How did a young American soldier, John de Lancie, end up inspiring Strauss to write his famous oboe concerto in the period known as his “Indian Summer”?
At the end of the 2nd World war, in April 1945, the U.S. Army arrived at the Bavarian town of Garmisch. Their first job was to commandeer houses and locals were given minutes to pack and leave. One elderly man refused to go, saying “I am Richard Strauss, composer of Rosenkavalier and Salomé.” Luckily the most senior officer knew who Strauss was and ordered his men to find other houses, and Strauss his invited them in for dinner.
Strauss received many visits from the US soldiers, including a 24-year old intelligence officer John de Lancie who, in his civilian life was principal oboist with the Pittsburgh Orchestra. During his many visits they had long conversations in French about music. Familiar with Strauss’s beautiful oboe parts in his orchestral works, de Lancie asked the composer if he had ever thought of composing an oboe concerto, to which Strauss simply said “No”.
A few weeks later, however, Strauss began to sketch some ideas, and a short score was written out by 14 September. By the end of the following month, the composer had completed the finest concerto for oboe written in the 20th century.
Back home in the United States, de Lancie was astonished to discover that Strauss had published an oboe concerto and that the autograph of the score bore the inscription, “Oboe Concerto – 1945 – suggested by an American soldier.” Strauss also gave the rights to the U.S. premiere of the piece to de Lancie but the Philadelphia Orchestra overrode Strauss’s wishes on the grounds that de Lancie was not the principal oboe.
John de Lancie went on to be one of the most accomplished oboe players of the post-war era, serving as the principal oboist for the Philadelphia Orchestra for 30 years, as well as becoming a well known teacher. It was only after his retirement that he finally performed and recorded the work the idea for which he had planted in the mind of the ageing Richard Strauss, contributing to the composer’s ‘Indian summer’ at the end of a long and distinguished composing career.