By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Richard Strauss, Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83 (1940), performed on Jan 16, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
When efforts are made to revive a major work that failed to gain acceptance at the time of its creation, it is revealing to explore the reasons for and value of the resuscitation, particularly when the work is by one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. Richard Strauss’s later work has gradually undergone a positive reassessment. This reappraisal is partly a consequence of the demise of the cult of modernism. But as Die Liebe der Danae (1940) may show, the reconsideration of Strauss an anti-modernist is too facile. This opera in fact has everything to do with the modern; it is uniquely a work of our time. In the midst of fascist Europe, the Depression, and the Second World War, a morality tale about wealth and the power of love was irrelevant at best, and in 1952 (the date of the public premiere in Salzburg), when the ravages of the war and the post-war economy made for a grim landscape (further compromised by the specter of Stalinism and the Iron Curtain) Danae was destined to fall on unsympathetic ears. But we now live in a period of extreme wealth and ruthless self-confidence about the power of money and its significance. Indeed those apparent contemporary qualities which put Danae out of step with the time of its composition in the late 1930s or it with its delayed premiere in the post-war early 1950s, make it a highly germane work for the present time, as we reflect upon what the last century has made of us.
In the score, Strauss achieves a modernist transparency in this opera, especially in his deft use of thematic development and harmonic color. The orchestration is distinctly twentieth century in its lightness and use of fragmentation and contrast. However, Strauss also integrates numerous musical references to the past (it opens with an echo of the music of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler) and to his own work, and thus forces the listener to engage the present through the lens of tradition and history. Like so many of his other operas, Danae is also filled with personal history–autobiographical references, self-criticism and self-reflection. But Strauss does not lapse into nostalgic sentimentality and grand empty gestures. The music in this opera is not the music of a contented craftsman, relying on the conventions he himself helped create. Although the opera has failed to be performed with any frequency at all and is not available in any complete recording (there is only one heavily cut CD version of the 1952 premiere), audiences that have embraced the music of Philip Glass, John Adams, Arvo Paart, and David Del Tredici, John Corigliano and an even younger generation of American composers will find old Strauss remarkably up to date.
The explicit moral lesson the opera draws about money requires little explanation in this day and age. The inhabitants of Danae’s world do not earn their money the old-fashioned way like good nineteenth-century industrialists, nor do they even acquire it as the inherited privilege of landed aristocracy. Gold is a magical occurrence for them, almost like day-trading on the internet. And just as today, when Midas’s touch may be the click of the mouse, the spontaneous accumulation of wealth instantly reduces all value to market-value. This is evident in the pathos of Pollux, whose lack of capital makes his royal rank meaningless, while a donkey-driver with wealth can instantly acquire a kingdom. Indeed, in making Midas’s wealth a reward from the gods, Strauss alters the traditional myth of Midas, who is cursed with the golden touch as punishment for his greed. Midas rapidly learns the value of things other than gold when he finds he cannot eat or touch other humans. Of course the most powerful image in the confusion of money with intangible values is the shower of gold itself, the opera’s only erotic event. Unlike other erotic visions or fantasies (for instance, Europa’s bull) the shower has no parallel symbol for physical sexuality: the gold is erotic purely by displacement, as a kind of fetish. On the most explicit level, then, the opera’s conflict seems so simple as to be a major cliché of the century: money is no substitute for love.
But to accept the opera only on that level is to miss Strauss’s true modernism, his Joyce-like appropriation of the mythic and mundane life. Like Joyce, Strauss does not use myth to reduce the present to a tired maxim, but to complicate the maxim itself. That Strauss might want to complicate this particular maxim is made clear by certain autobiographical facts. Strauss was very aware that he was reviled for being interested only in money. He was after all among the leading advocates of copyright protection, but his advocacy was profoundly self-centered. He reveled in the economic success of his work. He was known for his love of comfort and took pride in his house in Garmisch, which he boasted was the result of his fabulous royalties. To many contemporaries and critics, his musical efforts after 1918 were not true reflections of creativity but the work of a calculating old man interested only in exploiting his fame and reputation. Furthermore, Strauss had a difficult, Junoesque wife who thought of herself as socially superior. Having come of age in a society dominated by families grown rich in the brewing industry, Strauss understood very well both the petit-bourgeois mind and the industrialist.
But the old Strauss also had his memories, especially of his youthful, passionate affair with Dora Wihan. This moment of idealistic love, opposed by his parents, lingered on well into the years in which his marriage with the decidedly unpleasant Pauline had settled into a comfortable domestic routine. Strauss was unquestionably a devoted and loyal husband and cherished the ideal of the family and his love for his wife until the end of his days. But however mundane his domestic life might have been, a sense of gleaming youthful ardor, audible in the Danae/Midas duets, remained with him. For Strauss it was neither naïve nor clichéd, but rather a dream, an ideal to be sustained if not in life, then in art. If Strauss chose to live in Jupiter’s golden castle which Danae forsakes, then in some room of that dwelling of capitalist success and respectability, there still remained the passionate, rebellious ideals of youth. It is remarkable how much Strauss’s valedictory, this nearly unperformable, complex work, seems more the product of excessive youthful ambition than of the learned economy of experience.
And yet, Danae possesses the music of experience as well. Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who conceived the scenario upon which Josef Gregor based his libretto, were not so naïve as to present their bourgeois audiences with a simple moral about the power of love over wealth. Strauss embeds a somber yet provocative commentary into this moral tale through the use of myth, music, and the depiction of human relationships. In the figure of Jupiter, we may see one of those self-conscious reflections for which Strauss is known. Jupiter is not a youthful presence. As the literal source of the most sought-after commodity, gold, he is already at the summit of success. But his persistent desire defines the limits of gold from the outset–he wants love, especially the love that characterizes youth. In this sense he resembles the Marschallin of Der Rosenkavalier, whose wistful reflection about her aging (which may seem an over-reaction these days) edges the aspirations of the youthful lovers with more than a touch of sadness.
