Richard Strauss, Schlagobers

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert Truth or Truffles, performed on Feb 10, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

To say that Karl Kraus, the radical Viennese essayist and founder of the satirical journal Die Fackel, disliked Richard Strauss’ ballet Schlagobers, op. 70 (“Whipped Cream”) would be an understatement: “But now even his famous versatility seems to have failed him, and even the Corybantic critics cannot conceal the fact that there has not been a nastier desolation of the spirit even of the ballet or a more thoroughgoing degradation of theater to the level of a preschool than this Schlagobers, in which the droll old master, ever the joker, comes to terms in his own fashion with the social question.” Later in the same essay, Kraus exclaims ironically, “It is just a ‘merry Viennese ballet’ . . . but even if one combines the horrors of the Sansculottes with those of the Bolsheviks, the resulting terror cannot possibly come close to even the mere plot summary of Schlagobers.” In a later article that touches upon Strauss’ ironically narcissistic opera Intermezzo (1924), Kraus summed up his objections forthrightly: “I cannot say, for my part, whether he is a genius of music, I can only say that he isn’t, for I am aware of all the intellectual brilliance of Schlagobers.”

Even Michael Kennedy, surely Strauss’ most indulgent biographer, has to admit that Strauss “inaugurated his sixtieth birthday celebrations by conducting the first performance of Schlagobers in Vienna on 9 May [1924] . . . It was a ghastly flop.” Kennedy speculates on this failure by noting that the ballet, “a gay and witty confection set in confectioner’s shop, with characters like Princess Pralinée, Prince Cocoa, and Mlle Marianne Chartreuse” was “not the dish of whipped cream to set before starving, bankrupt Vienna.” While most of the sharp-penned Viennese music critics loathed Schlagobers with a deadly loathing, the score had a defender in the French novelist Romain Rolland, author of that now indigestible roman fleuve, Jean-Christophe. Rolland enjoyed the music, which he found “highly agreeable,” and darkly suspected the Viennese critics of ulterior motives in their dismissal of Schlagobers: “Strauss has caused too many wounds to self-esteem, even among his adherents. They are taking their revenge.” (One can only imagine the derisive laughter with which Kraus would have greeted this declaration.) Paying a consolatory call on the composer, Rolland recorded Strauss’ reaction: “Haven’t I the right, after all, to write what music I please? I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy. I need it.”

Strauss’ declaration is the key to the critic’s detestation of Schlagobers, for its patent escapism, even frivolity, offended their sense of propriety. Written in the shadow of postwar humiliation during a period of runaway inflation and a darkening political landscape, Schlagobers must have seemed heartless at best. Ironically, as Strauss himself had lost all of his savings after the First World War, Schlagobers may have resulted from his desire to write a “hit” that would generate a much-needed infusion of cash into his bank account. The admittedly slight scenario, written by Strauss himself and curiously reminiscent of the plot of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, concerns a party in which a group of children gorge themselves on sugary delicacies in a Viennese confectionary. At one point, a boy who has greedily stuffed himself with sweets swoons and has a vision of three seductive liquors whose disruptive behavior is pacified ultimately by good German beer. (Strauss’ mother was a member of the famous Pschorr family of brewers and he grew up in a house on the grounds of their famed Munich brewery.)

Even in the midst of the financial and political crises that swirled around him in the 1920s, Strauss remained so disengaged from concerns outside his family circle—not to mention the implications of his own actions—that he included a scene in his ballet during which proletariat cakes waved red banners to the accompaniment of a Revolutionary Polka conducted by Russian matzos. With a sumptuous production and elaborate choreography by Heinrich Kröller, Schlagobers struck exactly the wrong note at its première and the critical opprobrium that initially greeted the score has echoed down to the present day. Although the skillful and brilliant music has its undoubted charms and there is at least one superb waltz, Schlagobers is a disturbing artifact of its creator’s growing indifference to the world around him, an indifference that boded ill for Strauss’ future reputation.

©2012 Byron Adams

Dr. Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside, and his music has been performed across Europe and the U.S.