Man, Musician, Enigma
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1999.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Family man.
Michael Kennedy has written two of my favorite books on music: The Works
of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Portrait of Elgar. The first, as its title
says, concentrates on the circumstances of Vaughan Williams's creation
and on analysis of individual works. The second, on an extremely complex
personality given to writing his spiritual bio in music, strikes a balance
between life and work. Richard Strauss gives us mainly a life, probably
because Kennedy believes that our perceptions of the life have interfered
with the reception of the music.
In my opinion, the best study of Strauss's music remains Norman Del
Mar's three-volume Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life
and Works, but its value lies in its detailed analysis of the music.
Del Mar portrays Strauss the man as essentially a composing machine,
an intellectual nayf, and a bourgeois philistine. In a sense, Strauss
took him in. Like Vaughan Williams who liked to call himself an amateur
orchestrator and Elgar who pretended to know nothing about counterpoint,
Strauss projected the image of a comfortable bourgeois and enjoyed
shocking people (especially the too-serious, like Alma Mahler) with
talk about fees and royalties, rather than about the ideals of art.
Kennedy demonstrates that this was indeed a pose. Few people were or
are as well-read as Strauss. In his eighties, he discovers the poetry
of Hermann Hesse and produces some of his greatest songs. His knowledge
of Renaissance painting was encyclopedic. He solved many of the plot
and character problems his opera librettists (including Hofmannsthal)
ran into. Furthermore, for all his palaver about money, he wasn't that
good a businessman or bargainer. The phenomenal popularity of his operas
gave him a comfortable living, but others, like Puccini, negotiated
better publishing deals. Furthermore, for many years conducting made
up a significant part of his income.
As to the "composing machine," the spinner of notes, I consider a lot
of Strauss works exactly that. In the summer months, he worked on his
current large project. In the winter, he orchestrated. But just about
every day he put down notes on paper. His problem was that he had too
much music in him, rather than too little, and a fierce work ethic.
He claimed to hear music all the time, except when he was playing his
favorite card game, skat. His poetry books are full of musical marginalia
- themes to the words he read. Several witnessed him do this in scarcely
more time than it took them to read the poem. It would be unusual if
everything were great. Amazingly, so much is great, and even more, so
much continues to be undervalued and largely unknown.
This denigration began in Strauss's lifetime. By the Twenties, most
theoreticians considered him played out, and they essentially ended his
career at Elektra (1906-08). With Rosenkavalier (1909-10), The advanced
critical fraternity transformed him from hell-raising Modern to cotton-candy
mossback. He found himself on the wrong side of the divide, facing such
talents as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Hindemith. His detractors
essentially conflated Modern and Dissonant. Unfortunately for this view,
Strauss was always an artist of his time, even a progressive, innovative
artist, especially as a creator of opera. His stage works display a
dramatic variety and inventiveness as impressive as Kurt Weill's. His
"hits" are a firm part of the repertory, and neglected major scores (Die
Liebe der Danae, for example) have begun to climb back into favor. With
the passage of time, it no longer matters who was up-to-date in 1927.
We can forget the critical fights - largely beside the point anyway -
and concentrate on the music itself. Today, we find it hard to credit
the assertion that Die Frau ohne Schatten, the oboe concerto, second
horn concerto, Capriccio, Metamorphosen, and Vier letzte Lieder are the
products of a burnt-out case. Kennedy is especially good pointing out
how Strauss made opera new and how fatuous the contemporary criticism
Again, however, Kennedy doesn't focus on the music. Instead, he aims
to present a consistent portrait of the artist. Like Elgar, Strauss had
a complex personality. Unlike Elgar, he showed few contradictions of
character. Del Mar may have written the best analysis of the music in
English, but time and again he mistakes Strauss the man. His account
of Strauss's marriage, for example, reads a bit like a Punch-and-Judy
play: he gives us the impression that Strauss married a shrew. Kennedy
digs a lot deeper, especially into the letters the couple wrote to one
another. Indeed, Strauss wrote to Pauline every day he was away from
her. One cannot doubt the depth of affection between them. Pauline ran
the household in a way that made it conducive for Strauss to compose,
and she nagged him to compose and to take (minimum) care of his health.
Strauss valued two things more than any other: his family and his art.
As a child, his family life had been a little precarious. His mother,
mentally fragile, had several breakdowns for which she was institutionalized.
Despite and because of a strong father, Strauss developed a generally-placid
exterior. He also valued the close family and strove to make his own
so. He wanted no emotional tempests in his life. Passions erupted in
his music. With heroines like Salome and Elektra, he became a
sharply-observant poet of the unhinged.
Much of the cloud over Strauss arises from his actions during the Third
Reich and from the malicious spread of lies by certain people in Thomas
Mann's circle (Strauss and Mann loathed one another from their first
meeting), especially by Mann's son, Klaus. The main damning fact is
that the Nazis made Strauss President of the Reich Music Chamber, under
Goebbels and the propaganda ministry. Strauss did not ask for the
appointment, but he accepted it, because he wanted to reform German opera
houses, especially those who wanted to stage Parsifal with a pit orchestra
of thirty-six, and because his daughter-in-law, Alice, was Jewish. He
thought he could manipulate the Nazi hierarchy. He tried to cast Jewish
artists and work with the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig. The Nazis not
only ignored his proposals, but they bowdlerized the works he had written
with the half-Jewish Hofmannsthal and omitted Zweig's names from the
libretti he worked on. Strauss complained about these barbarities in
letters to friends, never realizing that the Gestapo was reading his
mail. He was warned by Goebbels himself to shut up. Finally, he was
dismissed from the Presidency. Strauss feared for his family. The Nazis
considered not only Alice a Jew, but Strauss's son, Franz, as well as
their two children. For Strauss, this wasn't a matter of following the
path of a cheap novel's derring-do but a real fear for his family's
survival. Alice lost twenty-six of her relatives, including her
grandmother, to the death camps. Strauss shut up.
Strauss was cleared ("de-Nazified") after the war, largely by Jews,
although old enemies with scores to settle and certain modernist critics
continued to libel him. The latter wanted to hammer down the nails on
the coffin of his artistic reputation, although they conveniently gave
a pass (and continue to give a pass) to the ardently pro-Hitler Anton
Strauss was an astute man, but politically more than a little
unsophisticated. His world view was formed in the 1880s and 1890s, the
time of art for art's sake. He believed with all his soul (as did his
slightly older contemporary and friend Mahler) that art could change the
world, hard as that may be for us to believe such a thing today. The
Third Reich was an evil absolutely beyond his ken, and his art, glorious
though it may be, did not suffice to transform this evil or to stop the
slaughter. Art turned out to be inadequate, to say the least. Part of
the sadness of Strauss's late life was that he realized it.
If you want to know more about the music, pick up Del Mar and be prepared
to read musical examples. But Kennedy has as much insight into Strauss
as anybody, and while incorporating a ton of fact, he masterfully weaves
a consistent, compelling argument. I may hope for too much, but he should
really write another on the music, since he's far more sympathetic than
Del Mar to Strauss's late stuff.
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