Opera and Politics: Krenek and Strauss

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Troubled Days of Peace, performed on October 19, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

We routinely invoke history as a means to understand the present. This is at one and the same time a noble and illusory enterprise. History is written with some notion of the present moment in mind, however submerged. Therefore, despite all of our disciplined efforts to render a construction of the past truthfully and objectively, the concerns of the present give an inevitably selective shape to a complex and contradictory series of events. At a minimum, however, all rigorous accounts of the past reveal dimensions of the human experience that are continuous and constant. These can indeed shed light on the present. History may never repeat itself exactly, but an examination of the past points out resemblances that suggest the dangers and opportunities we face.

Today’s concert takes place on the eve of a momentous presidential election in the United States. That election will occur at a troubled and unstable moment, marked by discontent, an exceptional frustration with democratic politics, economic anxiety, mistrust, and sharp divisions. It will take place in a world suffused with violence and war.

The era in history that this concert explores is the period in Central Europe—particularly Germany—between the end of World War I and the outbreak of World War II. It began in 1918 with chaos, poverty, epidemics, and revolutions. In Germany, a shaky new constitutional democracy emerged. Surrounding it to the east were new nation states, each struggling to establish their physical borders and a domestic sense of legitimacy.

Democracy may have been the initial rhetorical objective of populist political and social aspirations in 1918, but it was not the ultimate victor. By the mid-1930s Germany, Poland, Italy, and Hungary—to mention just a few examples—ended up embracing anti-democratic and anti-pluralist politics.

Fast forward to 1989 and the twenty five following years, and one can see parallels: the erosion of the ideal of the European Union, the rise of anti-liberal xenophobic politics in Poland, Hungary, France, England, and Germany, and the attendant virulent intolerance against refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa. The idealism spurred by the collapse of the Soviet Empire and communism has given way to intolerance and nationalism narrowly construed, all in response in part to economic stagnation and inequality. One can easily find similarities between this European populist embrace of anti-liberal and anti-democratic politics and the discourse that has surrounded the American presidential election.

In the wake of the brutality of World War I there was concerted effort among artists to break with the past and the traditions of culture associated with the pre-war period. The values reflected in the art and culture of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century seemed not to resist but rather encourage the rush towards a global destructive war. Ernst Krenek’s 1926 Der Diktator plainly rejects the lush romanticism of Wagner, the sentimental beauties of Puccini. In their place we find a brevity, a condensed sense of time, and a transparent mix of neo-classical and romantic musical rhetoric articulated with new sonorities in a drama made up of fleeting episodes. But at the center is the exploration of the irrationalities of charisma, the will to power and the allure of the tyrannical. Krenek (an Austrian and a pupil of Schoenberg’s who briefly was Mahler’s son-in-law) wrote his own libretto. By placing the story in neutral Switzerland, he sought to probe exclusively into the psychological attraction that Mussolini, and later Hitler and Franco—all “strongmen” who cultivated the cult of personality and power—had on an astonishingly large segment of their nation’s populace. His medium was the opera, the nineteenth century’s most popular musical form. Like Hindemith and Kurt Weill, in the 1920s he sought to transform its aesthetic and its public role. Opera needed to cease being an affirmative pleasing and escapist entertainment and instead become a startling provocation and a radical assertion of the new, directed at the dominant middle class audience for culture.

By the time Richard Strauss embarked on Friedenstag in the late 1930s (it was premiered in July 1938), the Nazi dictatorship was already firmly in place. Strauss willingly collaborated with the regime, naively believing that it would stem the corrosive anti-traditional aesthetic modernism that had flourished during the Weimar Republic, and spur a German cultural renaissance as well as secure a proper copyright protection for composers. Strauss was a self-centered opportunist focused purely on his own career. He felt that he had suffered during the Weimar period. He saw himself forgotten and dismissed as a holdover from the nineteenth century by a younger generation of composers and critics. The Nazis were, in his mind, instruments of cultural revenge.

But he underestimated his new masters. When it became clear that he was not politically reliable and not a true believer in Nazism, he was pushed aside. Yet he was too famous and possessed too much propaganda value not to be of value. Hitler himself attended the premiere of Friedenstag. But unlike Hans Pfitzner and a host of lesser talents, Strauss, after the debacle of Die Schweigsame Frau (described in the notes to this program by Bryan Gilliam), was not entirely in favor with the regime. By choosing the subject of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years’ War for Friedenstag, Strauss was on the one hand playing into the overt political rhetoric of the mid and late 1930s, in which Hitler sought to represent Germany as being committed to bringing lasting peace to Europe though its own expansion, best represented by the Anschluss and the Munich agreements of 1938. In this regard, the opera was a failure. It was coolly received and was quickly banished after Germany led Europe into a second world war.

But on the other hand, Strauss, who despised all politicians and treasured an illusory notion of an autonomous tradition of high art and culture independent of politics, sought in his one-act opera to emulate and reference one of the towering German representatives of culture before the age of modern politics: Beethoven. As the opening chords, the use of a musical signal as a key dramatic device, and the triumphant closing celebration of peace suggest, the musical dramatic model for Friedenstag is Beethoven and his sole opera, Fidelio. As in Fidelio, Strauss’ opera contains two opposing male protagonists and a key female intermediary. Both operas end in the celebration of peace after conflict. But Fidelio tells of the triumph of justice and freedom over cruelty, tyranny, and violence. This theme, if present at all in Friedenstag, is at best a veiled undercurrent, a residue perhaps of the work of the opera’s covert librettist, Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish writer whom Strauss admired and who brought Strauss the work’s official librettist, Joseph Gregor.

Friedenstag, although written with hope of official endorsement by the Nazi regime, projected through its unabashed rich sonorous music Strauss’ bittersweet and nostalgic evocation of a pre-World War I era, an era he viewed as marked by peace and civility and the triumph of the continuity of German cultural superiority. Friedenstag picks up from Hans Sachs’s celebration of the noble German art of music in Wagner’s Meistersinger.

The turmoil of the 1920s, and what Strauss viewed as the vulgarities of modernism and popular culture, reinforced his steadfast commitment to post-Wagnerian musical aesthetics of the fin de siècle. Strauss does not repeat himself, despite evident audible reminiscences of Salome and Elektra. There are even modernist elements in the harmonic language and vocal writing. However, the opera reveals the composer’s gradual sojourn backwards in music history. Friedenstag suggests that Strauss turned away from Wagner to Beethoven and ultimately, in his last years in the 1940s, even further back to the eighteenth century and Mozart. If Krenek and Hindemith were inspired by the radical break in political history that occurred after 1918 to engage asceticism, transparency, and the experimental, Strauss was drawn backwards to Viennese classicism.