Though his later operas are all but ignored in current American musical life, the fact that no fewer than four earlier operas by Richard Strauss have been produced in New Yok City alone this season—Salome at the City Opera, and Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met—and the fact that Robert Craft, a prominent critic long associated with a hostile position on Strauss, has recently been writing sympathetically about him, raise the interesting possibility that a new valuation of Strauss may be in the making. If so, this would be a phenomenon of great cultural significance, for of the small number of undeniably major composers who have written a major body of serious music since World War II—that watershed in the formation of our cultural times—Richard Strauss is undoubtedly the least esteemed by the literate musical community. To some extent his reputation has suffered from the fact that he continued, without public protest, to live and work in Germany after Hitler came to power. But the stigma attached to Strauss’s political behavior cannot explain the low regard in which he is held. For one thing, he was no more a Nazi than he was a hero. An aging man with a beloved Jewish daughter-in-law and two verjudelt grandchildren, he chose the path of discretion rather than the path of honor, making only those concessions—they were many but small—which seemed to him necessary for survival. In any case, Strauss’s reputation had already suffered a precipitous decline long before the Nazis arrived on the scene. Politics was certainly involved in the decline, but it was the politics of culture, not politics in the ordinary sense.
Strauss first came to public notice as a modernist. While still a budding, little-known composer, he had seemed to be allied with the conservative camp of Brahms; but with the writing of Don Juan in 1888, and then with the later group of tone poems—Tod und Verklärung (1889), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), and Ein Heldenleben (1898)—Strauss became the inheritor, continuator, and developer of the tradition of Wagner and Liszt, the foremost living practitioner of the “music of the future,” a music which went far beyond the strict form of the classical symphony and into new areas of harmony, orchestration, and extra-musical associations. Finally, with the operas Salome (1904-05) and Elektra (1906-08), both of which luxuriated musically in the depiction of perverse passion and pathology, Strauss’s position as the leading modernist composer of the day was confirmed.
But Elektra was to prove an end for Strauss, not a beginning. It was to be followed, in Der Rosenkavalier (1909-10), not with the depiction of new perversions, of new admirably painful pleasures, but rather with a comedy set in the 18th-century Vienna of Maria Theresa. And instead of the grating dissonances of Elektra, the musical texture of Rosenkavalier was based upon the sentimental sweetness of the 19th-century Viennese waltz.
As if this were not “reactionary” enough, his next opera, Ariadne auf Naxos (1911-16), with a libretto sympathetic to the values of love and fidelity, made use of musical styles going back even beyond Mozart all the way to Lully and his succeeding operas, Die Frau ohne Schatten (1917), Intermezzo (1923), Arabella (1932), Die schweig-same Frau (1935), Friedenstag (1936), Daphne (1937), Die Liebe der Danae (1940), and Capriccio (1941), all dramatically inventive and richly melodic, confirmed and reconfirmed, in their conservative choice of theme and musical style, Strauss’s apostasy from modernism.
For this, he was amply punished by critical opinion, either modernist in its vision of a desirable art or simply willing to use the modernist cudgel to reinforce the position of firmly established classics. As early as 1915, Carl Van Vechten, an effective American publicist for the latest artistic thing, dismissed Strauss as an original artistic force; another important American modernist critic, Paul Rosenfeld, writing in 1920 what he thought was Strauss’s musical obituary, called him “the false dawn of modern music.” And in 1924 the English critic, Cecil Gray, in a generally dismissive survey of new music, declared:
Hailed on his appearance as the successor of Wagner—Richard the Second—only some ten years ago, still for most people the most commanding force in modern music, he is today, apart from Germany and Austria, almost ignored by the leaders of progressive musical opinion. No composer of such formerly unquestioned eminence has ever suffered such a startling change of fortune, such a sudden and decisive reversal of a favorable verdict.
In his influential Opera as Drama (1956), an examination of opera as a dramatic form which reserved most of the highest marks for pre-20th-century works, Joseph Kerman quoted these last words of Gray, and added some of his own, calling Rosenkavalier—a s well as the previously sacrosanct Salome and Elektra—
impossible today . . . anything he touched he soiled as pervasively as the waltz soiled the texture of his music.
And finally, Brockway and Weinstock, in their popular Men of Music (1958), summarized the criticisms of all the later pieces of Strauss as follows:
The fair thing is to treat Richard Strauss as a man who died in 1911. One of the most fascinating, if finally insoluble problems in music criticism is to try to discover the causes of his premature demise.
That this is still the accepted view is clear from Charles Rosen’s brilliantly received book of last year on Arnold Schoenberg. There Rosen praises Strauss for his “disinterested courage” in writing Salome and Elektra with “their extreme chromaticism and . . . their representation of pathological states” and accuses him of “final cowardice” because he then “quickly retreated into 18th-century pastiche and the delicious Viennese pastry of Der Rosenkavalier.”
Though many reasons have been suggested for the supposed decline of Strauss’s music, ranging from creative impotence to simple laziness, it is entirely characteristic of modernist ideology that the change in Strauss’s work should so often have been attributed to the basest of motives: the love of money. Thus, for example, Paul Rosenfeld speculated that “Strauss’s desire for incessant gain is a sort of perversion, a mania that has gotten control over him because his energies are inwardly prevented from taking their logical course, and creating works of art.” And Brockway and Weinstock tell us that Strauss “was as much businessman as musician,” and that “the final key to his failure lies in his richly successful career.” The reply of Strauss to such criticism was succinct: “Earning money in a decent way for wife and child is no disgrace—even for an artist.”
