Richard Strauss

By Said, Edward W. | The Nation, March 19, 1990 | Go to article overview

Richard Strauss

Said, Edward W., The Nation

In his brilliant New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson, Kenneth Tynan came to the conclusion that whatever it was that Carson actually did, he alone did it, and always did it perfectly. He may be part stand-up comic, part talk-show host, part Hollywood celebrity, but the Carson phenomenon, which has endured for longer than two decades, is more than any one of those things, and more than their sum.

And so it is, toutes proportions gardees, with Richard Strauss, whose astonishingly long career (1864-1949) paralleled and in strange ways touched many of the major changes in twentieth-century music without really participating in them. Glenn Gould described Strauss's serene indifference to all the trends around him as he unconcernedly did his own thing, much as Tynan wrote about Carson. Certainly there is a good deal of truth to this view of Strauss, even if it means forgetting the shattering musical effect of Salome (1905) and Elektra (1908), operas considered in their time so revolutionary as to be scandalous. Schenberg, Mahler and Debussy were early devotees of Strauss, but it is the density of literary and cultural associations surrounding Strauss's career that makes him perhaps the richest, and yet somehow the most enigmatic, figure in twentieth-century music.

Strauss's long connection with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his milieu is alluded to occasionally in Hermann Broch's monograph on the poet, as it is also in Theodor Adorno's altogether brilliant and little-known study of Strauss the composer and virtuoso conductor. Almost without significant exception, all the great names in early twentieth-century Central European music, particularly opera, had something to do with Strauss, from star conductors like Mahler, Clemens Krauss, Karl Bohm and Herbert von Karajan to majestically resplendent singers like Lotte Lehmann, Richard Tauber, Maria Jeritza and Ljuba Welitsch to the most famous impresarios and producers, like Diaghilev and Max Reinhardt.

Perhaps for the post-world War II generation, an early and unexpected exposure to Strauss is required for the mysterious spell to catch on and then, even more mysteriously, to persist. I can recall perfectly that it was in the spring of 1949, when I was 13, that I first heard his music performed, when Krauss brought the Vienna Philharmonic to Cairo. The two concerts I went to were held in the Cinema Rivoli, newly built and boasting a gigantic, somewhat anomalous "theater organ:' complete with dancing lights and a charmingly handsome English intermission performer, one Gerald Peal. Krauss's intimate association with Strauss was completely unknown to me (he did the libretto for Capriccio, the very last of Strauss's operas), but the Till Eulenspiegel he conducted was overwhelming in its great washes of sound, its virtuosic playfulness and the "advanced" yet lushly compelling chromaticism of its harmonies. Immediately afterward I discovered a recording of "Salomes Tanz"-as the old label had it-in the family collection of 78s, and later that year, on a foggy late August afternoon while spending yet another dreary summer in a lonely Lebanese mountain village, I heard the BBC announcement of his death with an enjoyably mournful regret that I can still recapture.

Strauss's musical output was enormously varied, although it is probably his operatic oeuvre that is still most often encountered. Yet he wrote interestingly, and with a professional finish that was idiomatic in each genre and combination, for wind instruments, voice, violin, piano, chamber ensembles and large orchestra. It is generally believed that having gone a step beyond Wagner in Salomi and Elektra, Strauss thereafter retreated: Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, for example, belong to the less advanced, lusher harmonic idiom of, say, Lohengrin or Hansel and Gretel, even though the compleidties of Hofmannsthal's texts are much greater and finer than either of the earlier works. But was Strauss's immense later operatic output (it includes, after all, such redoubtable works as Arabella, Capriccio, Intermezzo, Die Agyptische Helena and Daphne) simply an expert yet reactionary reversion to simplifications of early German Romanticism, or is there some more important modernist achievement threaded through the works as a whole? …

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