Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83 (1940)
By Bryan Gilliam, Duke University
Written for the concert Richard Strauss, Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83 (1940), performed on Jan 16, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
One month after the Daphne premiere (1938), Richard Strauss–who was in Italy–learned that his daughter-in-law, Alice, had been placed under house arrest in Garmisch. As a Jew, she had lost her passport, driver’s license, and it was questionable whether her two sons, Richard and Christian, would be allowed to attend school. Strauss had lost all official ties with the government after being dismissed as president of the Reichsmusikkammer in 1935, and he asked Berlin Intendant Heinz Tietjen–a friend of Göring–to use his influence to plead on his family’s behalf, or at least somehow have the orders reversed. Above all, Strauss sought blanket protection for his family from the Führer, a protection he would never achieve.
This is the grim background to Strauss’s “lively mythology,” Die Liebe der Danae (1940), which was dedicated to Tietjen. What Strauss desired during this period of the late 1930s was a project to offset the dreariness of his present circumstances. Willi Schuh, a Swiss music critic and future Strauss biographer, reminded the composer of a mythological comedy that Hofmannsthal had sketched out shortly after World War One. After the tortuous Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Strauss wanted a lighter, more cheerful work, and Hofmannsthal responded with a scenario called “Danae or the Marriage of Convenience,” a work that conflated two myths: Danae’s visitation by Jupiter in the guise of golden rain and the legend of Midas and the golden touch.
As much as Strauss admired many details of Hofmannsthal’s sketch, there were too many insurmountable dramaturgical problems, and he became increasingly preoccupied with his own Intermezzo (1924). Danae was, in short, soon forgotten. But in 1938, the dour personal and political events in Strauss’s life had taken their toll, and the composer asked his current librettist, Joseph Gregor, if he could resurrect the cheerful Hofmannsthal sketch. The fragile satire of Hofmannsthal’s draft was well beyond Gregor’s reach, whose job was further complicated by the very dramaturgical flaws that had vexed Strauss in 1920. Yet after long, diligent work–and much outside assistance–a libretto was finally forged.
Strauss continued to believe in the spiritual power of diligence and work, and he found the composition of Danae to be his only solace; the three-act opera was composed with remarkable speed. Solace and peace of mind were short lived, for only days before he finished orchestrating Act I, Germany invaded Poland. Strauss confessed to moments of depression in his diaries, but was able to complete the entire orchestration by June 1940. With the outbreak of another world war, he was determined that Danae should be not be premiered until at least two years after an armistice, knowing full well that such terms might mean a posthumous performance. Over time, and after much pressure from his friend Clemens Krauss, the composer finally acceded to a Salzburg premiere during summer 1944. Yet Strauss’s original instincts proved correct, for on August 1st, during the summer preparations, Goebbels declared “total war,” which meant the immediate closing of all theaters throughout the Reich. The Gauleiter of Salzburg, with the backing of the Propaganda Minister, made an exception for Strauss, allowing rehearsals to continue as long as there would be no productions beyond a final dress rehearsal, which took place (for invited guests) on 16 August 1944 . A posthumous premiere, also under Krauss but with a different cast, occurred eight years later in Salzburg.
Political and personal worries had taken their toll during the genesis of this three-act work, which was hardly the “light mythology” that had originally been envisaged. Danae with its many transformations and demanding vocal parts, is a challenge to stage and to cast, which helps explain the reason it is rarely done. The title role was written for Krauss’s wife, Viorica Ursuleac, a role with ample instances of the quiet, sustained high-range singing for which she was famous. Equally difficult is the role of Jupiter, a tour de force in the Straussian baritone repertoire, for not only is the range significantly high (sections were transposed even for the premiere) but it demands great vocal agility, especially in the final “Maia Erzählung,” one of the finest baritone monologues that Strauss ever composed. Despite the various contributors to the libretto beyond Gregor (Krauss, Stefan Zweig, Lothar Wallerstein), one still detects the spirit of Hofmannsthal in its broad themes that recall Die ägyptische Helena with its focus on marriage, fidelity, and memory. In the end Danae chooses love over money and power; Jupiter, who had tried to lure her away, renounces all earthly things and, after blessing the union of Danae and Midas, he returns to Olympus. The 80-year-old Strauss strongly identified with the resigned Jupiter and, after the dress rehearsal, even suggested that the “sovereign gods of Olympus” should have called him up as well. After thanking the Vienna Philharmonic for all its fine work, he declared that “maybe we will see each other again in a better world.”