The Cheerful Workshop of Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss, Ferdinand Schmutzer, 1922, engraving.

Gordon Rogoff

Vol. 33, 2011

 

Strauss is more at home in the oblique, where he need not retreat into musical silence. One critic, Nicholas Spice, in a London Review of Books appraisal (1982) of Strauss’s early years, claims that if we are to “hear his soul speak,” it won’t be in the tone poems or even Intermezzo. For Spice, even the Marschallin’s first-act soliloquy, the almost freakish “night terrors of Klytemnestra” in Elektra, and what he calls the darkling mood of the Four Last Songs” are “rhetorical” in those inner moments, confirming his “point that music was Strauss’s chief refuge from the unspeakable within him.” Strauss, it seems, can never quite convince those unpersuaded by what may also be seen as his uncommon discretion in the face of direct emotional assault. Spice, noting that Strauss had “unwonted trouble” in writing the Emperor’s long second-act aria for Die Frau ohne Schatten, the opera Strauss called his “child of sorrow,” concludes that the scene—“an unmediated vision of the hell of total personal isolation”—was too wrenching for him, a “nightmare” in which Spice hears “a cold sweat (breaking) out across the score”—a marvelous phrase. But it never occurs to him that Strauss, still in thrall to sopranos, was only in rare instances comfortable technically with tenors; it’s surely no accident that his best aria for tenor is his Italian parody during the dizzying presentations to the Marschallin as she’s having her hair done in the first act. Here he delights in showing off as the equal of Verdi and Puccini. Besides, there is anything but cold sweat in the anguished, sorrowful passage at the beginning of Act III between Barak (a baritone!) and his wife, a rare outburst of pure lyric rapture from two characters driven apart for a moment yet helplessly in love with each another. Is powerful inner life only to be found in nightmares?

Of the three projects he had to concede to Gregor, only one— Daphne—unlocks his depression for a while as he discovers in the story still another opportunity for a soprano-driven final scene. Yet it is the occasion for more than his usual practice of suspending an audience in a stratospheric wonderland: Literally about a transformation, the scene is a call for Strauss to revel in a lifetime’s mastery of the transformative possibilities that come with centuries of musical experiment. “Transformation,” said Hofmannsthal years before, “is the life of life itself.” And so it is for Strauss, though without the metaphysical apparatus supporting so many of Hofmannsthal’s speculations. Abstract though it may be to untutored listeners, music is firmly committed to the specific: Transformation rescues the composer from monotony and repetition; one way or another, whether presented as polyphony, fugue, or variations, it is—to paraphrase Hofmannsthal—the life of music itself. In the worst of times—Hofmannsthal’s death, Zweig’s banishment—Strauss is a beast cornered, stripped for a time of the tricks and fallback techniques—a game of skat, the ready acceptance of an invitation to conduct—that were reliable forms of rescue from demons not easily tamed.

 

 

 

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