Opera and Politics: Krenek and Strauss

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Troubled Days of Peace, performed on October 19, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

We routinely invoke history as a means to understand the present. This is at one and the same time a noble and illusory enterprise. History is written with some notion of the present moment in mind, however submerged. Therefore, despite all of our disciplined efforts to render a construction of the past truthfully and objectively, the concerns of the present give an inevitably selective shape to a complex and contradictory series of events. At a minimum, however, all rigorous accounts of the past reveal dimensions of the human experience that are continuous and constant. These can indeed shed light on the present. History may never repeat itself exactly, but an examination of the past points out resemblances that suggest the dangers and opportunities we face.

Today’s concert takes place on the eve of a momentous presidential election in the United States. That election will occur at a troubled and unstable moment, marked by discontent, an exceptional frustration with democratic politics, economic anxiety, mistrust, and sharp divisions. It will take place in a world suffused with violence and war.

The era in history that this concert explores is the period in Central Europe—particularly Germany—between the end of World War I and the outbreak of World War II. It began in 1918 with chaos, poverty, epidemics, and revolutions. In Germany, a shaky new constitutional democracy emerged. Surrounding it to the east were new nation states, each struggling to establish their physical borders and a domestic sense of legitimacy.

Democracy may have been the initial rhetorical objective of populist political and social aspirations in 1918, but it was not the ultimate victor. By the mid-1930s Germany, Poland, Italy, and Hungary—to mention just a few examples—ended up embracing anti-democratic and anti-pluralist politics.

Fast forward to 1989 and the twenty five following years, and one can see parallels: the erosion of the ideal of the European Union, the rise of anti-liberal xenophobic politics in Poland, Hungary, France, England, and Germany, and the attendant virulent intolerance against refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa. The idealism spurred by the collapse of the Soviet Empire and communism has given way to intolerance and nationalism narrowly construed, all in response in part to economic stagnation and inequality. One can easily find similarities between this European populist embrace of anti-liberal and anti-democratic politics and the discourse that has surrounded the American presidential election.

In the wake of the brutality of World War I there was concerted effort among artists to break with the past and the traditions of culture associated with the pre-war period. The values reflected in the art and culture of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century seemed not to resist but rather encourage the rush towards a global destructive war. Ernst Krenek’s 1926 Der Diktator plainly rejects the lush romanticism of Wagner, the sentimental beauties of Puccini. In their place we find a brevity, a condensed sense of time, and a transparent mix of neo-classical and romantic musical rhetoric articulated with new sonorities in a drama made up of fleeting episodes. But at the center is the exploration of the irrationalities of charisma, the will to power and the allure of the tyrannical. Krenek (an Austrian and a pupil of Schoenberg’s who briefly was Mahler’s son-in-law) wrote his own libretto. By placing the story in neutral Switzerland, he sought to probe exclusively into the psychological attraction that Mussolini, and later Hitler and Franco—all “strongmen” who cultivated the cult of personality and power—had on an astonishingly large segment of their nation’s populace. His medium was the opera, the nineteenth century’s most popular musical form. Like Hindemith and Kurt Weill, in the 1920s he sought to transform its aesthetic and its public role. Opera needed to cease being an affirmative pleasing and escapist entertainment and instead become a startling provocation and a radical assertion of the new, directed at the dominant middle class audience for culture.

By the time Richard Strauss embarked on Friedenstag in the late 1930s (it was premiered in July 1938), the Nazi dictatorship was already firmly in place. Strauss willingly collaborated with the regime, naively believing that it would stem the corrosive anti-traditional aesthetic modernism that had flourished during the Weimar Republic, and spur a German cultural renaissance as well as secure a proper copyright protection for composers. Strauss was a self-centered opportunist focused purely on his own career. He felt that he had suffered during the Weimar period. He saw himself forgotten and dismissed as a holdover from the nineteenth century by a younger generation of composers and critics. The Nazis were, in his mind, instruments of cultural revenge.

