June 2014


A century and a half of Richard Strauss

By Andrew Ford
Richard Strauss in 1904. Photo by Edward Steichen

Richard Strauss in 1904. Photo by Edward Steichen

A look back at the last of the great Romantic composers

The composers Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich had little in common musically, but each worked under one of the most brutal dictatorships of the mid 20th century. Many who regard Shostakovich as a tragic hero, for continuing to create his music while remaining in the Soviet Union, are far less generous to Strauss, who lived in Nazi Germany.

When Hitler came to power, Strauss (1864–1949) was in his 70th year and universally regarded as a great composer. He outlived the Nazis by four years. Shostakovich (1906–75) was 11 years old at the time of the Russian Revolution, so he spent his whole musical life under communism. Strauss and Shostakovich each wrote official pieces. Strauss dedicated an orchestral song to Joseph Goebbels in 1933, and his Olympic Hymn was commissioned for the 1936 Berlin Olympics; Shostakovich’s cantata The Song of the Forests (1949) praises Stalin “the great gardener”. Yet while each composer was wooed by his respective government and received state recognition, each fell foul of the authorities and was officially disgraced – in Shostakovich’s case, more than once.

Perhaps the differing attitudes to the two composers are explained by their music. In Shostakovich’s case, we hear – or believe we hear – his suffering and his coded critique of the Soviet regime; the music is often grim and sometimes (we’re told) covertly satirical. Strauss’s work is all late-Romantic lushness, and even his later works, most notably the Metamorphosen for 23 strings, seem regretful rather than dark. If Shostakovich’s music is full of despair, Strauss’s, for the most part, is full of joy.

So I know whose music I’d rather listen to, but should we be concerned about Strauss as a Nazi collaborator? I don’t think so.

Richard Strauss was born 150 years ago this month, and five of Australia’s major symphony orchestras have upcoming performances in celebration. During his long life Strauss went from being in the vanguard of European music to a defender of its traditions. His early tone poems such as Don Juan (1889), Till Eulenspiegel (1895) and Also sprach Zarathustra (1896) were orchestrally dazzling and formally daring. His operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909) are contemporary with the first explorations of atonality by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples; they belong to that same expressionist milieu, not least in their fervid subject matters. Strauss, indeed, was an early supporter of Schoenberg. But only two years after Elektra, Strauss created a very different musical world in which older sensibilities were magnified in a final, torrid burst of Romanticism. This was the opera Der Rosenkavalier, his greatest success.

It would be wrong to write off Der Rosenkavalier as retrogressive or pastiche. The orchestral palette is as brilliant as ever, and if the harmonic language is more firmly rooted in tonality than Schoenberg’s music of the same period (or, for that matter, Elektra), it is nonetheless hugely inventive and uniquely the product of this composer’s imagination. But Strauss had evidently abandoned modernism, writing to Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, in 1913 that “only a psychiatrist can help Schoenberg now”.

Strauss created a very different musical world in which older sensibilities were magnified in a final, torrid burst of Romanticism

The truth is that Strauss was always a traditionalist (as was Schoenberg, though that’s another story), and one can hear it in his early music as much as in the later, more “classical” pieces. The composer’s father, Franz, was principal horn in the Munich Court Opera, and his influence on his son is clear. Strauss’s musical output is practically bookended by two concertos for the French horn (the first in 1883, the second in 1943), but more than that, the instrument is at the heart of Strauss’s orchestra, and there are solos for the instrument in nearly every piece from Don Juan to his final opera, Capriccio. Then there’s the institution of the orchestra itself. Strauss knew it from the inside out, this expertise reflected not only in his skill as an orchestrator but also in his busy secondary career as a conductor.

We can hear Strauss at work on the podium in Deutsche Grammophon’s new seven-CD release, Strauss Conducts Strauss, which collects his recordings of his own music alongside those he made of symphonies by Mozart and Beethoven and operatic overtures by Weber and Wagner. His Mozart is lean, direct and impassioned, his Beethoven very dramatic (listen to his flexible tempo in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony) and occasionally rather grand. With his own music, he reveals all the details but produces lashings of excitement as well, especially in the early tone poems.

It is all the more remarkable when you watch footage of him in action, if “action” isn’t too strong a word. Using a surprisingly short baton for the era, Strauss simply beats time, his left hand for the most part hanging motionless by his side. His movements indicate little by way of expression. He seldom sculpts the highs and lows of the music and doesn’t even give cues, except for looking around at the players. Most of the time he wears the expression of a weary, if mild-mannered, headmaster.

He brought exactly the same businesslike approach to composing. He was a professional musician, first and last, and daily life had to be fitted in around his work. Of course, by 1933, daily life included Nazis.

There is no evidence that Strauss attempted to ingratiate himself with the Nazis (like fellow German composer Carl Orff) or ever betrayed a friend (Orff again). On the contrary, he tried to protect those close to him, including his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren, his Jewish publisher and his Jewish librettist.

That librettist was Stefan Zweig, and in 1933 Strauss was working with him on his latest opera, Die schweigsame Frau, for the Dresden Semperoper. Strauss was a potential feather in the Nazis’ cap, and so they appointed him president of their music institute, the Reichsmusikkammer. This was a figurehead role that Strauss certainly did not seek; in fact, he claimed he wasn’t even asked. He accepted it, however, thinking he might “do good and prevent greater mischief”. But just days before the 1935 premiere of Die schweigsame Frau, Strauss saw that the printed programs made no mention of Zweig. Strauss was incensed and demanded the omission be rectified. This was not a political stand; as ever, with Strauss, it was a matter of professionalism. Zweig had written the words, so his name must appear. Days earlier, Strauss had written to Zweig, who had already left his native Austria to live in England. The letter, critical of the Reich, was intercepted and shown to Hitler, and Die schweigsame Frau was cancelled after its second performance.

In disgrace, Strauss and his family spent the remainder of the war quietly in the mountain resort of Garmisch. It was there that he learnt, during the later stages of the conflict, how Allied bombing had destroyed one great German opera house and concert hall after another. Most of them he had worked in. For Strauss, the Nazis had brought about the destruction of German culture. The Metamorphosen (1945) was composed in response to this.

Before, during and after the Third Reich, Strauss remained a professional composer. In April 1945, when the US army arrived at his Garmisch villa, Strauss, descending the main stairs, announced to them, “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome.” Fortunately for Strauss, the lieutenant in charge was a musician. Strauss’s home was declared “off limits” to the occupying forces, guaranteeing the peace and quiet he needed in order to carry on being professional.

There was one more piece of luck. Among the American soldiers who came to Strauss’s home was John de Lancie. In civilian life, he had been principal oboe in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. De Lancie asked if the great composer had ever considered writing an oboe concerto. Strauss hadn’t. But just six months later, perhaps in gratitude for being left alone (which was all he had ever wanted), he had completed an oboe concerto in D major.

Andrew Ford

Andrew Ford is an award-winning composer, writer and broadcaster. His books include The Sound of Pictures: Listening to the Movies from Hitchcock to High Fidelity, In Defence of Classical Music and Earth Dances.

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