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Richard Strauss in 1922: A boor and a timeserver in life, but never a boor in his music

Music aside, the man was a self-indulgent boor, his life a string of platitudes. How the universal sound worlds of Salome and the Four Last Songs can have arisen from so dreary a human source is an unfathomable mystery of creation. 

Unless, that is, we require all authors of great work to manifest an equivalent greatness, to be in some way larger and more colourful than their humdrum lives — the mindset that, in a highly acclaimed recent biography, prompts John Eliot Gardiner to ascribe failings of "what we would call anger management" to Johann Sebastian Bach, a bias of blame that aims both to elevate and to humanise an incomprehensible ideal.

Richard Strauss was no raging Bach. Search his long life end to end, 1864 to 1949, and you will find no flare of passion, no situation in which he ever lost urbane control of his stolid Bavarian manners. The son of a Munich orchestral horn player and a brewery heiress (his father, who played in Wagner premieres, must have thought he'd wedded Valhalla), the young Richard never had a formal music lesson, relying on a familiarity with the family craft to compose pieces of precocious sheen, catchy themes and narrative thrust. He knew the limits of what an audience would bear.

He was 24 when Don Juan was performed at Weimar, the first in a series of fashionable tone poems with graphic titles-"Death and Transfiguration", "Till Eulenspiegel's Jolly Pranks", "Thus Spake Zarathustra", "Don Quixote", "A Hero's Life". Strauss at this stage aimed for feminine fantasies, the beer garden, the numinous and the Nietzschean. He was nothing if not eclectic, always market-oriented.

As a conductor in Weimar, he led the first production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, a Wagnerian opera for terrorised children. At 30 he married Pauline, a general's soprano daughter and at 34 he became chief conductor at the court opera in Berlin, sharing with Gustav Mahler in Vienna a dominance of the German-speaking opera stage.

But where the excitable Mahler imagined that he and Strauss were allies, "like two miners tunnelling a mountain from opposite sides, destined to meet in the middle", Strauss shared few of his friend's progressive ideals. Where Mahler put his job on the line in a bid to stage salacious Salome, Strauss played safe with his programming. Where Mahler ended an opera in migraine-stricken exhaustion, Strauss declared that a conductor who broke sweat was no better than an amateur. Where Mahler saw redemption in art, Strauss said: "I don't know what I am supposed to be redeemed from. When I sit at my desk in the morning and an idea comes into my head, I surely don't need redemption. What did Mahler mean?"

A man of regular habits, guarded by a dragon wife, Strauss's ambitions were social and pecuniary. Of the striptease dance in Salome, scandalous as much for its heresy as its nudity, he would say, blithely, "The damage built me a house in Garmisch." Behind the opera's notoriety, he stretched tonality almost to snapping point in a climactic, clashing F chord. For a brief moment, he led the avant-garde. In 1909, he toyed again with dissonance in Elektra, the first of five joint ventures with the poet Hugo von Hofmannstal, only to retreat in Der Rosenkavalier to the deep, deep comfort of lush harmonies, replacing the dangerous pathologies of his two previous operas with a nudge-wink sexual suggestiveness.

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Mark Kennedy
April 8th, 2014
3:04 AM
The major premise behind this very curious article seems to be that evidence for greatness and profundity is to be sought not in creative achievement but in the extent to which artists adhere to certain conventional signifiers, none of them, apparently, compatible with a bourgeois lifestyle. Presumably, if Herr Strauss had signed petitions, marched in the street, missed a few more meals and been less regular in his habits, his intellectual and artistic credentials would have been less subject to challenge. In defense of his irredeemably stolid, self-indulgent and platitudinous life, however, I can't help observing how often even the most profound works of genius I've had the good fortune to read (from Plato and Shakespeare to Tolstoy and Husserl) summarize human experience and wisdom in locutions closely resembling platitudes.

April 5th, 2014
2:04 PM
"...I may not be a first-rate com­poser, but I am a first-class second-rate composer!” --Strauss in 1947. Uttered during a rehearsal.

Ray Kohn
April 3rd, 2014
5:04 AM
The process of composition may vary between artists: but to most it is a visceral process contained within understood musical structures. The fact that Strauss did not bend those structures unduly makes him seem "traditional". However, the understated way that he expressed what remains a visceral activity should not deflect us from an equally visceral response to his music. Surely grading composers into leagues (Mahler league 1, Strauss top of league 2) is a foolish enterprise as it misleads those unfamiliar with these composers form the outset. I have always attempted with my students to ask them how they feel in reponse to works irrespective of who wrote them and why and within which framework they were using. Technical aspects could be looked at later. My experience has been that most respond as strongly to all Strauss's late works (and to Rosenkavalier) as they do to much of Mahler.

