Strauss: Self-Portrait of the Artist

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Strauss: Self-Portrait of the Artist, performed on Dec 15, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Our conception of a composer’s life and career does not always correspond to the image the composer has of himself. The discrepancy is particularly acute in the case of Richard Strauss. Conventional wisdom has it he was a Philistine, a superficial man endowed with an incredible musical gift. Posterity has praised him for the music he wrote toward the end of the nineteenth century that was once considered modern and daring. That period in Strauss’s compositional life is understood as coming to an end with the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier (1911). The pinnacle of Strauss’s achievement in this view is Elektra (1909). After that, Strauss was regarded as an aging master repeating himself, someone who achieved only glimpses of his former brilliance, mostly during an “Indian summer” after 1945 when he produced a few acknowledged masterpieces.

It is quite clear that Strauss harbored no such view of himself. And in fact the conventional account is mistaken. The one-act opera in this afternoon’s program is key to a more accurate and perceptive understanding of the composer. The historic neglect of Feuersnot (1901) is in part responsible for the prevalence of the distorted view of the composer described above. In the first place, Strauss’s aesthetic remained quite consistent. Mozart, not Wagner, was always at the core of his ambition and his notion of beauty in music. Second, like Haydn and Mozart, Strauss was incapable of writing inferior music. Just because the music he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s was out of fashion when it appeared should not prevent us from perceiving its power and worth.

Feuersnot has remained obscure in part because its libretto seems so provincial, and the fairytale tradition with which it is associated seems so terribly German. Furthermore, although Strauss perfected the form of the one-act opera of a duration sufficient for an entire evening in Salome and Elektra, this work is just short enough as to render it an orphan on the opera stage. This is a pity, since the work is at once brilliant, funny, and affecting. Unlike Weber’s Der Freischutz, there is nothing in the plot that is unfathomable. More importantly, the opera represents the moment when Strauss openly signals his affinity to Mozart.

Perhaps the most helpful way to approach the work of Richard Strauss is indeed to consider the striking similarities between Mozart and Strauss. Both excelled in writing for the stage. Yet both were equally successful at composing instrumental music. This quite rare achievement resulted from the fact that Mozart and Strauss both possessed an uncanny and startling facility in the handling of musical materials. They were virtuosic in their ability to think with music. Although Strauss never exhibited the same level of precocity, there is little doubt that like Mozart he thought first in music, through its grammar and syntax, and then in language. Mozart may now be thought of as profound and Strauss still derided in some quarters as a superficial “note spinner,” but we should remember that there was a time in the nineteenth century when Mozart’s music was dismissed as largely decorative.

But what links the two composers above all is their sense of humor, exceptional within the pantheon of composers. Haydn certainly displayed a sense of humor, but it was largely confined to music and it remains subtle if not dry. Beethoven seemed to have no humor at all. One suspects that the only people who found Wagner funny were his family and inner circle. Mozart and Strauss possessed more than mere comicality. Because they perceived the world first not through the mechanism of language but through the temporal structures of music, they developed a sharp but forgiving sense of human fallibility and a deep sense of irony. Their capacity for humor, as expressed in music, was laced with a humane capacity for lightness. They delighted in satire. In their music, they revealed an understanding of forgiveness, a sense of longing and a sympathetic recognition of the human condition. The last scenes of Der Rosenkavalier have their mirror image in the closing sections of The Marriage of Figaro.

Mozart and Strauss are two composers who possessed true wisdom. They shared with their listeners the ability through music to cope with the disappointments and sufferings that come inevitably with mortality. Although Wagner’s ghost inhabits Feuersnot, this rarely performed one-act opera already reveals the direction Strauss would take during his long career, and his basic artistic credo. Owing to the influence of his father (as Christopher Gibbs suggests in his note on today’s concert), but also to that of Hans von Bülow (who converted from Wagner into an ardent proponent of Brahms), Strauss’s fundamental instincts as a young man leaned toward the classical style. He was indeed always more like Mozart than like Wagner. This should come as no surprise. Wagner possessed genius but little in the sense of sheer facility. Strauss, like Mozart, possessed facility and like Mendelssohn (Wagner’s arch rival in his own mind), displayed both facility and genius.

