Last weekend, at the CSO (Chicago Symphony) I was privileged to hear a rendition of Ein Heldenleben (which translates as “A Hero’s Life”), note in the remarks below I’m drawing on the excellent program notes provided for the concert. Richard Strauss (pronounced Rikard with a hard “k” for the ch) wrote this to reflect and remind the listener of Beethoven’s Eroica. The Beethoven “Hero” Symphony itself was initially pointing to the Heroic life of Napoleon (and after general disappointment with Napoleon and his decision to invade Russia. But the hero in Strauss’ work is not Napoleon or Alexandar (neither the Tsar or the Macedonian conqueror) but … himself.
It’s an interesting thing, to witness a grand tone poem to the heroic image of … an urban mild mannered domestic fellow, who granted is a musical genius, but … the “heroic” scenes painted aren’t the normal visions of heroism. The foes vanquished in martial and magnificent phrases are … chattering art critics. The beautiful visions of love and romance, the young neighbor girl whom he was engaged to teach music, whom he subsequently married.
This vision, this recasting of the ordinary is a reversal of the contemporary Arendt inspired “banality of evil” … replaced in this case with a recasting into a frame reminiscent of Odysseus or Achilles … our more ordinary life. So “banality of evil” becomes the heroic banal.
St. Augustine as he begins his autobiography begins with … Creation. Augustine sees himself in cosmic context. Our countries founders saw themselves as a set apart from the common. In fact there was a notion that this sort of pride was a good thing. Perhaps what Ein Heldenleben is suggesting is that we take this notion into the ordinary. Or perhaps put differently, our ordinary lives should not be seen as anything but extraordinary. That is, the ordinary per se is not heroic but needs to be recast in that mold, that is we all need to strive for excellence, not because “everyone is the best at something” (which is false) but because striving for excellence is required someone how sees himself as heroic.