Richard Strauss’s Die agyptische Helena

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Richard Strauss’s Die agyptische Helena, performed on Jan 18, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Librettists have a strange habit of disappearing from view as individuals in their own right. For instance, everyone knows that Lorenzo Da Ponte collaborated with Mozart of three of the greatest operas ever written–Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosí fan tutte–but his name survives primarily as a result of his association with the great composer. Of all the librettists who should not be subject to such a fate, Hugo von Hofmannsthal is the first who should come to mind. In German-speaking culture, Hofmannsthal retains a stature the equivalent of his musical collaborator, Richard Strauss. Independently of his many well-known works with Strauss, Hofmannsthal was an Austrian man of letters with outstanding accomplishments in poetry, prose, and drama. He was a founder of the Salzburg Festival. Even if he had never worked with Richard Strauss, his writing would be required reading throughout Germany and Austria.

Therefore, even though we often mistrust (with some reason) the self-evaluations of authors and composers, the fact that Hofmannsthal believed the libretto of Die ägyptische Helena to be the best he had produced should make us take a close look at it. The ambivalent response to this work as an operatic text is not recent; as James Miller points out in this afternoon’s program notes, there is some uncertainty about its quality, particularly in terms of its adaptability to music. But as Bryan Gilliam aptly notes, the libretto has a rather peculiar genesis. What started out to be an effort at comedy turned in the course of its development into something quite different, something penetrating and psychologically resonant. Die ägyptische Helena is indeed a serous reflection on love, marriage, and forgiveness. Its subject matter, presented in a deceptively simple mythological vehicle, connects it within the operatic repertoire to everything from Figaro to Lulu. Hofmannsthal’s decision to make actions of the original story’s phantom Helen into those of the “real” Helen changed the potential for comedy and a farcical dynamic between stage and audience into a more direct opportunity to go beyond the surface of mere romance into the complexities and contradictions of love, sexuality, and marriage.

Contrary to popular opinion and instinct, these issues are not universal categories. True they seem to plague every culture and generation, but they do so in quite different ways. For the turn-of-the-century generation of Strauss (1864-1949) and Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), an idealized category of the feminine from early Romanticism and the Christian conception of marriage were compromised by the work of two seminal figures whose influence cast a long and permanent shadow over European thought and culture: Richard Wagner and Sigmund Freud. Wagner, himself no paragon of marital fidelity, put on stage a narcotic mixture of music, poetry, and drama that revealed to his middle-class audiences the inherent tragedy in the tension between the pursuit of true love and the constraints of everyday life, including human nature. If Kierkegaard understood the Christian notion of love and marriage to be a terrifying stricture through which an individual could display true faith in the sense of self-denial and psychic transformation, Wagner’s work suggested another alternative. The pursuit of the standard moral and ethical claims of mainstream contemporary Christian thought–which demanded love of family, hard work, and fidelity from the civilized European–suddenly appeared to be sacrifices without any redeeming features whatsoever, let alone salvation. Tristan und Isolde celebrates not only the tribulations of intense passion, but the idea that its experience is preferable over the failure to experience it, over death after a life without it. Wagnerian music and drama created a world of fantasy to which Europeans, trapped in the drab routines of respectable middle-class life, flocked. Wagner created an avenue of escape from the mundane into an arena of the heroic and the ecstatic, a space where each individual might realize the latent power of his own emotion and imagination. This is in party why Friedrich Nietzsche, Europe’s most articulate foe of Christianity, initially embraced Wagner, for he saw the composer as an apostle of an art which could transform modern Europe and cause it to cast off the shackles of Christian morality and connect itself once again to the sense of human power and passion celebrated by the ancient Greeks.

With the writings of Sigmund Freud (especially his Interpretation of Dreams which found their way into the media of literature, music, and painting), the traditional Christian denial of the sexual underpinnings of human behavior, the erotic and the Dionysian, was exposed and discredited in the eyes of the literature European public. What Max Weber called Entzauberung–the de-magification, as it were, of Western culture–reached its peak before 1914, suppressing both superstition and the hold of religion over the lives of modern, urban, European citizens. In this new context, the conventional claims and obligations of marriage, from the process of courtship to the raising of children, seem to collapse form their own obsolescence. Marriage rites, portrayed by Freud as dependent on the darkest sublimations of the human psyche, could be viewed as an act of hypocrisy, counteracting the true nature of humans, and extracting a toll of self-denial and deception that seemed ultimately destructive. The figure of the Bohemian flourished as bourgeois fantasy. In today’s parlance, the utopia of “family values” held little allure and plausibility. Cultural critics at the turn of the century argued that Europe was in the grip of a degenerate aesthetic, subverting all that modernity had sought to achieve in terms of civility, science, and societal progress. Nietzsche and Wagner, the heroes of the young, were seen as the chief culprits.

