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Book Review

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss by Kennedy

Man, Musician, Enigma

Michael Kennedy
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1999.
ISBN-10: 0521027748
ISBN-13: 9780521027748
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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' 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' 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 naïf, 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 talk of 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 every day. 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' 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, Bartók, 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 could be.

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' 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' 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 Webern.

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' 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' late stuff.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Schwartz.