Richard Strauss: Feuersnot (1901)

Opera in one act. Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes.

WARNING: Relatively medical/graphic depictions of human sexual activity. This one isn’t for the kiddos, even if they show up for A LOT of it.

Before Salome and Elektra there was Feuersnot which, like its sister operas caused a massive scandal with its sexy plot of a baritone sorcerer tilling fresh, virgin soprano soil (that got a little too close to Koranic imagery for this Jew).

Unlike its sisters, however, Feuersnot does not get out much, in spite, or perhaps because of, just how bawdy and erotic its story is. Until 2014, when it suddenly was produced around the world in honor of the 150th Strauss anniversary, it had probably been best known for getting banned in Germany (after the Kaiserin saw it and was scandalized by it), having a limited production history in Vienna (Mahler loved it), and a 1984 studio recording release with Julia Vary and Bernd Weikl, that recording being the basis for this review.

Something of a parody of the “redemption through love” theory in Wagnerian opera, Strauss and his librettist (Ernst von Wolzogen) took the concept to a more scandalous conclusion: “redemption through sex”.

This opera probably only exists because both Strauss and von Wolzogen wanted revenge on the city of Munich for their own individual reasons. Strauss was furious at the failure of his first opera, Guntram (which may also explain his later hatred of tenors since the title role is a massive tenor part which the first tenor to sing it hated because the opera ran some three hours). Von Wolzogen had tried to open a cabaret in Munich, which failed. The libretto, based on an even more raunchy Flemish legend, makes very obvious that Kunrad (the sorcerer’s apprentice) is actually Richard Strauss himself, with the invisible sorcerer being Richard Wagner. That “light” is only restored to Munich through Kunrad inseminating the mayor’s daughter in a mad sex scene is meant to be a musical joke poking fun of the Bavarian city. The opera was first performed in Dresden, which LOVED it, and resulted in Strauss giving eight of his later 13 operatic premieres to the city. Today, ironically, the opera is most performed in Munich itself!

SETTING: Munich, the Middle Ages (probably 12th century). The main struggle of the plot revolves around the recently arrived sorcerer Kunrad (baritone) and his desire to engage in wildly passionate fornication with Diemut (soprano), the mayor’s daughter. During the St. John’s Eve festivities, which is celebrated through bonfires, Kunrad kisses Diemut in front of the entire city. She gets her revenge by inviting him up to her room in a basket, which she leaves hanging half-way up between the ground and her window. Kunrad uses his magic to extinguish all of the fires in Munich, telling the populace that only through “the body of a virgin in heat” can they be rekindled. Eventually, the people convince Diemut to submit to Kunrad and her wildly erotic deflowering by him (depicted in an electrifying symphony by Strauss) causes the fires to be restored to the city. (I swear this is actually what happens in this opera!)

Although mostly known as a soprano-baritone duo in its casting, there are actually 15 soloist parts in the opera (9 male, 6 female) of all six major vocal types and even including such animals as low contraltos and low tenors and basses, high baritones and tenors, sopranos. I will indicate as needed within the musical review. One problem that can come up in the opera involves the chorus, specifically the heavy usage of the children’s chorus, which is a potentially lethal factor if the children are not able to pull off both the music and their rather long appearances in the score.


SCENE: Munich, the Town Square, the mayor’s residence prominent.

0: The orchestral introduction ** is based on a lively Bavarian folk tune and continues into a rather well executed children’s chorus (get used to them because they are here for the long haul like the Bailli’s children in Werther). They tell the Mayor, Ortolf Sentlinger (bass) that his daughter Diemut will not marry until they have wood in their carts for the bonfires. Diemut comes on with her three friends (Elsbeth, mezzo, Wigelis, contralto, and Margret, soprano) singing a very cheery tune which will not return until after she has lost her virginity.

8: Als Herzog Heinrich After an assortment of citizens forward the plot slightly: the innkeeper Jorg Poschel (bass) warns the children (who are making way too much noise) that they will anger a mysterious guest at the inn who does not speak to anyone, although he takes his meals with everyone else. Kunz Gilgenstock , the town Baker (bass) thinks the stranger may be a nobleman. Ortlieb Tulbeck (tenor) gets the best number so far as he recounts a Crusader legend about a mysterious animal which begat a series of deformed creatures, that last of which being a sorcerer (the mysterious guest). Strauss sets this story to a drinking song which sounds a bit like the leitmotif for Fasolt and Fafner in Das Rheingold *. His wife (contralto) tries to back up his story, but Kofel the Blacksmith (bass) thinks it is silly.

12: Heh Dort! Kunrad opens the window to his room **, obviously having just been awaken by the noise the children are making (his leitmotif appears for the first time at this point). When Diemut’s three girlfriend’s tease him, he realizes that it is Midsummer’s Night and that the children want the wood for bonfires. He gives his own house away to the children for the fires. The Three Girlfriends find Kunrad very sexy, Diemut alone acting in a resistant manner.

