The Ruins of Athens (1924)
By Bryan Gilliam, Duke University
Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
For all its obscurity, the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaborative reworking of Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens – their first mutual effort since Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918) – is rich in historical context. This Beethoven project also exemplifies how much these two artists (despite their different temperaments) had in common: their mutual interests in Greek culture, in dance and gesture, and a particularly idealized reverence for the work of Beethoven. Indeed, throughout the history of modern Germany, ancient Greece would serve as an archetype for cultural change. For the early German Romantics the model was that of perfection, for the later Romantics, such as Nietzsche, it was a paradigm for the rejuvenation of a complacent contemporary culture. In the 20th century, for a writer such as Hofmannsthal, Greek myth was a means of connecting the individual to society and ultimately to civilization at large. The interpretations varied widely over the years, yet in each instance the German attraction to Greece was the same: this ancient culture was seen as an authoritative alternative to a culturally impoverished present-day society.
Music occupied a privileged space in German culture, and it is hardly coincidental that, at those very same moments of contemporary crisis, German artists and intellectuals embraced another model: Ludwig van Beethoven, who was idealized as a Promethean figure who could restore fire to the German soul. This focus on Beethoven was as true for the German youth movement of the 1830’s as it was for Richard Wagner with his utopian designs for a new type of music theater in the second half of the century. For fin-de-siècle Vienna, Beethoven’s image was a literal centerpiece in the form of Max Klinger’s Beethoven stature which, at a 1902 exhibition at the anti-establishment Secession, was surrounded by Gustav Klimt’s frieze depicting moments from the finale of the great 9th Symphony.
In the wake of World War One, a defeated Austro-German culture searched yet again for a sense of identity and found it once again in Beethoven. It is in this context that we can better understand the impetus behind the Beethoven project of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. This reworking of Beethoven is admittedly a pastiche, taking textual and musical selections from both The Ruins of Athens and The Creatures of Prometheus. But Hofmannsthal adds a new character, giving coherence and continuity to this mixture: the Wanderer, and idealized, Goethean German artist who ponders the ruins of an Athenean marketplace.
At this moment of meditation, the Wanderer himself receives a creative Promethean spark and, in turn, becomes the reincarnation of Prometheus himself. This central moment is cast in the mode of melodrama, where the Wanderer speaks, accompanied by Strauss’s only real musical contribution, itself a fantasy on two themes from Beethoven’s 5th and 3rd symphonies, respectively.
During this period of Strauss’s compositional career (around the time of World War One and shortly thereafter), he had been preoccupied with dance. The ballets Josephs Legende (1914) and Schlagobers (1922) as well as the orchestral dance arrangements of Couperin (1923) are all part of this background. Yet there is another context as well, for in this revived collaboration between poet and composer, catalyzed by their mutual love for Beethoven, we also see a renewed interest in Greek drama. Their reworking of The Ruins of Athens would soon pave the way for the more substantial Egyptian Helen (1927), Hofmannsthal’s last completed, and favorite, libretto.