The Genius of Richard Strauss

Born and schooled in Vienna, Erich Leinsdorf, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the last three seasons, has a particular affinity for the music of Bichard Strauss. His immense experience and his intellectual perception give him a unique position in the world of music.


WHEN I was born, Richard Strauss was fortyeight and was composing the second version of Ariadne. I have wondered for most of my life what happened in the second half of his creative period, what happened to the composer of Eleklra and Salome, of Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben. Why did he stop writing tone poems and turn exclusively to opera, and why did these operas become more and more archaic instead of more and more progressive? Why do we have The Egyptian Helen, Friedenstag, Daphne, Liebe der Danae, and then again an elaborate conversation piece, Capriccio?

Why did the composer who undertook great subjects such as Salome and Elektra, and a comedy such as Rosenkavalier, then turn into the byways of literature to write a rehash of a musical language that became so stereotyped that in the last of his output one sometimes does not know where a piece starts and where it ends.

It is easy to say that the wellspring of creativity weakened with old age, but it had in fact already weakened in his late forties. If he had not been the overwhelmingly important and significant composer that he was and still is today, it would not be quite as tantalizing a question to answer. I believe (and this is my real motive for indulging in this personal evaluation of Strauss) that after many years of search, I have found (he key to the puzzle.

There is no doubt in my mind that Strauss up to the time of the First World War was one of the all-time significant, great, and important composers. It is not the issue here whether he is going to last as long as Beethoven or Mendelssohn. I feel completely certain that the Strauss of the five or six early tone poems and the Strauss of the first three big operas is going to survive for many decades, not merely in Munich and Salzburg and Vienna, but wherever virtuoso symphony orchestras exist and opera stages with fine singing actors function.

I do think that any important creative artist, be he a composer, painter, or literary figure, is a representative of the period during which he works, and Strauss is a superb and supreme representative of the Wilhelmian period. This is a distinctive period, during which Germany expanded madly, to the point of a great world conflict with Britain. Strauss represents, in the best and the worst sense of the word, this Wilhelmian period, but his representative nature could not adjust to the profound changes which the First World War wrought in the fabric of our civilization. He could not really mirror the world as it became in the wake of the four-year disaster of 1914-1918. I would suggest that the composer Strauss, who had been in his earlier life a complete extrovert, became after the world war an introvert, and wrote only for himself. The choice of libretti and the constant refinement of musical for - mulas into clichés would substantiate tins belief.

The spirit of the Wilhelmian era, so brilliantly executed, so brilliantly represented in many of Strauss’s early tone poems and in the big operas, has naturally led to the loud opposition currently expressed by some of our most intellectual and discerning critics. They may not be aware that one of their probable motives is an inner objection to the whole Wagnerian-Wilhelmian complex.

There has been, particularly in the wake of the Nazi era, a complete identification (not quite justifiably) of the creative minds of people such as Wagner and Strauss with the worst elements in German political history. Although there is considerable evidence that Goth Wagner and Strauss were violently anti-Semitic, and fascistic in their philosophical political outlook, it would be rather arbitrary to make this a cause for denying the supreme genius of both.

Wagner, who lived as a youth through the 1848 revolution and took part in it, witnessed later a Germany which grew from a federation of many small principalities into the mighty German Reich. Strauss, who was born six years before the birth of the Reich, lived through its glory and saw it being shattered. The destruction of that German Reich was an event of tremendous importance, and Strauss’s personality by that time was so totally identified, through his early success, with the Wilhelmian era that he was unable to come to terms with anything else.

But if we can set aside for a minute our own objections and our own revulsion against the steel helmets and the mustachios, we may come to admire the sensitivity and the pity, the human understanding, which have gone into the best of Strauss’s writings, particularly if we do not take the literary programs of his symphonic poems too seriously. We should hold on to the twinkle in his eye, to his humor, to evidence such as the fugue in Zarathustra, where he makes fun of science and of polyphonic writing, at which he, like many another great composer, was not a master.

Even in Heldenleben the music of the Antagonists is funny, while the youthful sweep depicting himself as the great E-flat Major hero, psychologically stemming from the key of Beethoven’s Eroica, need not be considered as arrogance and presumption; it is merely youthful exuberance, and unquestionably a work of genius. The description of the wife, the companion, in the violin solo, the way in which she escapes into another tonality each time the man nearly lias his way, the finesse of playing with notes, the intense delight in subtle allusions these are signs of a true creative giant.

