Richard Strauss's Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition: The Philosophical Roots of Musical Modernism

By Kristiansen, Morten | Notes, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Richard Strauss's Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition: The Philosophical Roots of Musical Modernism


Kristiansen, Morten, Notes


Richard Strauss's Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition: The Philosophical Roots of Musical Modernism. By Charles Youmans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. [x, 294 p. ISBN 0-253-34573-1. $39.95.] Music examples, index, bibliography.

This is the first book-length treatment of a central project in Strauss scholarship over the past decade or so: rescuing the composer from his outdated status as a "late romantic" and recasting him as an antiromantic and early modernist. In this important book, Charles Youmans shores up this project and adds significant original contributions. Since the book assumes a thorough knowledge of Strauss's life, the orchestral works and their programs, and to a lesser extent German, most readers will need a supplementary "life and works" volume.

The book is divided into a prologue and two main parts: "The Private Intellectual Context of Strauss's Early Career"-with chapters on the composer's conversion to Wagnerism and appropriation of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Goethe, respectively -and "Orchestral Composition as Philosophical Critique" with chapters on the two cycles of tone poems and two later "symphonies." The book's title, however, does not represent its contents accurately; the discussion of Strauss's orchestral works occupies less than half the book, the "German intellectual tradition" includes only Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, and the context of "musical modernism" outside the confines of Strauss's orchestral works remains largely unaddressed. One suspects that the title might be "calculatedly overblown," to use Youmans's characterization of Strauss's Symphonia domestica and Eine Alpensinfonie (p. 214).

The premise of the book, as stated in the prologue (pp. 3-4), is that the hijacking of modernism by Schoenberg has blinded us to the "avant-garde edge" of its early phase beginning around 1890 in addition to changing the focus of attention from aesthetics to musical technique, thus necessitating a reinvestigation. After a useful discussion of the Schopenhauerian or metaphysical conception of music shared by the feuding absolute and program music camps, Youmans states his revisionist argument: "The thesis of the present book is that Strauss's coming of age was an intellectual as well as musical process, with the intellectual side of things directly affecting, in specific and sophisticated ways, all of his major works for orchestra" (p. 16). He dedicates his first three chapters to correcting what he feels to be the misguided traditions in Strauss scholarship making this book necessary: a one-dimensional view of the role of Alexander Ritter and a lack of appreciation of the intellectual activity of Strauss's early career.

The first chapter, on Strauss's "conversion" to Wagnerism, begins by fleshing out his relationship with Bayreuth in charting the conflicting versions of Wagnerian ideology that he encountered, concluding that by the early 1890s Strauss had developed a "dephilosophised attitude toward Wagner" (p. 38), and that Strauss's "conversion" is more complex and less datable than commonly held. Although based on a good deal of speculation, this nuancing is helpful and long overdue. Still more valuable is Youmans's account of Strauss's relationship with Alexander Ritter, his close friend and mentor ca. 1885-93, pieced together from primary sources (such as Ritter's articles for the Bayreuther Blatter) and the most comprehensive to date. He identifies Ritter's ideology as "a form of neo-romanticism unsurpassed in its exaggerated spiritual claims" (p. 44) and notes that this was the specific type of Wagnerism that Strauss rejected.

In the following two chapters, Youmans proves once and for all that the image of the composer as a clueless and superficial materialist uninterested in the deeper issues of his art, cultivated by Strauss himself and still battled by biographers, was only a convenient facade. Using mostly primary sources, many of them unpublished, the author carefully chronicles Strauss's deep engagement with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the evolution of his revolutionary rejection of the prevailing metaphysical conception of music. …

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