This fundamental reassessment of values influenced the making of art in which an explosive interest in human psychology and sexuality came to play a central role. Both Hofmannsthal and Strauss were keenly aware of how difficult it was in their own age to draw upon the traditions of artistic expression founded by the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century masters–Goethe and Mozart, for example. Hofmannsthal made his early reputation while still a teenager as one of the most compelling lyric talents to write in German, but by the early 1900s he experienced a profound crisis, in which he came to the conclusion that the concept of language and poetry with which he had begun was no longer relevant to his own time. Strauss, the son of a great horn player, grew up with a youthful enthusiasm for the sort of music his father favored. A precocious young man, he wrote in the conservative traditions we associate with Brahms, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Like Hofmannsthal, Strauss too had an intense personal crisis, linked to an intense love affair with someone of whom his family did not approve. But personal and artistic transformation were synonymous events for both artists. In Strauss’s case his discovery of Wagner led to self-reinvention as a composer. A conservative now turned radical, he dazzled the world with his series of orchestral tone poems. After two failed attempts at both comic opera and tragic music drama imitative of Wagner, Strauss encountered sensational success with his operatic settings of Oscar Wilde and Hofmannsthal’s modernization of Elektra. These subjects certainly had special resonance for a public obsessed with sexual psychology and intricate relationships. By the end of the twentieth century’s first decade, both Strauss and Hofmannsthal were at the peak of their powers, and began their long collaboration, of which Die ägyptische Helena is the last fully completed product.

Yet here is where Strauss’s own story gets intricate. Despite his fascination with Wagner, Strauss was to his dying day not in accord with the fashions of the fin de siécle. For one thing, his true lifelong musical god was not Wagner at all, but Mozart. For another, in apparent contradiction with his Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan, and Salome, Strauss like Brahms was thoroughly comfortable with the very middle-class lifestyle that was so under siege among his fellow artists, writers, and thinkers. His greatest passion was card-playing, and his personality seemed so commonplace that Gustav Mahler, after hearing Salome, is reputed to have remarked how inconceivable it was that someone so ordinary and bourgeois, so interested in simple material comforts, could write such astonishing fresh and brilliant music. Strauss was no Bohemian; he fashioned his life not only on the model of Brahms but of Haydn: he considered himself the ultimate, highly disciplined craftsman.

Beneath the veneer of bourgeois ambition, egotism, and simplicity, there was in Richard Strauss a profound capacity for insight into the very contradictions and conflicts in values that characterized the modern human being and his culture. In this sense, Strauss did not indulge in the rebellion of the fin de siécle. With his marriage to Pauline d’Ahna (whom Strauss immortalized–not necessarily to her liking–in his autobiographical opera Intermezzo, with a libretto he wrote himself against Hofmannsthal’s advice), he entered into an obligation akin to Kierkegaard’s definition. His wife, once a great soprano, proved over time to be notoriously difficult, petty, and demanding. There is a famous anecdote associated with the premiere of Die ägyptische Helena, which recounts how when Strauss was trying to demonstrate a certain passage to the conductor Fritz Busch, Pauline kept disrupting the rehearsal by meddling onstage with the singers and their costumes. Strauss finally ceased conducting and, in the pregnant silence that followed, pronounced with characteristic irony the final line of Salome: “Kill that woman!” Nevertheless, unlike most of his contemporaries, Strauss saw in the self-discipline of martial fidelity and loyalty not the death of creativity, but its source. In the decade following the premiere of Die ägyptische Helena, Alban Berg set Frank Wedekind’s character of Lulu to music. Berg was supposedly the beneficiary of an ideal marriage, but as scholarship has since revealed, he had an intense and longstanding affair with the sister of Franz Werfel. No research, however, is likely to uncover any infidelity on Strauss’s part. The very nature of vacuous bourgeois family served Strauss as an environment in which a human being might reach his fullest powers of imagination and find the best possibilities for inspiration. The dialectic between the ordinary and the extraordinary was for Strauss the dialectic between mundane living and art. One did not miss the few opportunities to transcend the ordinary through art by squandering them on an artistic lifestyle. Strauss’s self-imposed discipline in his own private life created a wide interior expanse from which a profound recognition of human everyday suffering and desire could flow forth in music.

Hofmannsthal was therefore an ideal partner for Strauss. His command of language and deep respect for literary classicism was powerfully augmented by an unusual musical sensibility. In contrast t some observations, it can be said that few writers of that generation were possessed of as much connection to musical culture as Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Beginning with Der Rosenkavalier, their most famous and commercially successful collaboration, the two men wrote a whole series of operas about love, loyalty, and marriage. But as a result of these operas, Strauss the composer of Salome and Elektra was accused of reversing his musical development and becoming a conservative. Despite its success, Der Rosenkavalier was considered a manifesto against modernism. For most of the century the rest of Strauss’s output, particularly between the years 1914-45, were considered competent but not comparable to his earlier successes. He acquired the reputation of being a gifted composer who had peaked early and lived too long. Arabella, with a libretto which Hofmannsthal was never able to revise, became successful only as an echo of Der Rosenkavalier.