But he underestimated his new masters. When it became clear that he was not politically reliable and not a true believer in Nazism, he was pushed aside. Yet he was too famous and possessed too much propaganda value not to be of value. Hitler himself attended the premiere of Friedenstag. But unlike Hans Pfitzner and a host of lesser talents, Strauss, after the debacle of Die Schweigsame Frau (described in the notes to this program by Bryan Gilliam), was not entirely in favor with the regime. By choosing the subject of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years’ War for Friedenstag, Strauss was on the one hand playing into the overt political rhetoric of the mid and late 1930s, in which Hitler sought to represent Germany as being committed to bringing lasting peace to Europe though its own expansion, best represented by the Anschluss and the Munich agreements of 1938. In this regard, the opera was a failure. It was coolly received and was quickly banished after Germany led Europe into a second world war.

But on the other hand, Strauss, who despised all politicians and treasured an illusory notion of an autonomous tradition of high art and culture independent of politics, sought in his one-act opera to emulate and reference one of the towering German representatives of culture before the age of modern politics: Beethoven. As the opening chords, the use of a musical signal as a key dramatic device, and the triumphant closing celebration of peace suggest, the musical dramatic model for Friedenstag is Beethoven and his sole opera, Fidelio. As in Fidelio, Strauss’ opera contains two opposing male protagonists and a key female intermediary. Both operas end in the celebration of peace after conflict. But Fidelio tells of the triumph of justice and freedom over cruelty, tyranny, and violence. This theme, if present at all in Friedenstag, is at best a veiled undercurrent, a residue perhaps of the work of the opera’s covert librettist, Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish writer whom Strauss admired and who brought Strauss the work’s official librettist, Joseph Gregor.

Friedenstag, although written with hope of official endorsement by the Nazi regime, projected through its unabashed rich sonorous music Strauss’ bittersweet and nostalgic evocation of a pre-World War I era, an era he viewed as marked by peace and civility and the triumph of the continuity of German cultural superiority. Friedenstag picks up from Hans Sachs’s celebration of the noble German art of music in Wagner’s Meistersinger.

The turmoil of the 1920s, and what Strauss viewed as the vulgarities of modernism and popular culture, reinforced his steadfast commitment to post-Wagnerian musical aesthetics of the fin de siècle. Strauss does not repeat himself, despite evident audible reminiscences of Salome and Elektra. There are even modernist elements in the harmonic language and vocal writing. However, the opera reveals the composer’s gradual sojourn backwards in music history. Friedenstag suggests that Strauss turned away from Wagner to Beethoven and ultimately, in his last years in the 1940s, even further back to the eighteenth century and Mozart. If Krenek and Hindemith were inspired by the radical break in political history that occurred after 1918 to engage asceticism, transparency, and the experimental, Strauss was drawn backwards to Viennese classicism.

Ernst Krenek, Der Diktator
Richard Strauss, Friedenstag

by Bryan Gilliam

Written for the concert Troubled Days of Peace, performed on October 19, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Ernst Krenek
Born August 23, 1900, in Vienna
Died December 23, 1991, in Palm Springs, CA
Der Diktator
Composed in 1926, in Austria
Premiered on May 6, 1928, at the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, Germany by the State Opera conducted by Joseph Rosenstock
Performance Time: Approximately 30 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 French horn, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, timpani, percussion (bass drum, tam-tam, cymbals, triangle, snare drum), 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, chorus, and 4 vocal soloists

Richard Strauss
Born June 11, 1864, in Munich
Died Sept. 8, 1949, in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany
Composed in 1935–36
Premiered on July 24, 1938, at the National Theater in Munich by the Bavarian State Opera conducted by Clemens Krauss
Performance Time: Approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, large military drum, snare drum, tam-tam, chimes), 1 organ, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, chorus, and 8 vocal soloists

