his health had been “severely taxed by the terrible blow” and that he needed a time to rest. My assumption has always been that at that time it was at least in part due to asthma. Later in the Melton article, after his actual retirement from playing we see this sentence: “He could stop battling asthma and pack away his horn, but continued to play viola for years in the well-known Mittermayer Quartet.” So I think there is a good case that his asthma issue is reflected in the many breath marks in Strauss 1.

The other reason I put forward to students as to why so many breath marks is simple youthful enthusiasm on the part of Richard Strauss. The work dates to 1883 and Richard was only 19 years old that year! The work is quite an accomplishment and reflects that he had a great ear for the horn having heard his father practicing and performing for his entire life.

So in short the number of breath marks reflects probably a combination of the breathing issues of Franz Strauss and the youthful enthusiasm of Richard Strauss. The work benefits from longer phrases, feel free to ignore many of the marked breaths.