Beauty in Dark Times: Richard Strauss’ Daphne

By Leon Botstein

The myth of Daphne has come down to us from a myriad of ancient Greek and Roman sources. The most well-known perhaps is the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In all its variants, however, three central issues animate the Daphne myth. 

First, is beauty and its consequences. Daphne is so uncommonly beautiful and so mesmerizing that she becomes Apollo’s obsession and his object of pursuit. Of the Olympians, Apollo was himself the most beautiful; Daphne’s beauty puts her in danger not only on account of amazement and desire, but also because of envy and jealousy masquerading as wonderment.

Second, is the matter of human nature. In the ancient Greek account of the universe, humans share the world with immortal gods. The Olympian gods did not create either the universe or humanity. But the gods hold dominion over humans. They exercise their power unpredictably. Our fate is in their hands. The gods see humans as competitors and seek to curb their ambition. Above all, they envy the human experience of love (a subject Strauss deals with in his Die Liebe der Danae, completed a few years after Daphne and which the ASO participated in at the Bard SummerScape Festival). Love, as humans experience it, particularly its transgressive ecstatic passions, is denied the gods on account of their immortality. They seek nonetheless to share in human love. But they must resort to deceit, mixed with fear, and intimidation to get what they want.

Third, is fate. Humans are vulnerable to the whims of the gods and find themselves wittingly and unwittingly caught in the web of the rivalries and intrigues among them. In the human struggle to stay alive, they band together in communities and attempt to live harmoniously with the gods without incurring their wrath. They seek to defend themselves and even prosper. But humans are repeatedly thwarted. The human condition is unenviable, framed as it is by uncertainty and danger.

Daphne is innocent and pure; she is not tainted by the physical side of love. Rather she is repelled by it. She seeks to preserve the carefree joy of childhood. A narcissistic undertone emerges in her resistance to the inevitability of maturity. Growing up might compromise the unblemished perfection of her beauty. Daphne’s impeccable beauty however extracts a cruel psychological toll. Her beauty heightens the desire for her and yet deepens her internal resistance to the physical experience of human love. The perfection of Daphne’s beauty traps her. It is incompatible with human love and renders her defenseless in the face of human and divine conceit. Aesthetic perfection inspires in Daphne, however, a love of nature. 

The opera is set on the eve of a festival of Dionysus, son of Zeus, the deity of pleasure, wine, fertility and the unchecked celebration of sexuality. Daphne dreads the arrival of the celebrations. Leukippos’ desire is intense; he is no longer the companion without carnal desire. Daphne wishes for “brotherly” love, the spiritual companionship she had when they were children. 

A tree she loved is the emblem of the warmth and joy of that innocent friendship; it is the symbol of her childhood. When Leukippos emerges from behind it, with his flute, and seeks to seduce her, she recoils. For her music is merely about beauty and perfection, not the emotions of desire and passion. Leukippos smashes his flute, rejecting the limitation of music to express spiritual contemplation. 

Apollo enters, having been invited by Daphne’s father. He comes in disguise as a mortal, a deception he later regrets. The human community, its piety notwithstanding, offers no protection from Apollo. Smitten by Daphne’s beauty he begins to seduce her. Surrounded by the Dionysian revels, she wavers. But she evades the god and returns to her mortal friend, now Apollo’s rival. Jealousy between man and god erupts. Apollo kills Leukippos. Daphne realizes the error of her conceit that she might elude human destiny and the mundane joy of all that Dionysus represents. 

Apollo witnesses Daphne’s human loyalty. Although he is rejected in favor of a mortal, he is overcome with shame. Leukippos will take his side on Mount Olympus as Dionysus’ flute and Daphne’s wish never to sacrifice her beauty and chastity is granted. 

The Daphne myth suggests that the greatest gift the gods can give the exemplary human is to grant a gentle death, a painless exit from life. Apollo’s remorse for his transgression results in a gift to Daphne comparable to death. Daphne remains unblemished by human life. She remains on earth as an object of human veneration. She becomes that universal living symbol of nature, its beauty and the synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian: a tree. The tree preserves Daphne’s perfection; it delays and circumvents her death. 