16: Sonnwend! Sonnwend! Kunrad tells Diemut that he wants her to jump over the flames with him in a rather nondescript aria * before kissing her. After more complex child chorusing, Sentlinger upbraids Kunrad for being so fresh with his daughter while her girlfriends continue to tease her.

22: Das ich den Zauber lerne The better of the two early arias for Kunrad **.

30: The children dance around Kunrad as Diemut plots revenge on him to a low-temperature waltz which (according to Charles Osborne at least) is similar to the waltz used by Tchaikovsky in Eugene Onegin. The tune, again, based on a Bavarian drinking song, only barely resembles the waltz to me at least * and only for around three bars. All the while the kids having been chorusing about with their mock-ish Midsummer tune, continue to make their interjections.

36: Feuersnot! Minnegebot! Kunrad threatens to use his magic to put out all of the fires in Munich **. The vocal line is mostly a series of broken phrases, but these will return towards the end of the opera.

39: Mittsommernacht! Wehvolle Wacht! Although most of the opera up to this point has consisted of brief sequences, the remainder (over half) of the opera consists of six blocks ranging from 5 to 12 minutes in length. The first consists of Diemut’s response to Kunrad ** and her convincing him to climb up into the basket so she can bring him up to her room and he can climb into her…. Anyway, it is obviously a trap, but Strauss frames it with more of the kiddy chorusing and quotations from the Magic Fire Music.

55: The three girlfriends come back as Kunrad is being brought up in the basket, which Diemut eventually abandons in order to humiliate the sorcerer. Just as Kunrad is almost at the top, Diemut stops, pretending that Kunrad is too heavy (as Kunrad contemplates sex with her, the sweeping horn theme which will return in the overture to Rosekavalier is used here *). The friends have already been sent out to find the townspeople so they can make fun of him. Much of the music in this section is odd because Diemut is pretending to be in love whereas Kunrad actually holds real feelings for her, yet the music sounds just about the same. As the townies come out, only the Mayor has any sympathy for Kunrad, telling the others to not mock him as at least his affection for Diemut is real.

60: Hilf mir, Meister! Finally, Kunrad has had it, and calls upon the powers of the Almighty Wagner to plunge the city into total darkness ***. This, probably the best moment so far in the opera (albeit little more than a minute), is followed by a six minute long passage of the most mechanical plot-forwarding from the chorus, orchestra, and soloists, in opera, as everyone scurries around in mild fear, until the final minute, when the orchestra and chorus give us some terror.

67: Oh weh! Herr Schweiker von Gundelfing Kunrad gets a ten minute long mono-cant ** in which he curses the people of Munich for their abandonment of the Almighty Wagner and their turning to diatonic waltz music (the first reference to Wagner is paralleled to a quotation of the Valhalla theme from Das Rheingold, and then quotations from the main theme of Flying Dutchman just to drive the point home that he is the Prophet of Music now. Then it starts to unravel as Strauss loses control and falls into a Bavarian waltz tempo and then just random material which appears to have been mined in later decades by the composer, including one that definitely sounds like it ended up in Salome.

79: Diemut! Diemut! The people beg Diemut to bang Kunrad and restore the fire to the town **. Finally, we really get some great music out of Strauss here for the chorus.

83: The best section of the opera is the orchestral symphony *** which closes it (and is frequently performed alone without the singing accompaniment) as the light is restored, first from Diemut’s room (where her virginal blood has been spilt by the marvelously well endowed Kunrad). The orchestra depicts their climactic love making (the build up to orgasm is rather apparently done by Strauss, with the chorus exclaiming their joy at the moment of insemination, although it appears from the sound of the orchestra that Kunrad has rather a lot of stamina for a man who is finally getting what he wants sexually, and his equally apparent ability to make Diemut see stars as a result of his sexual prowess), before they at last emerge, singing a love song in unison during the last 90-seconds of the opera.


Feuersnot can be taken in two different ways: 1) as a failed combination of a sex joke and propaganda about Wagner and Strauss as his second coming, or 2) as an ultimately triumphant depiction of love victorious with the mutual orgasmic climaxes of its two leads (thankfully off stage). Either way, it is a bit of a mess (pun intended). The musical climax (also pun intended) could either shock the more puritanical elements or become an accidental laughing point as it is far too obvious what is being depicted by that bar of silence. The other problem is that it is equally obvious that Strauss is trying to rush toward both his humiliation of Munich, his messianic Wagner-Strauss references, and his orgasm (or rather giving his baritone and soprano simultaneous ones) and doing so by lapsing into relatively attractive but not all that interesting waltz music and the occasional children’s chorus (often repeated). The opening can be rather dull as well, especially compared to the finish. Although I am a virgin, I would assume that this might also be a joke: the opera itself is an act of love making, and Strauss is depicting the build up that requires, step by step (although it all ends up being kaleidoscoped at the end). However, for those in love with romance, this could very well be an excellent evening at the theatre, and the ad nauseum waltz music Strauss puts out is never unattractive. A beta, probably minus if it weren’t for the ending.


Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Strauss: A Critical Guide. London: Grange Books, 1995. Ch.2: Feuersnot, pp.22-36.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: