‘A supreme melodist’ – the life and legacy of Richard Strauss

Gramophone Tue 27th January 2015

Richard Strauss was accused of being cold and unemotional, yet his music is anything but. Michael Kennedy – in his final Gramophone article – surveys the composer’s legacy

He didn’t look like a late-Romantic composer or any kind of artist. With his short hair, clipped moustache, tweedy suits and often a bow tie, you could easily have mistaken him for a banker or the head of an industrial firm. He was tall and in old age suggested a kindly but stern grandfather. He didn’t look like a conductor either. After the extravagances of youth, he was a model of restraint on the rostrum. His arms and of course his eyes did all the work. This was Richard Strauss, born 150 years ago (June 11, 1864). By the time he was 24 years old, when his tone-poem Don Juan was first played in Weimar, he was widely regarded as the leading German composer after Wagner. He was the complete musician – a child prodigy who began to compose when he was six years old, became a great conductor, and was a very fine pianist (especially as an accompanist). Yet he never attended a music academy nor had a formal music education. There was no need. His father, who had married as his second wife Josephine Pschorr, daughter of the wealthy owner of Pschorr’s Brewery, was principal horn in the Munich Court Opera orchestra. Young Richard received musical tuition from his father and members of his father’s orchestra. If a work he had written needed playing through, his father’s colleagues obliged.

‘His tunes were easily remembered, and if some critics called them cheap this was probably jealousy’

Surprisingly, it was not through opera that he became an international figure in the closing years of the 19th century. His songs and his tone-poems for large orchestra were the works which spread his fame into the concert halls of Europe, America and Russia. Even in his childhood works he was a supreme melodist. His tunes were easily remembered, and if some critics called them cheap, even vulgar, this was probably jealousy. His choice of subjects for his tone-poems was shrewd and clever. He steered clear of Ancient Greek myths – they came later – and found those closer to the average concert-goer’s knowledge. So he composed Macbeth; he portrayed Don Juan but not as Mozart had done; he found music for the most talked-about book of his time, Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra and worked a Viennese waltz into the score; he painted a vivid instrumental portrait of Don Quixote and his adventures; he captured the wit and high spirits of the medieval rascal Till Eulenspiegel; he explored the life and death of an artist (not himself) in Tod und Verklärung; and he illustrated a hero in Ein Heldenleben who bore a close resemblance to himself even though he denied it (not very convincingly) Ein Heldenleben was his last major work of the 19th century, a virtuoso display of instrumentation, including a battle scene which in 1899 was regarded as the peak of dissonance. Yet it soon, like its predecessors, entered the standard repertory, and attracted conductors such as Mengelberg, Mahler, and Beecham. Whenever the work was performed, it caused controversy and aroused as much enthusiasm as it did obloquy.

If I was asked which of the tone-poems I consider to be the finest, I would nominate Don Quixote, not only for the fabulous scoring but because of the understanding of Quixote’s deranged mind. Strauss had a happy childhood on the whole although his father behaved more like a gauleiter than a paterfamilias. Strauss’s mother was a kind, mild woman who was dominated by her husband’s short temper and explosive behaviour. Several times after 1885 she had to go into a nursing home. The effect of this on Strauss is hard to gauge. He deliberately cultivated a phlegmatic temperament, but beware if he suddenly went red in the face.

The early popularity of his songs reflected his personality too. He wrote many of them in his boyhood for an aunt who sang them for him. If a poem appealed to him he would often compose the song in the next half-hour. But he would not publish any until 1885 when he grouped together eight settings of poetry by the Munich writer Hermann von Gilm as his Opus 10. This group included three that became ‘hits’ from the start and have remained so until this day: ‘Zueignung’, ‘Allerseelen’, and ‘Die Nacht’.

‘He was now a convinced Wagnerian, having grown out of the intense dislike of his music which his father had tried to inculcate’

By the time he left Munich University in 1882, the 18-year-old had already been to Bayreuth and won the admiration and patronage of the conductor Hans von Bülow, whose assistant he became at Meiningen in 1885. He was now a convinced Wagnerian, having grown out of the intense dislike of his music which his father had tried to inculcate. Opera posts followed at Munich (as third conductor), Weimar, and Munich again as assistant conductor to Hermann Levi in 1894, and then for the 1894-5 season he became conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. In 1898 he left Munich to become conductor of the Berlin Court Opera. With Mahler now director in Vienna, these two young men controlled the most powerful opera houses in Europe.

Strauss had taken only 20 years to rise from comparative obscurity to be grudgingly acknowledged as one of the most important of living composers, with StravinskyRavelDebussySchoenbergBerg, Mahler and Elgar as his chief challengers and Pfitzner, Zemlinsky and Schreker in the running. While at Weimar in 1894 he composed his first opera, for which he wrote his own libretto. This was Guntram, a story of rivalries in 13th-century Germany between troubadours and aristocrats. Although the influence of Wagner hangs heavily over the score (and its title), it nonetheless contains striking passages which anticipate the later operatic Strauss. During rehearsals at Weimar he quarrelled with the soprano Pauline de Ahna who was singing the role of the heroine. When the orchestra protested about her behaviour he informed them that he had just become engaged to her. At Weimar and later in Munich Guntram was a failure and has had few revivals. Strauss never forgave the critics and took his revenge by his caricature of them in Ein Heldenleben.

Established in Berlin, Strauss was answerable only to his employer, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the personification of German militarism. Strauss had little interest in politics (musical politics excepted). If, in 2014, we want to understand Strauss and some of his later conduct we must firmly believe that he had no interests except work, music (especially his own), his family, the card game Skat and art. The French writer Romain Rolland, who knew him well and liked him, also found him ‘cold, self-willed, contemptuous of the majority of things and people’. But Rolland also detected the Bavarian Strauss from Munich, who had a vein of the clownish humour, possibly indicative of a spoilt childhood or of the personality of a Till Eulenspiegel. Much misunderstanding of Strauss can be traced to a failure by his detractors to appreciate his sense of humour. He found that the Berlin Opera was ultra-conservative and he knew he had to tread carefully to change it. The concert audiences contained connoisseurs but the opera audiences comprised bankers and shopkeepers. ‘You’re yet another of these modern musicians,’ the Kaiser told him in their first interview. ‘I like Freischütz better.’ ‘So do I,’ Strauss replied, and then praised Verdi’s Falstaff, written at the age of 80. The Kaiser had found it ‘detestable’ and added, ‘I hope that when you are 80 you will write better music.’ Strauss transformed the repertory of Berlin Opera and the Kaiser left him alone. It was a lesson Strauss never forgot – but in 1933 he was to learn otherwise.

‘He maintained that he had never sat through a whole Puccini opera’

With the success of his one-act operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), Strauss had left his opera contemporaries far behind – all except two: Giacomo Puccini, whose Tosca, La bohème, Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut dominated the international opera scene from 1900 onwards; and Franz Lehár, whose Merry Widow was the exact contemporary of Salome. ‘I was very unjust to Lehár,’ Strauss confessed at the end of his life. ‘I have always been too unconciliatory.’ He maintained that he had never sat through a whole Puccini opera. When the conductor Clemens Krauss extolled the beauties of La bohème, the reply was ‘Ja ja, very beautiful, all melody, all melody! Everyone thinks I am hostile to Puccini. It isn’t true. But I can’t listen to his operas because if I do I can’t get the melodies out of my head afterwards. And I can’t write Puccinian Strauss.’

The period from 1898 to 1907 was proof, if any were needed, that work was a driving force for him. He completed Ein Heldenleben, composed Salome, took over Berlin Opera, conducted his own works (and that of other composers), travelled the United States for three months in 1904 to give recitals with Pauline and to conduct in Carnegie Hall, New York, the first performance of Symphonia domestica. This was such a success that the department store Wanamaker’s cleared a floor for the purpose of two extra performances. When news of this reached Germany, all hell broke loose in the German press. ‘A prostitution of art’ was one newspaper’s judgement.

The symphony describes a day in the life of the Strausses, ‘part lyrical and part humorous’, the composer explained. We hear the family getting up in the morning, the baby being bathed, the husband and wife quarrelling and then making love. The virtuosity for an orchestra of 110 players including five clarinets, eight horns and four optional saxophones is dazzling in its brilliance. So too is the structure of the work which fully justifies the use of the term ‘symphony’. Knowledge of the work’s ‘programme’ was ammunition for those who did not take Strauss seriously. His consolation was a review by an American critic who described him as ‘the one great musical spirit who has made something new since Wagner’.

Strauss’s first visit to London was in 1897 to conduct Tod und Verklärung and some Mozart. Although the British view of Strauss was cautious and (as it still is in some quarters) suspicious, it was a British critic, Arthur Johnstone of the Manchester Guardian, who hit the nail on the head when he wrote (two years before he died aged 43 in 1904): ‘Strauss seemed to have an irritating effect on all critics, except a certain very small minority…He is enigmatic, sphinx-like, a complex personality not to be conveniently catalogued…Those who assert that Strauss is a mere eccentric will sooner or later find themselves in the wrong. He has in a few cases played tricks on the public, but he is nevertheless a master composer, in the full and simple sense of those words – a master composer just as Mozart was.’ What a calamity that Johnstone did not live to hear the British premieres of Salome and Elektra conducted by Thomas Beecham, whose advocacy for Strauss was rivalled only by the spellbound Edward Elgar’s hero-worship of ‘Richard the Lionheart’, as he called him.

Strauss was at this time also prolific in song-writing. In 1894 he wrote the four masterpieces of Op 27 as his wedding present to Pauline. These included perhaps his best-loved song, ‘Morgen!’ There is still an unwillingness to rank Strauss’s songs alongside the best of SchubertSchumann, Wolf and Mahler, where they belong. He composed nearly 75 songs between 1895 and 1906. Two of them, ‘Notturno’ and ‘Nächtlicher Gang’ (Op 44, Nos 1 and 2 of 1899) are hardly ever performed, are very difficult, and one could be forgiven today for thinking they were by Schoenberg, whom it is very likely they influenced. The two composers met in Berlin in 1902; Strauss found a post for Schoenberg at the Stern Conservatory and gave him work copying the parts of his huge choral work Taillefer. He recommended him for similar work with other composers, saying that Schoenberg had ‘great talent and gifts’. They kept in touch when Schoenberg left Berlin for Vienna in 1903. The relationship ended in 1912 after Mahler’s death. Strauss wrote to his widow Alma, that champion troublemaker, and the letter contained an injudicious remark about Schoenberg which she relayed to him. Even so, Schoenberg continued to speak well of Strauss’s works and in 1948 defended him regarding his connection with the Hitler regime, an episode that has perhaps received too much attention and lack of understanding.

In assessing attitudes to Strauss in his lifetime, one cannot evade the matter of Pauline. She bullied him in public and criticised his music if she didn’t like a particular passage. But much of what she is alleged to have said – ‘he copied from Wagner’, etc – was made up by Alma, who published it in her life of Mahler. Pauline had the temperament of a prima donna and Strauss knew how to handle her. After a quarrel, he wrote to her: ‘Since I know you very well, and also know for certain that you are very fond of me, you really ought not to make so much of these things. “Scenes” like this are never going to shake my trust in you. The only thing is that I’m often distressed for you, because your nerves are not strong enough to help you stand up to these bursts of feeling…So calm down, my sweet darling.’ I do not doubt that his mother was in his mind when he wrote this. Their marriage lasted for 55 years. Tempted as he surely must have been by the sopranos and mezzos with whom he worked, he never loved another woman – nor Pauline another man.

The greatest triumph of Strauss’s career was the opera Der Rosenkavalier, produced in Dresden in January 1911. It was his first full collaboration with the playwright and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Their prickly partnership covered the next 20 years until Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929. The success of Der Rosenkavalier was colossal. There has been nothing like it in the 100 years that have passed since then. Its tale of the end of an affair between the 17-year-old nobleman and the 30-year-old princess, told against a background of Viennese waltzes and glamorous costumes, have made the opera the public’s favourite ever since. Because it was so different from the violence of Elektra and Salome, the anti-Strauss party line has been that Strauss then declined and went backwards after Rosenkavalier. This is arrant nonsense. The harmonic language of Rosenkavalier is a development of Elektra, not a retreat from it. Ariadne auf Naxos (1911-12) is a pre-Stravinskyan foray into new territory, while its successor, Die Frau ohne Schatten (completed 1917), is regarded by many as his best opera.

My vote would go to the last opera of them all, Capriccio (1940-41), which ushered in his ‘Indian Summer’ of orchestral works such as the Oboe Concerto and the crowning glory of the Four Last Songs, a wonderful epilogue to his life’s work. What is perhaps his very greatest work, Metamorphosen, a study for 23 solo strings, completed in 1945, is an elegy for the destruction of German culture by ‘these barbarians’, as he called the Nazis. How can any listener to this music still maintain that there was a hole in Strauss’s heart? He understood the human heart, human love and human frailty. Today, appreciation of his music is at its zenith, which would surprise him, for he died fearing that music, and not only his music, had a bleak future. Was he wrong?

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Gramophone.

Read Michael Kennedy's obituary.

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