Was Richard Strauss a Nazi?

By Bloom, Cecil | Midstream, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Was Richard Strauss a Nazi?


Bloom, Cecil, Midstream


What makes a great composer? No music lover would deny that Beethoven was one, probably the greatest of all. In his music he reaches the pinnacle of human emotion in a manner not fully achieved by any other, but there are many other composers who can be given the accolade "great" because their music creates similar sensations, albeit at a somewhat lower level. Great composers vary widely in the way they allow the listener's feelings to be touched upon. Music such as Schubert's is gentle in the ecstasy of the sound produced, while other music, like that of Stravinsky or Schoenberg, excites the brain in a powerful and often more brutal way.

It is, unfortunately, a fact of life that genius is not confined only to those of cardinal virtue. Others holding immoral views or who behave iniquitously in their private and/or public lives can demonstrate greatness in their chosen sphere.

Two musicians, the two German Richards -- Wagner and Strauss -- unquestionably fall into this category. Despite their "great" labels, the music of these composers was, until recently, banned from public performance in Israel because of their perceived Nazi or antisemitic principles. Wagner was a vile antisemite who wrote of what he called the pernicious influence of Jews in public and musical life. Many of his musical masterpieces show specific antisemitic sentiments in his treatment of some of his characters. His portrait of the Nibelung dwarf, Mime, in his epic, Der Ring des Nibelungen, for example, is an attempt to depict Jews as abhorrent, hateful, repulsive creatures. Ironically (or, perhaps, because of it) his father may have been a Jew. Wagner died six years before Hitler was born and, although he was Hitler's favorite composer, he can hardly be descried as a devoted Nazi.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), on the other hand, lived through Hitler's complete life. The verdict on Strauss is only now being finally pronounced. The jury considering his case has been out for a very long time, but most of its members are now coming to the conclusion that, despite much ambivalence on his part, his life during the years from 1933 to 1945 point clearly to support and sympathy for Hitler's ideology. At the very least he was a collaborator insofar as he went along with the Nazi cultural plans. With the exception of his opera, Salome, he has not depicted Jews in any nasty way like Wagner, and it is, in many ways, difficult to conceive that a man who could write such sensitive and beautiful music as the Four Last Songs, could have been a Nazi sympathizer, but the evidence is there to show that such was the case. Arnold Schoenberg did not think Strauss was a Nazi, but rather a nationalist German. However, a number of authoritative writers have reached the conclusion that he was a positive sympathizer of Nazism even though, we are told, he was never a member of the Party.

One of Strauss's earlier works written in 1896 was the tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), which was inspired by the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who, in the book of this title, expressed ideas in favor of an authoritarian master race. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche was one of Hitler's favorite philosophers. And then in 1945, just before the war ended, Strauss composed Metamorphosen, a work for 23 solo string instruments, which harked back to the great Germany. He used themes sketched out for an aborted composition, Sorrow for Munich, and also a theme from the funeral march of the slow movement of Beethoven's Eroica symphony. He has been accused of writing this work as a memorial to Hitler. What is certain is that his use of the funeral march was not intended to mourn the Six Million.

Strauss was born in Munich. His father was one of the leading horn players of his time. Given the attitude of many German professionals at that time, it is more than likely that Strauss was brought up to dislike Jews and their perceived influence in German society. …

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