Strauss Being Strauss: From Their Recently Published Exploration of the Later-Life Creativity of Verdi, Messiaen, Britten and Strauss, Linda and Michael Hutcheon Chart the Unhappy German Composer's Efforts to Overcome a Musical and Political Predicament

By Hutcheon, Linda; Hutcheon, Michael | Opera Canada, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Strauss Being Strauss: From Their Recently Published Exploration of the Later-Life Creativity of Verdi, Messiaen, Britten and Strauss, Linda and Michael Hutcheon Chart the Unhappy German Composer's Efforts to Overcome a Musical and Political Predicament


Hutcheon, Linda, Hutcheon, Michael, Opera Canada


However varied their positions on his political involvement with National Socialism, the many biographies of Richard Strauss all construct a narrative of a child prodigy who rose to national and international fame through his tone poems, before switching to opera in his 30s. The subsequent story they all tell is a familiar artistic one of a creative rise, followed by decline, but ending with a glorious "Indian Summer." The difficulty is that there is little agreement on where either the decline or the Indian Summer actually begins. For some, his genius starts to fade as early as 1911 with Der Rosenkavalier, when he left behind the modernist experimentation of Salome and Ekktra; for others, it is in 1929, with the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, his librettist for 20 years. In a similarly confusing fashion, in some of these narratives, the redeeming Indian Summer is said to begin as early as Daphne or Die Liebe der Dame, that is, in the mid to late 1930s; in others, it is only with his appropriately labeled Four Disi Songs (Vier letzte Lieder)--in other words, at the very end of his life in the late 1940s.

Conflicting evaluations and disagreements over the quality of the last works may have more to do with other things than the compositions themselves. It is no accident that the various suggested dates of decline are coincident with either musical modernisms ascendency or Strauss's complicated involvement with National Socialism. Musically, Strauss continued to compose, essentially using the same harmonic and melodic language he always had--and that was precisely the problem for anyone assessing the work from the perspective of musical modernism; politically, his fraught interactions with the government were open to the interpretation of complicity and therefore to censure.

None of Strauss's late operatic works have really made it into the standard repertory, and their timing is obviously in part to blame. While the operas composed before these were already popular with the public, the historical moment and the composer's political disfavor muted any impact they could have had at the time of their composition and premiere.

But there's another reason for the later mustering of these works in evidence of Strauss's "decline": they had not changed. They were not innovative--and they certainly were not considered modernist. Strauss was still the consummate craftsman and traditionalist he had always been (except for the Salome/Elektra moment), and that was the problem. Given the ideology of modernism, not to change, not to progress, was tantamount to decline. As Ezra Pound memorably put that ideology: "Make it new." Strauss did not. In a modernist musical climate heavily influenced by the work of Second Viennese School (whose avant-garde credentials were assured by their being banned by the Nazis as degenerate), Strauss was out of musicological fashion (though not public appreciation). In short, Strauss simply remained Strauss, but the musical world changed, and Strauss did not like the changes, scorning the avant-garde experimentation that surrounded him. As early as 1911, he saw the direction in which Schoenberg was heading and wrote: "I think he'd do better to shovel snow instead of scribbling on music-paper."

As the composer kept returning to his compositional roots, his critics noted something new that they found in his work, something they did not hesitate to call his late style: a reduced orchestration and therefore a new transparency, a chamber-music effect that made it all sound more Mozartian than (the usual) Wagnerian. For some this was a refinement; for others, it signaled a kind of musical shrinkage or shriveling. What all agree on, however, is that his last works are characterized not by new or bold invention but rather by the "wise exploitation of all his creative experiences." In other words, once again, Strauss continued to be Strauss.

In the last months of the war, the Strauss family was back in Garmisch to escape the bombing in Vienna. …

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