Today’s listener, however, should view the standard account and critical assessment of Strauss’s output with a hefty dose of skepticism. For when Strauss became the bête noir of all advocates of twentieth-century musical modernism (whether they were disciples of Stravinsky or Schoenberg), he still remained the only apostle of tonality and the Romantic gesture from whom one could not withhold respect. He hung around for the first half of the century like the ghost of Banquo, a painful reminder of a guilty conscience. Yet Strauss made his own pact with the devil by participating actively with and allowing himself to be used by the Nazis. While he was certainly not a rabid ideologue–his greatest motivations were his own venality and comfort, as well as a desire to take revenge on all his contemporaries who dismissed him–there is no way to defend his association with the Nazis. Strauss, who could render human frailty more compellingly than anyone, who rarely camouflaged the ambivalences and contradictions of human behavior and self-presentation, must not be rationalized by his biography. This aspect of Strauss’s life is relevant in part because modernist theorist such as Theodor Adorno have tried to link Strauss’s allegiance to the musical language he employed in Die ägyptische Helena with an aesthetic credo which was itself ethically compromised as a logical partner of fascism and oppression. This ideological linkage of aesthetic modernism and progressive anti-fascist politics itself needs to also be treated with skepticism, not so much to defend Strauss but to explain why composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Walter Braunfels, and Marcel Rubin–victims, émigrés, and in some cases, political progressives–shared Strauss’s anti-modern stance. Not every musical modernist was a progressive, and not every adherent to nineteenth-century musical romanticism was a fascist.

Since Strauss’s death, critical reassessment of his work has progressed much too slowly. There are some among us who have argued (without great acceptance) that Strauss’s work from the 1920s to the 1930s, particularly Die ägyptische Helena, are high points in his artistic career. His choice of musical language enhances not only the subject matter but Hofmannsthal’s verbal language. The filigree-like delicacy and complexity of Strauss’s orchestration and voice-writing always reveal the Mozart in him. No one at this afternoon’s concert should have any doubt about the premised shared by the artists on stage today that Die ägyptische Helena is not simply a curiosity or an interesting if flawed work by a great composer, but rather that it is the kind of masterpiece that needed a future generation to discover it and assign it to its proper place in the mutable canon of artistic acceptance.

The fact that the opera has seemed static to some perhaps reveals a reductive expectation of dramatic action. Strauss always urged conductors of his operas to take great care when dealing with the massive orchestration not to sacrifice the clarity of the sung words. As Mozart and particularly Wagner made evident, music’s greatest moment in combination with text is its capacity to augment and express inner thoughts that may not correspond to the spoken work, and in fact may occur in opposition to explicit expression: this is the ongoing internal dialogue that constituted our complex and ambivalent psychologies. On the operatic stage, thinking without actions becomes representable in a way that radically extends the possibilities of conventional theater. In this sense, a Strauss opera of the 1920s is comparable to reading one of the great psychological novels of the turn of the century–by Henry James, perhaps–in which the real events occur as internal perceptions, invisible to the external spectator but profoundly consequential.

Finally, in his mature years, Strauss achieved a synthesis of seemingly contradictory styles. His music reflects the same intense ability to transform and develop material that we so highly value not only in Mozart and Brahms, but in Wagner and Berg as well. To a 1920s public enraptured by modernism and aesthetic radicalism and obsessed with the irrational, Strauss offered a contribution of his own which indicates how much he ultimately ran against the grain of his times by being keenly aware of it. He abandoned all need to follow fashion, but sought through the operation and musical traditions he so cherished to compel his listeners to confront the possibilities and consequences of heir own autobiographical struggles. He urged them to find individuality and creativity not in a perpetual sequential search to recover the excesses of new desire, romance, and fulfillment, but to accept the challenge that mortality and morality offer us: to love, to marry, to live productively in a necessarily limited world, and yet still to transform loneliness, suffering, and disappointment not into resentments but into occasions for self-recognition, wisdom, and the discovery of otherwise unimaginable beauty. Hofmannsthal was right: not only does Die ägyptische Helena possess his finest libretto, but it offers the vehicle for one of Strauss’s most intensely introspective and alluring artistic statements. In Die ägyptische Helena, we encounter the genuine modern heir to Mozart: a composer who enables us, with the help of a great librettist, to experience our own human frailties and sufferings without dilution, using the archetypes of musical theater and mythology,. We should emerge from Die ägyptische Helena a bit more reflective about our own lives for that experience.