By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Richard Strauss Choral Works, performed on April 17, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Strauss wrote the Olympic Hymn with some reluctance, but not because of its political implications. He communicated to Stefan Zweig, the Viennese Jewish librettist of The Silent Woman (and whom Strauss defended, much to the displeasure of the Nazis, at the premiere of their joint effort), “I kill the boredom of the advent season by composing an Olympic Hymn for the proletarians—I of all people, who hate and despise sports. Well, idleness is the root of all evil.” The events surrounding the Hymn’s premiere highlight the ambiguous relationship Strauss was in with the Nazis. The national Olympic committee, which commissioned the work, was not pleased with Strauss’s hostility to sports. At one rehearsal of the Hymn Hitler planned to be present, and Strauss was explicitly asked to absent himself. Nevertheless, Strauss did conduct the premiere at the Games in Hitler’s presence. His contempt for politicians extended to Hitler but his overwhelming egotism prevented him from recognizing the distinction between what was simply distasteful and what was evil. In the years that followed the premiere of the Olympic Hymn, Strauss continued to find accommodation that suited his purposes, seemingly oblivious to the extent to which Hitler and the Nazis were not just another set of contemptible rulers. As the undistinguished text by the undistinguished writer suggests, Strauss was allergic to the primitive muscularity of the ideology of the Games.