An exotic patron for Richard Strauss

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Friday, May 22, 2020

The German composer Richard Strauss wrote his first song at age 6, and his last at age 84, a year before his death in 1949. Four of his last songs were for soprano and orchestra, settings of one poem by the Romantic poet Josef von Eichendorff, and three by the modern poet and novelist Hermann Hesse. These “Four Last Songs,” as they came to be known, were premiered in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, on today’s date in 1950.

Strauss had written to the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, suggesting "I would like to make it possible that [the songs] should be at your disposal for a world premiere … with a first-class conductor and orchestra.” Flagstad did sing the premiere performances, with the first-rate Philharmonia Orchestra of London conducted by the legendary German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.

In addition to those famous performers, credit for the realization of Strauss’s request is also due to an unlikely and exotic patron of the arts, namely the Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar Bahudar, who put up a cash guarantee for the Strauss premiere. And since he could not be present himself, the Maharaja asked that the premiere be recorded and the discs shipped to him in Mysore.

The Maharaja had wanted to be concert pianist, but the deaths of both his father and his uncle forced him to succeed to the throne in 1940 at the age of 21. Mysore was one of the most prosperous states of India, and, in addition to underwriting the premiere of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”, the young Maharaja championed the music of the Russian composer Nikolas Medtner, and, in 1945, the creation of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London as a recording ensemble for the enterprising EMI producer Walter Legge.

In addition to Western classical music, the Maharaja was passionate about the court music of his native land, and, under the pen name of Shri Vidya, himself composed almost 100 works in the South Indian tradition.