Richard Strauss and Hugo van Hoffmannstthal had already achieved operatic success with Elektra and Der Rosenkavilier when Hoffmannsthal suggested Molière’s comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme for their next collaboration.
In that play, Jourdain, a social-climbing cloth merchant, wishes to be thought an aristocrat. A boorish fool concerned only with appearances, he hires teachers of music, dance, fencing, and philosophy so he can learn aristocratic ways. Hofmannsthal proposed to shape Molière’s hopelessly tangled plot into an opera within a play.
In his version, Jourdain decided to patronize a struggling young composer and commissioned an opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, and a burlesque, The Unfaithful Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers, for performance at a banquet he planned to give. When it turns out there is not time for both, Jourdain, unwilling to choose between them, orders that they be performed simultaneously.
Unfortunately, what began as a short, pleasant trifle grew to a monstrous production that lasted more than four hours. The audience for plays did not come at all, and the audience for opera did not care for the introductory play. After several attempts to fix it, Strauss and Hoffmannsthal reluctantly agreed to separate Le bourgeois gentilhomme from Ariadne auf Naxos. Strauss later extracted a suite from incidental music to the play:
The Fencing Master
Entrance and Dance of the Tailors
Minuet of Lully
Entrance of Cléonte
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The overture to Le bourgeois gentilhomme portrays Jourdain’s oafish character, as well as a gaggle of prospective employees and tutors. Frequent modulations in the minuet perhaps reflect the dancing master’s suffering in trying to teach Jourdain how to dance it.
The fencing master (bass trombone solo, then trumpet solo) then attempts to show Jourdain (piano) the proper lunging motions. To the tune of an obsequious violin solo, the tailors make last minute alterations to Jourdain’s suit as he tries to strike a noble pose.
Next, Strauss introduced his adaptations of three of Jean Baptiste Lully’s pieces for Molière’s play. Cléonte, introduced by the last of these, is another wealthy cloth merchant, not interested in social climbing but in love with Jourdain’s daughter. The Intermezzo introduces two aristocrats plotting Jourdain’s downfall, but then a fanfare calls everyone to a banquet.
And what a banquet it is! Strauss fits each dish with appropriate music: Salmon of the Rhine (wave music from Wagner’s Das Rheingold), mutton (bleating of sheep from Strauss’ own Don Quixote), and thrushes and larks (bird warbling from Der Rosenkavalier). A bit of “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto and an original cello solo underscore some amorous goings on. An omelette surprise, with more dancing, brings the banquet and Le bourgeois gentilhomme to a close.