Such allusions and refinements are not limited to the student who reads the score; they are part and parcel of a huge structure which in its totality appeals to the naive listener through gorgeous sound, through fine, although somewhat uncritical, melodic invention, through a post-Wagnerian and very original sequence of harmonic modulations, and through a display possibility of instrumental virtuosity that is second to none.

As the all-time masterpiece of that symphonic era, I would unhesitatingly choose Till Eulenspiegel. Strauss, both in his symphonic poems and in his operas, was always at his best when he could depict the seamier side of life. I find his Till more convincing than his Don Juan; I find his Don Quixote and Sancho Panza more convincing than his Zarathustra and his Hero. I find his Hcrodias and Herod more convincing than Jokanaan, and Clytemnestra more convincing than Chrysothcmis. In these two scores Salome and Elektra — the direction of modern music is forecast by Strauss.

Had he been able to shed the cloak of the Wilhelmian era and become a representative of the twenties and thirties, he, rather than Alban Berg with Wozzeck, might have been the one to have created the supreme operatic masterpiece. There is a direct line from Hcrodias via Clytemnestra via the nurse in Erau ohne Schatten to figures like Marie in Wozzeck and to Wozzeck himself. Here, I think, lies the real tragedy: that this man, who at the age of fifty had acquired an incredible technique of composition, was by that time at the end of his career because the only age which he could represent had arrived at its historic end.

If you don’t want to take a performer’s word and if you don’t want to accept a conductor’s enthusiasm as documentation that Strauss was a great composer, we must look a little bit deeper into some of his masterworks. The performer, of course, especially the singing actor and the fine orchestral player, has always been in Strauss’s corner; less so the solo instrumentalist, for whom he has written hardly anything, except a few early works such as the violin sonata and, of course, that masterpiece of a cello solo, Don Quixote. This was not intended for a soloist at all; it was written for the orchestra’s first cellist, and only now, with brilliant solo cellists in our American orchestras, arc we able to do justice to the work by rehearsing the tone poem as a tone poem instead of treating it as an accompaniment to a concerto.

The greatness of Strauss lies in the fact that he constitutes the last link in a long chain of development, that he carries forth certain findings that have been developed over the centuries. Rosenkavalier is the successor to three supreme masterpieces of the comic lyric stage: The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Wagner, and Fat staff by Verdi. It is not an original thought at all to declare Octavian the direct descendant of Gherubino. It was even so intended. The figure of the young boy, who could not adequately be represented on stage by a man and whose in-between age of life was best entrusted to the acting and singing of a woman, found in Octavian no less an interpretation of genius than in his great predecessor, Cherubino.

WHEN we compare the development of Strauss with that of two near-contemporaries, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schonberg, we become immediately aware that he was a much more significant representative of the age which produced him than the other two composers. Mahler and Schonberg, equally under the influence of the titantic Wagner, took other roads. The two composers — maybe it was their origin from Jewish families which made them less susceptible to the grandeur and to the posture of the Wilhelmian era — started quite differently from Strauss. Schonberg began as super-Wagncrian, only to abandon the style and to revolt against it, creating in the process something which became epoch-making for composition in the twentieth century. He is, of course, still a controversial figure, at least with the music-listening public. Mahler, who died in 1911 when Strauss had not yet reached the summit of his own development, left a few very large symphonies and a number of songs, which have led for the past half century a somewhat precarious existence, admittedly loved only by a handful of Central Europeans, who during the thirties and forties tried in vain to convince their friends in a more international setting of the worth of these great works. Only in the sixties have they come to mean more to the public; and they have done so at just the time when the intelligentsia among music lovers has moved away from Strauss.

As I stated before, many interwoven motives can be traced. Politics on a less than conscious level plays a role; yet the best of Strauss has the same immediacy today in America, in France, England, or Italy, as it has always had in Strauss’s native country. Heldenleben, Zarathustra, and Don Quixote, the three large symphonic poems, then Death and Transfiguration, Don Juan, and Till Eulenspiegel, the three shorter symphonic poems, seem to me to embody the best of Strauss; they are preceded by two more-tentative pieces, Aus Italien and Macbeth, followed by two excursions into a somewhat overly expanded score, Sinfonia Domestica and the Alpine Symphony.

