Richard Strauss: A Tireless Advocate of “Modern” Works

By Charles Youmans, Duke University

Written for the concert Berlin 1894: A Concert Recreated performed on Dec 11, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Had Strauss assumed the conductorship of the symphony concerts of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a year other than 1894, the event probably would have aroused more interest among historians than it actually has. After all, a contract between a world-class orchestra in a full ten-concert season was a significant achievement for a man previously engaged as Musikdirecktor (i.e. third conductor) at the Munich Court Opera and second conductor as the small ducal court in Weimar. But important career developments came in droves for Strauss in 1894, and in this broader context the Berlin appointment has tended to be overshadowed. In the fall he returned to Munich as Kapellmeister, second in rank only to the ailing Hermann Levi (conductor of the premiere of Parsifal) and keen to seize the long-awaited opportunity to conduct his beloved Wagnerian music dramas at a major theater. May saw the premier of his own first opera Guntram, a project seven years in the makeing, and in July he took up the baton at Bayreuth for the first time, in Tannhäuser. Advances came outside the professional sphere as well; on September 10 a long courtship finally culminated in marriage to his student Pauline de Ahna, to whom he offered a wedding gift of four of his finest songs, Op. 27 (“Ruhe, meine Seele”; “Cäcilie”; “Heimliche Afforderung”; and “Morgen”).

In Strauss’s view, the Berlin engagement constituted a major accomplishment, and not the least of its attractions was the chance it gave him to deepen his relationship with that city’s musical establishment and listening public. While he certainly considered his recent move to Munich preferable to another year of directly six first violins in Weimar, past experience with the conservative artistic leaders of the Bavarian capital (the city of his birth) had taught him that he would have to look elsewhere for an agreeable long-term position. Berlin seemed the ideal choice, and rumors that Felix Weingartner planned to leave the Berlin Court Opera in 1896 encourages Strauss to make the sacrifices necessary to hold jobs in two cities separated by a considerable distance. When drawing up his contract with Munich he even added a stipulation that he be allowed to conduct in Berlin, realizing that regular exposure there could tip the balance in his favor when it came time to choose Weingartner’s replacement.

Although the 1894-95 season can be considered a sort of extended audition for Strauss in Berlin, it was not the first time local audiences had heard him, either as a conductor or composer. He made a double debut with the Philharmonic on January 23, 1888, conducting his symphonic fantasy Aus Italien in a concert the remainder of which was lead by Hans von Bülow, the one-time Wagnerian lieutenant whose wife Cosima (daughter of Liszt) deserted him for “der Meister,” had been something of a mentor to Strauss in the mid-1880s, and gave him his first conducting job as an assistant with Bülow’s famous Meiningen Court Orchestra. After leaving Meiningen for Berlin, the elder man consistently issued invitations to Strauss to conduct his latest orchestra works, including the tone poems Don Juan (February 4, 1890), Tod und Verklärung (February 23, 1891) and the final version of Macbeth (February 29, 1892).

Audience response to Strauss’s appearances as guest conductor/composer in Berlin seems to have been quite positive, and Bülow went so far as to call the success of Macbeth “colossal.” Strauss himself found the work’s favorable reception to be directly related to his own manner of conducting, as we read in his appraisal of a performance of Don Juan under Bülow on January 31, 1890: “Bülow has a total misconception of my work, in tempos, in everything, no inkling of the poetic content, and treated it like any other piece of melodious music…” Strauss believed that for the performance of “modern” works, a thorough comprehension on the part of the conductor of the special interpretive requirements of programmatic music was indispensable, particularly in Berlin, where in his words “the Philharmonic Orchestra, which his so proficient in every other respect, does not play much modern music.” When he succeeded Bülow (upon the latter’s death in February 1894), Strauss brought precisely that kind of specialized knowledge to the task.

By 1894 Strauss’s reputation as a composer was certainly healthy, if nowhere near the extent of what it was to be at the beginning of the next century. Along with the first three tone poems, works such as Aus Italien, the F-Minor Symphony, and to a lesser extent Wandrers Sturmlied, the C-Minor Piano Quartet, the Burleske and several collections of Lieder had been circulated. Nevertheless, to listeners of the time his fame would have rested primarily on his activities as a conductor, and especially his tireless advocacy of “modern” works. The root of this tendency in Strauss lay in his “conversion” in the 1880s from a relatively conservative aesthetic outlook to the ideal of Zuckeunfstmusik, as represented by the compositions of the so-called “New German” school–Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz. When Strauss opened the first Philharmonic concert of the 1894-94 season (October 15) with Wagner’s Faust Overture, the audience undoubtedly interpreted this as a proclamation of allegiance, although they cannot have been surprised. As the season unfolded, their willingness to overlook Strauss’s partisanship proved wise. For while Wagner and Liszt did figure prominently (three and five works during the season respectively), Beethoven topped the list (seven), and Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Weber, Spohr, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms all found places in the concerts.

What strikes one nowadays about these programs is not that they seem weighted in favor of “New Germans,” but that they invariably showcase new works by living composers. This may in part be a reflections of the withdrawal from orthodox Wagnerism characteristic of the early tone poems, and aesthetic reorientations worked out most explicitly by Strauss in Guntram. In ten concerts, Strauss performed music by Saint-Saëns, Bruch, Dvorák , Glazunov, Mahler, Ritter, Schillings, Smetana, Johann Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Widor, along with the compositions by Rubinstein, d’Albart, and Stenhammer on this evening’s program. Dvorák, J. Strauss, and Tchaikovsky hardly leap to mind as likely comrades of a strict “music of the future,” and yet Strauss used his new position of leadership in one of Europe’s most important musical centers to champion their music. This is thoroughly consistent with his practice on the many guest-conducting appearances he undertook at the time, and underlines the deep sense of responsibility he felt to promote important new music. In some cases he actually knew the composers of these works. Mahler, for example, the first three movements of whose Second Symphony Strauss conducted (prompting the critics Otto Lessmann to write “the altar consecrated by Bülow has now been defiled by pygmies”), and d’Albert, who four years earlier had convinced Strauss to perform the shelved Burleske with d’Albert as the piano soloist. In other instances, Strauss wrote to artists with whom he was not acquainted, but whose work he knew, to acquire performing rights–e.g. Johann Strauss, whose Perpetuum mobile Strauss conducted at the second concert.

Interestingly, Strauss waited until the last concert of the season to perform any of his own music, and then decided on excerpts from Guntram, which was then (as now) having difficulties finding its way into the operatic repertoire. Personal experience with the obstacles of bringing a new work onto the German stage may have factored into his decision to offer the prelude to d’Albert’s fairy-tale opera Der Rubin, as well as the prelude to the second act of his friend Max Schillings’s Ingwelde. Strauss obviously knew what profound effects a successful performance in Berlin could have on the popularity of a work and its composer. Ironically, his generosity as a programmer may have backfired, for in the fall of 1895 he was replaced by Arthur Nikisch.