But Jupiter also evokes the example of Wotan, especially in Danae’s closing scenes. There are few operatic occasions so glorious for a low male voice (albeit a lyric baritone) and so tragically evocative of self-realization. Although Strauss in his later years turned increasingly to Mozart as a model, and there is much neoclassical flair in this work characteristic of twentieth-century neoclassicism (including the canon from the third act), there are also strong hints of Wagner transfigured. Danae’s and Jupiter’s third act duet is reminiscent of Wotan and Brünhilde (as well as of Sieglinde and Siegmund, especially with its reference to the glint in the eyes, the thinly veiled disguise, and the libation in the context of domestic hospitality). Like Wotan, Jupiter is a god with an ambivalent, competitive, interventionist and jealous attitude to human existence. The musician Strauss in this opera is in conflict with his double Jupiter. While Jupiter graciously confronts his own limitations as a god, as an aging man his composer, without disagreeing, flaunts his youthful inventiveness in the music itself. It could well be argued that the closing scenes of this opera is Strauss’s most successful counterpart to the end of Der Rosenkavalier, his most popular operatic achievement. Among the particular twentieth-century aspects of this score are Strauss’s intricate use of rhythmic displacement and cross-rhythm, his angular and daring harmonic adventurousness, and his integration of dissonance and tonal ambiguity. The score can be compared to the work of Bartók and Janacek, two composers who never abandoned a tonal framework, but who went well beyond post-Wagnerian clichés. In its placement in Strauss’s career, it stands as Falstaff and Otello do in the career of Verdi.
On the most conventional level of the narrative, Jupiter is the loser, and Danae and Midas the winners who acquire the ideal love that the god cannot experience. His golden dreams are rejected by the lovers’ embracing of fulfillment in each other in a relentlessly ordinary, non-magical existence. But Jupiter’s plight in its musical context–some of the most glorious that Strauss ever penned–gives him a force that imbues the young lovers’ circumstance with a dreadful irony. His presence drives home the fact that this dream of perfect love and simple joy in the absence of any other ambition by two people willing to sacrifice everything just to live with each other in a hut, giving away all their aspirations for wealth and power, is itself among the most terrifying of illusions perpetrated on ourselves in modern life. If Midas could not eat because his food turned to gold, he and Danae may not find food any more easily now in their poverty. The experienced Strauss was all too aware of how remote for himself and others the fulfillment of this dream was. More than most, he knew how difficult and how unrealistic such pure devotion is to sustain in any relationship. How then can we take such an implausible lesson to heart? In the end, are not the pathetic Pollux and his entourage, easily mollified in the third act by the shower of gold, a more realistic, honestly human depiction? As our contemporary culture makes too plain, it seems much more natural to imitate the gods and seek wealth and dominion over others than to try to sustain love over time?
Though the opera’s mythic convention may seem to suggest that the mortals find their true destiny in a Rousseau-like rejection of materialism, it in fact offers a pertinent question: where exactly is the myth, and where the reality? Jupiter realizes that humans, unlike gods, are blessed with a capacity, unique to themselves and linked absolutely to their mortality, for a kind of love completely independent of any distinction or achievement. This is the same point apparent at the end of one of Strauss’s own favorite operas, Die ägyptische Helena (1928), in which the epic figures of Helena and Menelaus must come to terms with each other as ordinary, modern husband and wife faced with a history of infidelity. But this modest and poignant gift of humanity is precisely that which humans have the most difficulty realizing. It is the domestic bliss of Midas and Danae that is the myth, a tantalizing but forever elusive ideal.
But as Jupiter–the catalyst of this sequence of events, and the most interesting and complex figure in the opera–demonstrates, this beautiful myth is not to be dismissed. Strauss does not pillory entirely the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century elaborations of love, desire, and romance in favor of a twentieth-century devotion to avarice. Regardless of its unfeasibility, this intangible ideal of human contact is something to be celebrated and treasured, even if modern life will not allow for it. And it is the figure of Jupiter himself that symbolizes the reason for this. Alone at the end of the opera, Jupiter resigns himself to his role as a god, a creator who cannot directly participate in the activities of his creations. His power and immortality are all characteristics and aspirations of the modern artist and composer, and ones so eminently achieved by Strauss himself. Jupiter embodies most fully the realization communicated by the musical form of the opera itself: that the one solace surrounding the failure of human relationships and the key instrument to sustaining human relationships may be the art of music itself. Jupiter’s observations in the glorious end of this opera are plausible precisely because of the transcendent power and stunning beauty of Strauss’s musical invention. Music, that wordless language, is probably the only effective instrument of human love. Strauss, the elderly seer, makes it plain that the idealization of love and its search can be a curse more painful than Midas’s touch. Its failures are so utterly human and engender so much suffering. But they are redeemed not by their fulfillment but by the fact that they end up necessitating art and music as the only instruments of survival and hope.
Die Liebe der Danae is an overlooked masterpiece (marred perhaps only by the absence of Hofmannstal’s elegant prose). The impracticalities associated with the work, such as the difficulty of the Jupiter role, have not helped. But the time has come to give this work a new life. To that end, this performance is being recorded for commercial release as the first sound document of the complete opera. Audience members are respectfully asked to minimize extraneous noise.