After his fiftieth birthday, which I consider a less significant date than the outbreak of the First World War, Strauss began to lose contact with the world as it was, and being a sensitive creative artist, he evidently felt his own alienation. Rather than try to understand where the world and the world of music were moving, he withdrew more and more into a realm of his own. Just before the war, Ariadne was composed. This is a symbolic choice of a remote comedy idea. He followed it with an attempt to re-create the shocker success of Salome, this time in ballet form and called the Legend of Joseph, probably one of his weakest scores. After that, Strauss recovered a lot of the old magic in Frau ohne Schatten, a long score with some of his greatest and finest music, unfortunately quite lost in an enormously difficult libretto, which, taken from an exquisite fairy tale bv Hofmannsthal, never quite made it as a dramatic creation.

The joining up of several themes is also attempted by Strauss on several occasions at this time. His fugatos are done with tongue in cheek. He writes a short and very academic fugue exposition in Jarathustra, where the subtitle “Of Science” (“Wissenschaft”) indicates that for Strauss the science of music is symbolized by fugal writing. The intricacies in that particular spot are really more for the eye and the enjoyment of the reader; they incorporate not only fugal responses in circles of fifths, going from C to G to D to A, but also a most scientifically, or shall we say mathematically, complex broadening of the metric pattern. The way the triplets are used as quarter triplets, half triplets, and double half triplets is purposefully academic, and very amusing.

The question which I have never been able to answer is whether Strauss would have been able to write a fugato which was not academic. The opening to the third act of Rosenkavalier is in fugal style, and some of his later orchestral introductions arc attempts at genuine polyphony. The sextet prelude of his final stage work, Capriccio, is a case in point. I once had the opportunity of hearing the piece in concert, together with the Metamorphoses Jar Twenty-three Strings, and neither of these two works of his late period stands up as anything but a composing exercise, no doubt a diversion for the composer in his old age. He was entitled to this pleasure, as he had made an immortal contribution to music - immortal in that it will live to make people rejoice for many generations. But polyphony was not his forte, which may explain why he could not go the way of Schonberg.

Even his vocal ensembles, brilliantly as he treated voices, are rarely genuine polyphony. For example, in the trio in Rosenkavalier wc never have three legitimate vocal lines. There is always some accompaniment and some filling. He is a supremely agile man with the notes and could pretend many things which were never quite there. What was always there, up to and including large portions of Frau ohne Schatten, and later in parts of Arabella, was great invention of tunes — sometimes modeled after past eras, sometimes adapted in a tasteful and ingenious manner a fabric of sound, constantly keeping the interest alive, and a beautiful interplay of motifs when the literary poetic program inspired the composer.

Pieces like Don Juan and Eulenspiegel, and most of Heldenleben, of Don Quixote, and of Zarathustra, are not written too many times in a century, and if I emphasize the critique of that which is not genuine in Strauss, it is because I believe that the observance of the composer’s centennial anniversary would have been ever so much more just if we had not fallen into the error of either the humdrum admirer who finds everything terrific, or the biting negativist who tends to show Strauss as another second-line nineteenth-century composer who by some error of nature lasted well into the twentieth century.

ADMITTEDLY, his principal shortcoming was his lack of developmental technique. The young Strauss made a great virtue of this. His most successful symphonic poems are therefore the relatively brief ones, and those where the narrative of the music never attempts to broaden into a truly symphonic structure after the Beethoven model. The development of thematic material which was the basis of the great symphonists of the BeethovenBrahms school was certainly not Strauss’s strong suit. Coming as he did from the romantic Wagnerian school of aesthetics, where literature, painting, associative music, and linking of various art forms interested the educated world, it is no wonder that the architectural and structural elements should interest Strauss less than the pictorial and associative possibilities of music. When he attempts the very broad forms (Sinfonia Domestica, the Alpine Symphony), his symphonic weakness defeats the essential naïveté of the subject matter. Sinfonia Domestica is a light work spread out over three quarters of an hour and involving a huge orchestra. So is the Alpine Symphony, which I still consider one of the happier inventions of Strauss except that it is too long and requires too large an orchestra to have a complete unity of purpose. It is as if a speaker who had a small topic came with a huge manuscript of ten or fifteen thousand words and delivered a light after-dinner speech in stentorian tones.

