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Leonide Massine as Joseph in the "Legend of Joseph" (1914)
Hugo von Hofmannsthal first proposed the Josephslegende to Strauss as a Zwischenarbeit (interim work) between Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Composition began in June 1912, but in a letter of 11 September Strauss confided that the work wasn't progressing as quickly as he expected: "The chaste Joseph himself isn't at all up my street, and if a thing bores me I find it difficult to set it to music. This God-seeker Joseph - he's going to be a hell of an effort!"
Strauss drew on earlier sketches for his abandoned ballet Die Insel Kythere and wrote for an outsized orchestra with exotic instrumental colouring including four harps, large and small cymbals, four pairs of castanets, heckelphone, and a contrabass clarinet.
Josephslegende is scored for the following instruments:
This was shortly followed by a further seven in London in June conducted by Richard Strauss (UK premiere 23 June) and Sir Thomas Beecham, who had loaned the money for the commission to Diaghilev. With the looming war, Strauss never received his fee of 6,000 francs.
In 1947, Strauss prepared a symphonic fragment from Josephslegende for reduced orchestra. This was premiered in March 1949 in Cincinnati under Fritz Reiner.