Today’s two Austro-German operas, Der Diktator and Friedenstag, have likely never been paired together, though there are some links: both follow the theme of love, politics, and war, and both are one-acts taken from different multi-opera sets. But in many ways, they are quite different. Der Diktator lasts just about half an hour with two main roles and two sub roles. The longer (80 minute) Friedenstag features two leading roles, sub roles, and extensive chorus. The greater difference is that Der Diktator was the product of Weimar Germany, that relatively brief period of democratic parliamentary government that followed WWI. In an early act of that new government, censorship was lifted in 1918, and cultural institutions that had operated at the pleasure of the emperor were now run by the state. The people’s belief in a brighter future was accompanied by an equally powerful distrust of the immediate past, for post-Wagnerism and post-Romanticism in general served as symbols of the bygone Wilhelmine era. The new buzzword was Neue Sachlichkeit, “New Objectivity,” a principal genre beneath this rubric was Zeitoper, “topical opera,” which sought to embrace the here-and-now and celebrate the contemporary life in music. Enrst Krenek, the master of the Zeitoper—with such international hits as Jonny Spielt auf (1926)—thus achieved his greatest historical fame in the 1920s. Der Diktator, one of a trio of Krenek’s Zeitopern, was composed in the wake of his early fame. The title character is based on Benito Mussolini. It is not intended to be political opera, but rather, as Krenek remarked, “an anecdote from the private life of a strong man. Only from the irrational does he retreat, not so much out of fear, but because he can do nothing with it, he cannot dominate it.” Many of the Zeitopern had surrealistic undertones, and in the case of Der Diktator the subtext explores the surreal relationship between power and sexual attractiveness.

As the curtain rises, we see the Dictator instructing a courier to deliver a declaration of war, to which his wife, Charlotte, is opposed. The Dictator encounters Maria, who does not trust him but is intrigued by his gaze. The Dictator exits with Charlotte, and the Soldier enters in a wheelchair. He is Maria’s husband, blinded at war by poison gas while fighting for the Dictator, whom Maria vows to kill as revenge for her husband’s injuries. When Maria goes to kill him, the Dictator declares his love for Maria, and convinces her to join him. Maria agrees and throws down her revolver. Having overheard everything, Charlotte picks up Maria’s revolver and shoots her husband, but Maria throws herself in front of the Dictator and the bullet kills her instead.

The Weimar government was a precarious political proposition for most of its duration. The international depression of 1929 sealed its fate and the far-right National Socialists attained a string of parliamentary victories. With the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor of the new government, the Weimar era was effectively over, and with it, all artistic freedoms enjoyed by artists and intellectuals of the 1920s. It was also in 1929 that Richard Strauss lost his greatest artistic collaborator, the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss went through a period of depression, with the belief, according to his wife, that he might never compose opera again. However, in 1932, Strauss was introduced to novelist, biographer, and playwright Stefan Zweig. The result of this meeting was a three-act comedy based on Ben Johnson called The Silent Woman (1935). Depression had given way to one of the happiest creative periods of Strauss’ life. But Zweig was a Jew, and with the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism it became obvious that Zweig could no longer serve as Strauss’ librettist. Strauss was in a state of denial, but reluctantly agreed to Zweig’s recommendation that Joseph Gregor take his place, with the promise that Zweig would remain in an advisory position. Gregor was not, principally, a writer, but rather a theater historian and founding director of the Austrian National Theater Library. Gregor’s and Strauss’ first collaboration, set during the time of the Thirty Years War, was later known as Friedenstag.

The story of Friedenstag involves a Commander who is held under siege by the enemy Holstein army. He is accompanied by his wife, Maria, who vows to stay with him to the end. The sound of cannon fire creates confusion, and the Commander prepares for attack. However, the next sound is that of bells, bells of peace, and the enemy commander arrives to share this good news. The Holsteiner Commander is skeptical and reaches for his sword. At that moment, Maria throws herself between the two Commanders, pleading for peace between them. The two enemy Commanders embrace and the opera concludes with a chorus of reconciliation.

Strauss realized that he had a text that lacked strong psychological motivation and nuance and knew what he had to do. The result is an opera with a simple, concise, yet powerful musical structure, a score that shows evidence of a well-seasoned composer. Every dramaturgical enigma that could not be solved by the clarity of word is washed away by the power of music. The paradoxical strength of Friedenstag comes from Strauss’ commitment to work against undesirable circumstances—internally, composing for a weak libretto, and externally, composing a pacifist opera with the growing awareness that Germany was gearing towards international conflict. Indeed, after Germany’s attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, Friedenstag was removed from the German operatic repertoire.

Bryan Gilliam is Professor of Music and Germanic Languages and Bass Fellow at Duke University.