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Strauss limned madness in ‘Ophelia’ songs

German composer and conductor Richard Strauss in 1918. His “Ophelia-Lieder’’ music is part of the New York Festival of Song at the G
German composer and conductor Richard Strauss in 1918. His “Ophelia-Lieder’’ music is part of the New York Festival of Song at the Gardner museum.

This Sunday, the New York Festival of Song comes to the Gardner Museum with a program including Richard Strauss’s 1918 “Ophelia-Lieder,” three songs sketching the descent into madness of the ingenue of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The set is something of an outlier; Strauss rarely produced such strikingly expressionistic music in a voice-and-piano context. But the circumstances surrounding the work’s composition were themselves rare. The “Ophelia-Lieder” are an early example of what would become a minor pop-music niche: a contractual obligation album.

The contract was with Bote & Bock, the Berlin-based publishing house. At the time, Strauss — who had owed the firm a set of songs for over a decade — had just produced some of his very best works in the genre, the Op. 68 songs on texts by Clemens Brentano. Strauss briefly considered giving the “Brentano-Lieder’’ to Bote & Bock, but decided the songs were too good for a firm he had been feuding with. So he came up with another, more mischievous plan.

Strauss enlisted Alfred Kerr, a leading German theater critic, to produce a series of satirical texts lampooning major music publishing houses of the time, Bote & Bock included. He sent the resulting songs (called “Krämerspiegel,” or “Merchant’s Mirror”) off to the firm. They were not amused; threats of legal action ensued. Strauss washed his hands of the matter by dashing off his Op. 67 — the “Ophelia-Lieder” and three more songs, to poems of disillusionment by Goethe.

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One suspects the the spikier, more abstruse qualities of Op. 67 were deliberate, giving Bote & Bock a less-than-marketable product. Still, despite the excuse to turn in a desultory effort, Strauss apparently couldn’t help but be creative. (And the subject — madness — may have resonated more than expected: Strauss’s mother, a manic-depressive, had spent years in and out of institutions.) The “Ophelia-Lieder” are dazzling pieces, eerie and affecting.

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The songs anticipate two of the more interesting categories of contractual obligation albums: those that turn out better than the artist intended (compare, for instance, Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear,” conceived in a spirit of owed alimony but ending up one of Gaye’s best), or those that find the artist tapping into some unsuspected avant-garde tendency (fans and detractors still argue whether the experimentalism of Lou Reed’s noise-opus “Metal Machine Music” was disingenuous or in earnest). Strauss, ever nonconfrontational, simply wanted his contract dispute to disappear. But he sent it away in unusually dramatic style.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum presents the New York Festival of Song on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Tickets: $12-$27, 617-278-5156, www.gardnermuseum.org.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by the Associated Press, an earlier version of this story included an inappropriate photograph.