By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Richard Strauss Choral Works, performed on April 17, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
The posthumous reputation of Richard Strauss has its own extraordinary history. When he died in 1949, he was regarded as an ancient survivor of a bygone era, at best the most facile representative of an outdated musical aesthetic. He was remembered for the now standard works he composed before World War I. By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, matters had changed. Strauss was rediscovered as a precursor to the post-modern and as a figure more representative of the twentieth century perhaps than Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
Such exaggerated claims hold little value except to remind us of those things about Strauss that are perhaps not well understood. First, he was among the most gifted and unerringly prolific composers in the history of music. Many, like Telemann, Milhaud or Martinu, wrote a great deal of music and did it quickly. But there are few who are consistently productive and never fail to write something that displays consummate craftsmanship, even if it is intentionally designed to be superficial. Strauss was certainly the twentieth century’s Haydn in this respect. He seemed incapable of writing music poorly. Second, Strauss did more than write for the operatic stage and large orchestra. There is a wealth of music for the voice and even chamber music, notably a sonata for violin championed by none other than Jascha Heifetz. This afternoon’s program is a tribute to an entire genre in Strauss’s oeuvre that is frequently overlooked: his music for chorus. In addition to the works on this program, Strauss wrote brilliant pieces for a cappella chorus. Like the classical master he most admired, Mozart, Strauss was a composer of astonishing versatility.
Third, and perhaps most important, is that there was more than one Richard Strauss. There are probably four distinct phases in his career. The first was influenced by the example of Brahms and the prejudices of Strauss’s father Franz, a distinguished horn player. This phase is represented on this afternoon’s program by Wanderers Sturmlied (1884). The second phase in which Strauss emerges with his own distinct voice is the era of Don Juan (1889), Taillefer (1903), and Bardengesang (1905). These are the years when practically everything best known by Strauss was written. The third phase was in many ways the most ambiguous and difficult for Strauss himself. These were the years between World War I and the end of World War II. It is from this phase that the last of the well-known operas come, including Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918), Austria (1929) and Die Tageszeiten (1928). In these years, Strauss felt increasingly marginal and irrelevant with respect to the aggressive claims of modernism and the explosion of new forms of popular music which many serious composers attempted to co-opt, such as jazz, hit songs, and new types of popular dance such as the tango and fox trot.
The fourth and final phase was Strauss’s “Indian Summer.” In the span of four years Strauss produced music that has consistently met with acclaim. In his final years Strauss became sentimental and even nostalgic, and above all pessimistic. This afternoon’s program has only one evocation of those years, Strauss’s own short orchestral pastiche on Die Frau ohne Schatten, his Symphonic Fantasy (1946). After 1945 Strauss’s isolation from modernism was further aggravated by the recognition of his cowardice and collaboration during the Nazi era. On that point, a consensus has finally emerged that Strauss, as the compositions Austria and Bardengesang demonstrate, was first and foremost an egotist willing to flatter any government and form of politics as long as they served his music and what he considered to be valid principles of art, and if they protected the economic wellbeing of musicians and composers. Strauss had always been a shrewd businessman and a vigorous defender of copyright laws. Ironically, the Olympic Hymn, which is not on today’s program, was commissioned before the Nazis came to power, but its symbolism as evidence of Strauss’s complicity is legitimated by the fact that he chose to conduct it in 1936 at the Olympic Games in Berlin.
Before discussing the place of Strauss’s choral music in his overall output, a word has to be said about place and significance of choral music in German culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beginning in the 1840s, choral singing became an extremely important aspect of German culture and the evolution of German civic identity. Every town, and particularly all the large cities, had their choral societies, which included mixed choirs and male choruses. These institutions bridged the world of art and culture and the world of everyday socializing. Through choral societies, German folk music became modernized and popularized. The repertoire of these societies included light entertainment as well as compositions of serious artistic ambition. They were secular institutions, distinct from church choirs. In Protestant communities, these were the institutions for which oratorios were written on religious and biblical subjects, notably by Mendelssohn in his St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846). Such large-scale works continued to be written well into the twentieth century. They did not always have a religious subject, as the oratorios of Max Bruch, Odysseus (1872), and Achilles (1885), indicate. Curiously enough, when Strauss was approached to write a work for one of Vienna’s most celebrated choral societies, the Schubertbund, he initially was put off by the fact that texts by the poet Eichendorff had already been set for choir by his contemporary Hans Pfitzner in the latter’s Von deutscher Seele [Of the German Spirit] (1921). As the title of Pfitzner’s opus makes clear, by the end of the nineteenth century, these choral institutions, particularly the male choirs, became civic bastions of national sentiment. As the constitution of the Schubertbund suggests, it was originally organized as an association of schoolteachers. Membership in these choral societies ranged over the entire middle class and included professionals as well as artisans.