Of course Strauss’s music is not only his best but must ultimately be his only defense against such charges. On this issue, there can be no doubt about one point at least: that, stripped of extra-musical factors—literary ideas, symbols, plots, aesthetic politics—Strauss’s music, taken simply as music, is of great interest to those perhaps best qualified to pronounce judgment in such matters, performing musicians. Not only do the most distinguished conductors, singers, and instrumentalists remain committed to performing his major pieces, the tone-poems and the operas; his smaller pieces—the serenades, the horn and oboe concerti, his many songs—are also considered, because they represent a compendium of the composer’s art, deeply satisfying to contemplate and to perform. Some of his music—the occasional orchestral pieces are among them—are not so considered, but it is my impression that Strauss, like Schoenberg, is secure as a musicians’ composer. In addition, whenever such works as Die Frau ohne Schatten, Arabella, and Capriccio are staged, as they have been occasionally in this country and often are in Europe, they gratify an audience which, though still small, is probably larger than that for any other opera (with the possible exception of Berg’s Wozzeck) written in the last sixty years.
Yet important as performers and performances are for insuring a composer’s survival, it cannot be denied that such charges as have been brought against Strauss in the wider court of intellectual opinion are themselves relevant to the question of his survival and to his influence on our musical life. And to understand these charges, which obviously involve so much more than music, we must try to understand what Strauss was and what he did in terms which go beyond his recognized craftsmanship and melodic skill.
“Every nation,” Strauss wrote toward the end of his life, “has a historic mission and once the mission is fulfilled it disappears. . . . The mission of the German nation was music and it was fulfilled with Richard Wagner.” What then was a composer coming after Wagner to do? Strauss’s answer in effect was to preserve and integrate the greatest values of the musical past. Thus, for example, at the same time as Octavian in Rosenkavalier and the composer in Ariadne represent Strauss’s image of himself as an ardent, impulsive youth, they harken back to Mozart’s Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. In similar fashion the opera section of Ariadne can be seen as the most loving of gentle spoofs of Wagner’s Ring, with the three Nymphs modeled musically on the Rhinemaidens and emotionally on their sisters in misery, the Norns; the love of Ariadne and Bacchus and their removal to privacy at the end of the opera inevitably suggests Siegfried’s waking and wooing of Brünnhilde and their presumed wedding celebration on the flaming rock. A further example of Strauss’s attempt to preserve and integrate the past was his Metamorphosen (1945), a study for twenty-three solo strings based on a motive from the Funeral March of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
In addition to thus linking his own work with the music of the past, Strauss transcribed and reworked for performance under modern conditions the music of Couperin, Gluck, Mozart, and Beethoven. That such musical procedures are no longer in fashion—that we would rather not listen to a piece than hear it in an altered version—cannot obscure the meaning of so loving an attention by a modern composer to the genius of the past.
It has generally been realized for many years that with Strauss the book was closed on the greatest age music had ever known, the years from Bach to Strauss himself. What it was not possible to see clearly until now is that it was not the most highly praised works of Strauss—the tone poems, Salome, and Elektra—which terminated this age, but rather the music which Strauss continued to write until the end of his life. To use the pejorative term pastiche in describing this music, or to speak of commercialism or cowardice or cynicism or sterility in accounting for it, is to miss the meaning of Strauss’s relation to tradition. For his enduring musical greatness lies in the fact that he summed the tradition up. including at the end—by quoting the great transfiguration theme from Tod und Verklärung (1889) in the final passage of the Vier Letzte Lieder (1948)—his own position within it.
Strauss’s career thus represented an apostasy from modernism that was more than merely aesthetic: it embodied the rejection, by an admitted master and sometime prophet, of the central modernist commandment that the only morally permissible road to the future is through repudiation, dissolution, and destruction of the values of the past, and the creation of new values through violent transformation of self and society. While his music, because considered strictly as music it is so masterly, will not die, any recognition of Strauss as a great artistic figure—and the entry of his later operas into the international repertory—must await the development of a new attitude toward the modernist prescription in general. Whether the recent flurry of performances of Strauss and the new seriousness with which his music is now being discussed may point to the beginning of such a change remains to be seen.
Though almost all Strauss’s earlier works are available in many excellent performances, by no means are recordings of all the later works available at the present time. Of those recordings currently listed, the following should be mentioned:
Arabella (1932), Richmond S-63522
Capriccio (1941), DG 2709038
Concerto #2 for Horn (1942), DG 2530439
Concerto for Oboe (1945), Philips 6500174
Dance Suite after Couperin (1923), Seraphim S-60030
Four Last Songs (1948), Angel S-36347
Die Frau ohne Schatten (1917), Richmond 64503
Metamorphosen (1945), DG 2530066
Sonatina #1 for Sixteen Winds (1943), Philips 6500297
Sonatina #2 for Sixteen Winds (1945), Philips 6500097
In addition, two older historical recordings deserve mention here as examples of the work of performers closely associated with the composer himself:
Ariadne auf Naxos (1935 broadcast), conducted by Strauss’s friend and collaborator, Clemens Krauss, BASF 21806
Der Rosenkavalier (abridged) with Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schumann, Seraphim 6041