April 2nd, 2014
10:04 PM
The life of an artist is sometimes interesting as a way of helping understand why (s)he took the artistic paths that (s)he did. But the idea that unity between life and artistic goals seems dubious to me. Haydn wrote daring and sometimes unimaginably strange music while living a very conventional life for his time. Paganini lived colorful life but wrote mostly conventional music. The real problem with Strauss for some people (including me) is that, despite his huge technical competence, he often seems intellectually lazy. A striking effect (yes, they are usually effects, not something organically developed in the piece) will be followed by pages of mock-counterpoint with instrumental parts chasing each other and their own tails around to no discernible purpose except to provide filler before the next effect comes along. Strauss didn't pursue the line of the disturbing early operas because he couldn't figure out a way to continue or intensify the dark elements and still have something that he was confident would appeal to his audiences. Or perhaps it was simply where his Muse would take him. Elektra has some of the starkest sounds in opera, and a heroine whose suffering would make Puccini smile, but it also has some strangely banal melodic and harmonic spots, usually when someone is trying to be affectionate or tender. You could rationalize them by saying that Strauss was trying to show that the characters caught in his Mycenaean hell were so devastated that they couldn't even access real human tenderness and had to resort to elevator music sentimentality, but that suggests a kind of psychological depth that I don't find anywhere in Strauss's other music. All humans and human arts are limited. Strauss's artistic limitations are frustrating because they come in so talented an artist: what could be more disappointing than listening to the sheer magic of the opening of Zarathustra only to go on to the dull and pointless noodling that follows it? Or to listen to the mostly boring wordiness of so many of the post-Rosenkavalier operas? The man who could give us Heldenleben, the late wind serenade, Metamorphosen, and a handful of other masterworks is entitled to our respect and a fair amount of slack for the times that he didn't give us pure genius in every bar. Still, it seems reasonable to wish he had pushed things a bit more. Maybe giving the Muse a few drinks and a wild night in scary parts of the town would have been a good idea.

Vovka Ashkenazy
April 2nd, 2014
1:04 PM
I also do not see the importance of "redemption" in art, but, rather, that art should represent the best possible within us. And it is manifestly obvious that Strauss had vast emotional or intellectual depths, but was simply reluctant to show it other than through his incredible music. Same goes for Elgar. How wonderful that such composers can not be exploited for the "artistic" motives of people like Ken Russell, who revel in peoples complexes, phobias, and weaknesses. It is so refreshing to know of such intelligent, sane, well-balanced composers as Elgar and Strauss, and to know that tortuously complex characters/personalities are not necessary in order to create wonderful, and exalting, art.

Steve Meikle
April 2nd, 2014
8:04 AM
There is no need for authors of great work to manifest greatness in any other area of their lives. Indeed look at their biographies and you should see that the very notion is preposterous. They simply had a vast level of skill in a certain area. A composer of great symphonies is no more a great man than a cobbler of fine shoes is. As for the notion that art redeems, that too is preposterous. So Strauss was a boor. So what?

Philip Sasser
March 31st, 2014
9:03 PM
I'm not sure what is "heretical" about the Dance of the Seven Veils. Rather, one suspects that this term is used by Mr. Lebrecht rather imprecisely to mean "transgression" or "naughty". In fact, that particular part of the opera is actually a quite literal rendering of scripture.

Colin Morris
March 31st, 2014
7:03 PM
Please, dear Norman- not another conspiracy theory! Yes Strauss was aloof, but to paint him as an unfeeling boor is extremely misleading. Like other operatic composers (Verdi comes to mind) he was shaped by the place and time. The truth is that the German speaking world had (and still has) the most opera houses per capita, and thus the the most earnings potential for any composer who wants to compose full-time. As to your references to his conducting being restrained-its simply a matter of him using his technique to get the best result from the orchestra. (I've never read a review of a Strauss performance that said the orchestra played badly due to his technique!) I believe you do understand the historical background and the great music he produced. It's a pity you are misrepresenting and thus disrespecting one of the greatest opera composers.

Allen Levy
March 31st, 2014
7:03 PM
Strauss was a working musician who knew what the public wanted in an age when the public was becoming increasingly important. In that sense, he was like Gene Simmons, for instance. The fact that he wrote some wonderful music demonstrates that beauty can come out of craftmanship. Saint-Saens, who was a much more interesting man, wrote lesser music. Who knows where that beauty comes from. Certainly, Strauss would have considered the question ridiculous.

March 31st, 2014
6:03 PM
I can't say what the author intended, but if I married a brewery heiress I would believe that I wedded Valhalla. It may be true that in heaven there is no beer, but in Valhalla may the supply be unending.

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