The tree can sing, especially with the wind. In Strauss’ opera, the tree that Daphne becomes is a reminder of the superiority of music as a medium of pure beauty. Music, alone and without words, commands the opera’s final moments. Apollo’s transformation vindicates the capacity of humans to create beauty uniquely of their own invention. The last we hear from Daphne is her wordless singing over the orchestra towards the very end. 

For all of Richard Strauss’ fame as the “second Richard,” the heir of Richard Wagner, Strauss revealed, late in his career, his true aesthetic ideals. In the terms set by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who elaborated the opposition between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, Strauss idealized Mozart rather than Wagner. Mozart’s music embodied the Apollonian ideal of beauty. That ideal is one of perfection in form and sound and uniquely suggestive of the divine spark in humanity. 

For Strauss, only beauty in music can truly transcend the limits of the human experience and exceed the power of language. In order to create beauty, the artist must render aesthetic beauty an antidote to and refuge from the sufferings and compromises of everyday life, the tyranny of physical needs, the vulnerability of our bodies and the inexorable ravages of time. In his late work, Strauss turned away from perfecting music’s capacity to be realistic and imitate life. Instead, Strauss pursued an Apollo-like aesthetic transformation of the everyday. Musical beauty could redeem the seemingly drab physical realities that mark our ordinary mortal lives and which Daphne dreaded.

Strauss’ turn to the Apollonian ideal in music, as suggested in the elegant notes for this performance by Bryan Gilliam, the eminent Strauss scholar, was influ

enced by the historical circumstances surrounding Daphne’s composition. Strauss collaborated with the Nazis. His ambitions led him to set aside the self-evident imperatives of ethics and human justice. His mistaken conceit was that he was superior to all politics and politicians.

He ran afoul of the Nazis early on in their dictatorship, owing to his collaboration with Stefan Zweig on Die schweigsame Frau. After 1935, Strauss struggled to maintain his presence in the Nazi era as Germany’s leading composer and also protect himself and his immediate family. Strauss’ turn to the Apollonian was self-protective, self-deceptive and self-congratulatory. But it generated music of uncommon beauty and transparency, including this opera, that breaks free from the prison of its historical origins. 

Strauss was no egalitarian or partisan of democracy. He believed that an escape from the catastrophes of human behavior was open only to those who pursued the making of art and had the gift of realizing true beauty through the exercise of the human imagination. The synthesis of myth and music in Daphne offered Strauss the inspiration to create a work of beauty in the midst of an unimaginable display of human hate, violence, and cruelty. By creating beauty that could survive the unprecedented barbarism of his times, Strauss bequeathed to future generations a glimmer of hope in humanity. Humanity’s capacity for art might be its redeeming quality. 

In Daphne, Strauss expresses, however, more than empty hope; the opera acknowledges and projects sadness, loss, powerlessness and regret. It reminds us that despite our mortal condition, we might cheat death of its finality through beauty of our own invention, and preserve the renewability of life and love. The tree Daphne may wither, but it will blossom again. 

I wish to express my gratitude to my fellow musicians who are performing this evening. A Strauss opera is a daunting undertaking. He makes unrelenting demands on every person on stage. No part of tonight’s performance makes that point more clearly than the extended a cappella work with which the concert opens. 

Strauss believed children should first learn music and only later become literate. The decisive mark of a civilized person was their musicality, their ear for pitch. This meant more than listening; it meant the active command of the grammar of tonality in its most elaborate form, chromaticism. Strauss’ skepticism of much of musical modernism in the 20th century was based on its abandonment of tonality and the mistaken belief that tonality’s potential had been already exhausted. 

An den Baum Daphne is a virtuosic example of Strauss’ command of the expressive potential of tonal harmony; it is also a tribute to the ability of musicians to bring to life the logic of music in real time and space by the use of the greatest of all our gifts, the capacity to sing. Although Daphne ends in a glorious display of purely orchestral sound, the opera celebrates music’s only truly essential instrument — the human voice. 

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