Marriage Actually

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Marriage Actually, performed on October 15, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

The musical language of late Romanticism, its rhetoric and vocabulary, were inspired in part by the 19th century’s fascination with what music as an art form could accomplish relative to other art forms. The 19th century witnessed the development of the realist novel and of historical and genre painting; art was being used to evoke idealized versions of an imagined past, a threatened present, and real and familiar objects and events. It was inevitable that the nature of music would be interrogated with a view to finding out whether music too could weave its own illusions of realism, tell a story, and communicate emotions. Could music be used as a form of narrative, or were its beauty and content simply formal in character? Could music actually illustrate or portray something, or was it purely an abstract art form?

These philosophical musings occupied the first generation of Romantic composers, particularly Mendelssohn and Schumann. Mendelssohn famously argued counter-intuitively that music was more “precise” than language. These issues became contentious in the 1850s and 1860s as a rift grew between the defenders of the formalist traditions of the 18th century and the practitioners of “program” music, composers who rejected forms such as the quartet and traditional symphony in favor of instrumental “tone poems” with literary titles, and, predictably, music with words, notably opera. Liszt and Wagner, the leaders of the “New German” school, were characterized by the formalists as debasers of the high art of music, apostates who abandoned the unique formal possibilities of music and turned it into a cheapened illustrative medium.

But this division was more ambiguous than it appears. Wagner’s grandiose theatrical ambitions inspired him to use repetition and musical signature motives to generate a clear narrative arc in his music. But at the same time, Wagner’s love of myth and philosophical pretentions led him to ascribe a metaphysical dimension to his music, idealist properties beyond its purely descriptive function. In this sense he was much closer to Mendelssohn and Brahms in his recognition of the special power of music than the surface of the conflict suggests. And Mendelssohn and Brahms, for their part, may have worked within the traditional framework of forms such as chamber music and symphony, but they had no doubt as to the collective emotional power of music, which worked by evoking musings and memories, sensations and experiences, just as poetry and painting did.

Of the composers of the generation after Wagner and Brahms, Richard Strauss was the most representative of a synthesis of the two opposing camps. Strauss was, for a composer, among the most sophisticated of readers and the keenest of observers. Influenced by Nietzsche, he had little use for religion. As much as he admired Wagner, he eventually became disenchanted by Wagner’s mythic and philosophical claims on behalf of music. Strauss was suspicious of grandiose metaphysical and political dreams, in which music was required to play a role, though at the same time, he was never in doubt about the power of the Classical and Romantic traditions to depict and illuminate the human experience.

Strauss began his career as a young composer sympathetic to Brahms. He then turned to opera and embraced the Wagnerian. But ultimately the composer he most revered throughout his career was Mozart. Of Strauss’ contemporaries, the most distinguished was Gustav Mahler, who was, for much of his career, an avowedly confessional composer whose symphonies had specific programs, some drawn from his personal life. Tonight’s program reveals how Strauss used the personal, but, in contrast to Mahler, not in a confessional, psychological sense. The “characters” in Symphonia Domestica may be his own wife and child, but in Strauss’ hands the experience of daily life, from the quarreling to the lovemaking, are rendered believable but accessible and familiar through music to the audience; they are human archetypes built out of the detail of Strauss’ everyday life. In this sense, the predicaments that unfold in Symphonia Domestica resemble, as a source, the universal sensibilities that are evoked by Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Using a huge and highly differentiated orchestra, Strauss manipulates every sonority and technique available to a symphonic composer. A Liszt-like illustrative strategy is integrated with traditional formal procedures of thematic development, as was the case in many of Strauss’ famous tone poems. But in Symphonia Domestica Strauss reveals his sense of humor. He pokes fun at all those who seek to elevate music as an abstract, profound experience “above” the mundane. What he desires to show instead is that music, like all great art, must (in the late Arthur Danto’s words) “transfigure the commonplace” in its own way. The ordinary life of people can be the basis of art, because real human life is the only subject worth examining through art. The work contains triumph, heartbreak, love, remembrance, aspiration, and suffering within its epic proportions. Strauss makes it plain that a composer does not have to resort to gods and heroes to ascend to the height of meaning. No wonder the radical realism of Strauss’ writing in Symphonia Domestica infuriated Charles Ives, among others, who found it brash and vulgar.

Symphonia Domestica premiered in 1904 in New York during Strauss’ tour of the United States (which also permitted the photographer Edward Steichen to make a stunning portrait of the composer). It also received two performances a month later in Wanamaker’s department store in New York, which somehow seems fitting, given its domestic subject matter.

This work, one of Strauss’ last major orchestral compositions, forms the basis of tonight’s concert. When it was written, Strauss and his wife were still a youngish couple with an infant son; thus the narrative draws its episodes from the daily life of a young family. The Intermezzo interludes and the parergon were written much later, in the 1920s. By then Strauss was already regarded as an old master and possibly an outdated one. He resented this bitterly. He was shunned by a new generation of modernists because he never lost faith in tonality and in the possibilities of the grand musical tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Like Brahms before him, Strauss developed a bittersweet nostalgia about the world in which he lived. He thought of himself as a witness to a dying golden age. He came to suspect that he was the last exponent of a grand tradition.

Strauss was unusually consistent, productive and disciplined as a composer. He hated the social delusions and pretensions of “artsy” bohemian artists. He portrayed himself explicitly as an unapologetic bourgeois who was shamelessly absorbed with making money, copyrights, card playing, and his comfortable life at Garmisch. He made no apologies for his egotism and had no doubt about his own superior talent.

One aspect of his domestic life that never ceased to puzzle his friends and followers was his deep devotion to his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, whom very few people seemed to have liked. She badgered and criticized him, was imperious and thought herself socially superior to her husband, the descendent of a brewer. She was offended by Intermezzo. But something worked between them; Strauss and Pauline were married for 55 years, and she survived him by only 8 months. That Strauss was truly a family man, devoted to Pauline and to his son and daughter-in-law, there can be no doubt.

But behind this veneer of unremarkable middle class respectability—Strauss’ mask—was a perceptive and deeply solitary man whose happiest moments were not playing cards but when he was composing or reading. Strauss was the heir to Mozart, who also displayed wide contrast between his visible social self-presentation and the complexity, subtlety, and humanity audible in his music. There are indeed few composers who have written instrumental music that illuminates and penetrates the contradictions, shortcomings, and sufferings of the human condition as consistently and persuasively as the music of Strauss and Mozart.

In this concert we hear Strauss’ reflections over a twenty-year period on marriage, love, family, human frailty, and jealousy, as well as the fear of death. The music is personal and becomes personal for the listener. But it betrays no intimacies. Rather, Strauss’ personal experience inspired him to create a musical commentary on life. Through music Strauss transcends his mask by using it and pays tribute to the woman he loved and the relationship that gave him the stability to realize his genius to the fullest extent.