By the twentieth century, the production of incidental music for pre-existing dramatic works had long proven a viable creative outlet for many composers. In fact, a good deal of this "music to order" (which originally served a function akin to that of today's film scores) boasts a secure berth in the standard orchestral repertoire. Several of Beethoven's overtures, for example, fall into this category, as does Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Molière's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1673), despite its origins over two centuries earlier, provided Richard Strauss and his collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with a springboard for a rather novel "experiment." The idea was that not only would Strauss provide incidental music in the standard sense for the Molière comedy, but the play itself (as adapted by Hoffmannsthal) would serve as an elaborate prologue and setup for the composer's one-act opera Ariadne auf Naxos. Hofmannsthal introduced referential plot devices into the play (including the character of a composer) that would provide an impetus and raison d'etre for Strauss' newly composed work which would follow.
Unfortunately, this idea of "play plus opera" in practice left the opening-night audience exhausted and apparently annoyed. Aside from the audience's putative "lack of culture," in the composer's own words, one unforseen hindrance was an elaborate -- and lengthy -- reception sponsored by King Karl of Württemburg during the intermission between the two works. This addition of wining and dining to the evening's festivities meant that the opera, itself about an hour and a half in length, didn't even commence until two and a half hours after the beginning of the play. In this respect, at least -- providing a more-than-ample evening's entertainment -- Strauss' Wagnerian aspirations were certainly realized.
Reacting to the impracticality of and tepid response to this innovation, Strauss discarded the staging of the Molière work from his plan for Ariadne. Rather than shelve the play's incidental music, however, he fashioned nine of the numbers into a concert suite: Overture to Act One ("Jourdain the Bourgeois"), "Minuet," "The Fencing Master," "Entrance and Dance of the Tailors," "The Menuet of Lully," "Courante," "Cleonte's Entry," Prelude to Act Two ("Intermezzo"), and "The Dinner."
The suite follows the action as the play's central character, the arriviste boor Jourdain, attempts to impress the aristocracy about whose world he knows very little. The humorous intent of Molière's work is evident as Strauss vividly illustrates the empty trappings of Jourdain's ambitions: awkward (and evidently unsuccessful) dance lessons, ungainly swordplay, pompous, self-important tailors who show him how to deport himself, and, to impress his guests at an elaborate feast, a boy who springs out of a giant omelette and begins to dance. In keeping with the original period of Molière's comedy, Strauss uses a stripped-down orchestra for the suite and incorporates into the score the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) as well as "baroqueries" of his own invention.