Although it is undeniable that Strauss came under the influence of Wagner and recognized Wagner’s extraordinary creation of a musical language adequate to the demands of narration and sufficient to meet the expectations generated by the aesthetics of realism, Strauss remained skeptical regarding the explicit philosophical and implicit metaphysical claims about music and its power and meaning that Wagner popularized. For all of the evident aspects of Wagnerian influence, the allures of sonata form and thematic transformation dominate the famous tone poems of the 1890s. In Feuersnot, the compositional technique owes as much to Brahms as it does to Wagner; the musical logic relies on strategies distinct from Wagner’s use of repetition and harmonic color. Strauss pokes fun at Tristan und Isolde in Feuersnot, and he pokes fun at the need in the Wagnerian ambition to appear profound and its reliance on potions, magic, and myth as elements of the drama.

Strauss adored Wagner’s only successful comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868). But in truth there is very little to laugh at in that opera except in a cruel, bullying way. Die Meistersinger is a comedy only because it has a happy ending. Wagner, unlike Strauss, was incapable of laughing at himself. Feuersnot takes aim at many things, but among its targets are not only Wagnerian pretensions about opera and music but Strauss himself.

In the period immediately following the composition of Feuersnot, Strauss turned to myth but not to Germanic myth. Working with the literary genius of Wilde and Hofmannsthal, he found a way to create a searing human drama in Salome and Elektra. In his instrumental music, the Symphonia domestica and later An Alpine Symphony, he pushed music’s potential as an instrument of realist narration to its farthest limits. And then, in 1911 with Der Rosenkavalier, he without reserve embraced the eighteenth century and its pre-romantic aesthetic of clarity and grace. For the rest of his career, it was not Wagner but Mozart who became his explicit model. And it is ironic that it was Mozart whom Brahms (Wagner’s antipode) also revered. In his last operatic works, Die Liebe der Danae and Capriccio, Strauss mused on the nature of music and its relation to language and everyday life. He also made one last effort to render myth human and accessible in a way that Wagner never did. If Tristan hovers over Feuersnot in an affectionate and admiring manner, Tristan also is the object of contrast in Strauss’s last attempt at grand opera, Die Liebe der Danae, whose subject is—as is the case in Feuersnot—love and desire.

In order to understand Strauss’s personal idea of love, one has to consider that although he was inexplicably devoted to his wife Pauline (despite the fact that she was universally regarded as overbearing), the great love of Strauss’s life occurred before his marriage, in the person of Dora Wihan, a young woman of Jewish extraction who was married to the cellist Hanuš Wihan, a friend of Strauss’s father. Needless to say, Strauss’s parents disapproved of this liaison. Strauss’s trip to Egypt seemed to have coincided with an abrupt break with Dora. All the letters between them were destroyed, and the entire affair is shrouded in mystery. Strauss’s unabashedly autobiographical Intermezzo (1927), which contains a depiction of his wife that she along with many others found unflattering, may suggest that after this searing but traumatic passion early in his life, reminiscent of Tristan and other star-crossed lovers, Strauss, like many artists, could express the intensity of love and desire as well as the sense of loss and longing only through music. This allowed him to make peace with an unapologetically conventional life style.

It is the Mozartean sense of humor, the Mozart-like recognition of the delightful and painful self-delusions surrounding love, that explains the composer’s lifelong regret at the neglect of Feuersnot. This work is more than a harbinger of Strauss’s later achievements. It is the first full-blown and successful example of Strauss’s greatness as an opera composer. It reveals his capacity to use modern, musical language and technique to achieve Mozartean grace, irreverence, formal beauty and unspeakable eloquence.

As is the case with all great comedies, Strauss in Feuersnot is deadly serious. The expectations that surround love and desire and the place of the artist play a central role in the comedy. Far from being a Philistine, Strauss was deeply reflective. He was a keen reader of literature and philosophy, and was possessed of a skepticism that helped justify egotism, detachment, and a callous disregard of the political evil around him. The mask behind which he hid is suggestive of a deep pessimism about modernity. Yet In Feuersnot we encounter a passionate young Strauss whose capacity for affectionate irreverence speaks volumes for who he was and how true he remained to himself as a composer until his death at the age of 85.