Reprinted from Gramophone, December, 2003, p. 26 (Letters to the editor) and April 2004 (p. 22)
On page 72 of the November 2003 issue of Gramophone, you wrote that the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto was 'composed at the suggestion of Philadelphia oboist Ray Still'. In fact, the oboist was John de Lancie, who had been oboe soloist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra before serving in the Second World War. While stationed in postwar Germany, de Lancie visited the aged Strauss. During the conversation he asked if Strauss had ever considered an oboe concerto; the answer was 'no', but the seed was planted.
By the time Strauss composed the work, the name and affiliation of the oboist had slipped his memory. Strauss noted in his score only that he was a young American soldier and 'oboist from Chicago'. Perhaps Strauss's mistake about the soldier's city of origin led to the Gramophone reviewer's error (in the convoluted way that mental association often works), because Ray Still was the oboe soloist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for many years.
After the war, de Lancie became Associate First Oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Strauss instructed his publisher to give de Lancie the rights for the American premiere, but the honor was denied him when the Philadelphia's celebrated principal oboist, Marcel Tabuteau, threw a fit at the thought of being upstaged. Instead of giving the rights to Tabuteau, De Lancie conferred them on a friend of his in the CBS Symphony - the young oboist Mitchell Miller, later famous as the host of an American pops TV show, "Sing along with Mitch.".
De Lancie eventually became principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, but he performed the Strauss with them only once in the late 1960s. He finally recorded it with an ad hoc ensemble in 1987. That performance has been reissued on Boston Records BR 1045CD, which is worth owning not only for de Lancie's subtle, intimate playing of the Strauss, but for his lovely performance of another work written for him (this time on commission), Jean Francaix's L'horloge de Flore.
The recording has another notable feature: de Lancie's alterations of the Strauss. He came to prefer Strauss's first thoughts on how to end the piece, and thus omitted 12 bars that the composer had added after the first printing. More radically, although de Lancie had long praised Strauss's writing for the oboe, he felt that some of the virtuoso passagework got in the way of the music and was unsuitably violinistic. As a corrective, he decided to cut four measures from the first movement, and in a few places gives a bit of the oboe line to other instruments.
After winning a vote of support from his friend Sergui Celibidache, de Lancie submitted his version to the Strauss estate. The composer's daughter-in-law and long-time secretary approved it, saying that to accommodate soloists in this way was Strauss's regular practice. It's food for thought for those interested in the questions of the composers' intention and authority.
Iowa City, Iowa, USA