Ernst Krenek, Der Diktator and Richard Strauss, Friedenstag

by Bryan Gilliam

by Bryan Gilliam

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.

Written for


Troubled Days of Peace