But when we turn to the Strauss of the short symphonic poems, such as Eulenspiegel or Don Juan, there is nothing but absolute perfection. It is probably not coincidence that his strongest operas are the one-act works, because Strauss, when extending himself in a grand design, uses more than the permissible amount of stuffing. There is no doubt that in all operatic writing, high points of invention alternate with filling. This is equally true of Wagner and Verdi, and probably the only operatic composer who escaped this was Mozart, who used recitative, which is the equivalent of a musical low gear.

Strauss was most successful in his one-act works Salome and Elektra. Even Rosenkavalier, a sublime and superb masterpiece of comic opera, has long passages of stuffing, best proved by Strauss’s own suggested list of cuts, which have remained standard practice in all opera houses (except for some superStraussian zealots, who have in recent years restored every bit of filling of the original score in performance).

What is it exactly that makes a set of musical themes good for structural, developmental musical treatment, and others not? The Beethovcnian or Brahmsian materials are germs rather than tunes. Strauss, on the other hand, is always eager to invent tunes, and these do not lend themselves as readily to development and variations as short germinal motifs. I think that one of the reasons why Eulenspiegel remains such a masterpiece is that its thematic material is brief and succinct; in the very opening lies the nucleus which lends itself in innumerable variations to many kinds of treatment. It is significant that the sequence of intervals of Till’s first motif has a quite different meaning when it appears in the third act of Tristan; most musicians are not even aware of this sameness, which only proves that the same germ can be developed in totally different ways. Unless you notice interval structure, your ear would hardly perceive that the Tristan and Eulenspiegel sequences are the same notes; yet they do show that Strauss and his musical language come directly from Wagner. As Strauss conceives his symphonic poems he adds a touch of Mcndelssohnian lightness and elegance, and there is hardly any connection between the orchestral sonorities which Strauss produces and those of Wagner.

Strauss’s orchestration is in certain ways far more difficult than Wagner’s, and yet it is far easier to produce a well-sounding Straussian tone poem than a well-sounding Wagnerian excerpt with exactly the same kind of orchestra. Wagner did not double instruments nearly as much as Strauss. His musical fabric is a great deal more exposed, while Strauss doubles and redoubles his important themes to such a degree that many less-than-perfect instrumentalists are still able to produce a brilliant and effective orchestral performance. In this respect the twentieth-century composers arc superior to the nineteenth-century masters of the orchestra.

Debussy had the same ability as Strauss, maybe even to a greater degree, of enabling second-rate groups to sound first-rate because of the way he set the individual orchestral parts. Strauss is not quite so simple because his technical demands on all chairs are enormous. Many of the passages for the strings are so well covered by pedal points in the horns and doubled by woodwinds that a lack of the last technical finish sometimes becomes an asset when broad strokes are required rather than chamber-music finesse.

I heard years ago a funny and authentic story about Strauss visiting a German opera group known as the Wanderbüne. They were preparing Intermezzo at the time, and the musical director of the group was very proud that the innumerable notes in their exact setting of German diction — at this Strauss was an unsurpassed master - had been rehearsed with the most precise, meticulous observation of every thirty-second and sixty-fourth, of every piano, pianissimo, of every accent and half accent. When he said to Strauss, who assisted at the rehearsal, “Master, every smallest note is being produced with the utmost exactness,” Strauss, in one of his moods, said, “Tell me, my dear friend, why do you want it so exact?”

The ego of Strauss was a monumental one. The self-assurance, often more than self-assurance arrogance was there, together with an openly avowed materialistic interest in his outward success and its exploitation. When a performance of one of his works was brought to his attention, the performer would receive a picture postcard showing the master himself, and on the back, in the familiar, very legible handwriting, there would be a few appropriately grateful and thoughtful words. He was the perfect politician who knew that a picture postcard with a thank you would make of the performer a Strauss devotee and a Strauss pioneer, if pioneering for the great Strauss were needed.

I discern in the life and work of Richard Strauss this formulation: a youth rapidly advancing from promise, talent, facility, and proficiency to true genius; a mature genius producing half a dozen orchestral works, a great many lieder, and three to five, according to taste, supreme operas. The tragedy of Strauss and the vulnerability of his renown came when he outlived the era which he had most eloquently represented in his best music.