Vienna, where Strauss lived after World War I, was especially noted for its choral traditions. Austria was written for Vienna’s male choral society, an institution founded in the 1840s by political liberals who were held in suspicion by the reactionary Habsburg monarchy. (Some of the society’s founders died in the 1848 Revolution.) By the time Strauss wrote for that organization (to whom The Blue Danube Waltz is also dedicated), it had become a symbol of pan-German political solidarity. Indeed, throughout Strauss’s career, there were regular festivals of German choirs that gathered German-speaking people from all over Europe to celebrate their common heritage through music. When one looks at the performance history of Strauss’s works for chorus, the list of cities extends well beyond those we identify with international cosmopolitan concert life. These works were written by and large for amateur choirs in Heidelberg, Würtzburg, Düsseldorf, Elberfeld, Krefeld, and Strasbourg. Particularly fertile ground for choral singing as politics were parts of modern day Romania, where early performances of Wanderers Sturmlied took place. Secular choral singing for mixed and male choir became an important assertion of German identity in German-speaking communities outside the boundaries of the German Reich to the east and as far west as the United States.
Today’s program offers a glimpse of Strauss’s evolution as a composer through his choral work, rounded out by two examples of that for which he became most famous, the tone poem and opera. But the program also highlights the fourth and final aspect of Strauss, which perhaps bears the closest scrutiny. Strauss is often compared with his contemporary and colleague Gustav Mahler, whom he admired. In the context of the massive late twentieth-century enthusiasm for Mahler, a convenient dichotomy has been accepted. Mahler is understood to be an artist of deep and complex emotions and intellectual profundity. Strauss, in contrast, has been seen as a composer of extreme facility, charm, superficiality, elegance and even cynicism. Strauss has not become famous on account of the assumed philosophical depth of either his artistic intentions or the meanings his music conveys. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Strauss, far more than Mahler, was a vigorous and disciplined reader and a connoisseur of literature and painting. It was he and not Mahler who struggled with the ambiguities and complexities of Goethe and Nietzsche. As most of the works on today’s program suggest, including Don Juan, literature was a significant source of inspiration for him. He studied Greek tragedy and confronted through music the credo of aesthetic individualism and the myth of the hero put forward by Nietzsche. Above all, consciously following the example of Mozart, he used music to explore not only the joys but the sufferings of ordinary and everyday life, particularly the ambiguities in human conduct inspired by the institution of marriage. Strauss was no self-satisfied bourgeois. Under the mask of external respectability, there was a questioning and deeply reflecting artist overwhelmed by the elusive character of love and the daunting allure of intimacy. In Mahler, parody and irony aspire to the philosophical and mystical; in Strauss they, along with humor, turn inward and reflect backward on the wonderment we can find in the everyday world.
Among the hardest things for us to reconcile with Strauss was his emergence during the late nineteenth century as a preeminent radical. We are so accustomed to thinking of him as a clever manipulator of orchestral sound and melodic gesture that we overlook the bravery of Strauss’s stance in the 1880s and 1890s as a modernist who outraged his public. Strauss did not, as some have argued, shift his allegiances from the Brahmsian camp to the Wagnerian. He was influenced by both, but at the same time rejected the fundamental claims for music that became associated with the names of Brahms and Wagner. For Strauss, music was an expressive medium of ordinary human experience. He rejected the transcendental metaphysics of those who argued that instrumental music was a self-contained, spiritually ennobled world above the quotidian, more profound than words and images. This conceit of early romanticism, which was adopted in part by Brahms, held little appeal for Strauss. On the other side, the elevation of art as a surrogate for religion, as a platform for myths sufficiently powerful to rescue modernity from materialist corruption (a view derived from Wagner and his polemics) was equally foreign to Strauss. Indeed this conventional audience-pleasing composer was the most Nietzschean of all twentieth-century masters. In contrast to Schoenberg, for example, who pursued in his own way the Wagnerian spiritual ambition on behalf of music, Strauss was a confirmed atheist. The only thing for music to celebrate, in his opinion, was the specifically human dimension of life. In his hands music became a radical instrument of realism, expanding our understanding of and relationship to birth, death, desire, entertainment, card-playing, sex, loss, aging, and memory. A wide range of human emotion and experience as articulated by the artist through music can be heard on today’s program from the most grandiose and vulgar, but nevertheless genuine triumphalism to the saddest, most internalized experience of loneliness.
Ultimately, however, what never fails to astonish is the extent to which music was for Strauss an entirely natural language, even more so than speech. The aesthetics of music are often discussed in ways that suggest that music begins where language ends. For Strauss that order was reversed. It is music that precedes language. That frames the irony of today’s program. When Strauss read, it reminded him of music. Unlike some composers, including Schubert and Verdi, Strauss was a severe literary critic and judge. It was not so much that music was, as Mendelssohn once put it, more precise than language, but that music was required particularly for the greatest of literary texts, because Strauss the reader (as for example when he first read Oscar Wilde’s Salome or Goethe’s poetry) heard the music he believed these great writers would have written if they had been composers. The most human of all experiences was music. In Strauss’s view, what defines the human being and the individual is a capacity for music, not the universal gift of language. If there is any truth in the notion that Strauss, as he himself believed, was the last representative of a great tradition, it is in the possibility that Strauss may have been the last composer in modern western history to have lived his life by thinking, but only in and through music, as an act of nature rather than of learning.