Strauss’ Musical Landscapes

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Strauss’ Musical Landscapes, performed on April 14, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The perception of late Romanticism in music has been shaped partly by a rather set of facile dichotomies and contrasts. Among these contrasts is the distinction between so-called “absolute” music and program music. With the publication of Eduard Hanslick’s 1854 tract “On the Beautiful in Music,” the idea that music is purely self-referential and grounded in the play of moving sound within abstract or artificial structures became widespread. Hanslick’s conception was said to influence and represent the ideals of several generations of composers well into the twentieth century. One of the most prominent of these was Johannes Brahms, a friend of Hanslick who actually was somewhat doubtful about the famous critic’s judgment and views.

In this familiar tale, the other side of the dichotomy was represented by the “New German School,” spearheaded by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. For them, Schumann’s early Romanticism and the very essence of Beethoven implied that music told some sort of story and conveyed emotions. While the procedures of musical composition doubtlessly contained aspects of self-reference and a grammar all its own, there were undeniable connections between musical meaning and the extra-musical. Liszt and his successors therefore pioneered an instrumental music that was explicitly connected to some sort of literary or poetic idea. They replaced the conception of the symphony as a multi-movement work forged into a coherent whole only through the internal connections between musical materials with the ideal of a large-scale instrumental composition whose musical procedure either echoed or was driven by a narrative or a single idea that could be expressed in both musical and non-musical terms. This approach to composition soon took on the odd appellation “program music.”

This neat division may never have been anything more than a convenient, reductive way to explain the evident rivalries between several generations of European composers of concert music. Personal antipathy tended to be translated into and exacerbated by an appeal to aesthetic principles and incompatible ideologies. Brahms, for example, found Wagner’s pretensions repellent, but deeply admired his gifts as a composer. For his part, Wagner’s dismissal of Brahms (much like his virulent campaign against Mendelssohn) can easily be reformulated not only as an aesthetic judgment but as a reflection of his own well-known insecurity regarding the virtuosity and facility of rival composers. Brahms’s explosion onto the scene as both composer and performer easily inspired jealousy. Furthermore, a similar revision of motives can also be perceived in the rivalry of Bruckner and Brahms. The gulf in social origins, religious conviction, and personal styles was as significant as aesthetic incompatibilities. Indeed Bruckner offers the most revealing example of how much closer both schools of composition were in their fundamental views than is generally thought. Bruckner was deeply influenced by Wagner, but when one considers not only his music but that of Wagner alongside Brahms’s, one hears that there is something within the musical communication of the late nineteenth century (despite evident differences in musical procedures) that is shared. There was, as there was in Beethoven, a common effort to communicate meaning beyond the range of the purely musical as it was narrowly defined by aesthetic theorists. Perhaps there is ultimately little difference between what aestheticians once loved to call the “musical” as opposed to the “extra-musical.”

It was in a world preoccupied with such mania for musical factionalism, in which radical and irreconcilable camps and schools of thought within music sprang like mushrooms, that Richard Strauss was born and came of age as a composer. His father, a great Horn player, was an avowed anti-Wagnerite, who held an absolutist position dominated by a deep regard for the heritage of Viennese classicism. Richard Strauss’s first success as a composer came under the aegis of the pro-Brahms club led by that fallen angel from the Wagner circle, the cuckolded husband and great pianist and conductor, Hans von Bülow. Strauss’s earliest career reflects this association: he actually wrote symphonies in his youth as well as other music that followed the formalist anti-programmatic pattern.

But then, for a variety of reasons that are still the subject of intense scholarly scrutiny, Strauss’s direction and ambitions shifted. Through close study of Wagner’s achievement, Strauss became enamored of new possibilities and made contact with a generation of post-Wagnerian contemporaries who, in the wake of the master of Bayreuth’s death in 1883, vowed to carry on his legacy. Strauss began writing instrumental music that conveyed extra-musical significance and meaning to the audience. The first work on today’s program, Aus Italien (1886), marks the beginning of Strauss’s “second” period, during which he produced some of his best known music, including the great tone poems Don Juan (1888), Death and Transfiguration (1888), Till Eulenspiegel (1895), Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), and Ein Heldenleben (1898). This was also a period in which Strauss made his debut as an opera composer beginning with Guntram (1893), Feuersnot (1901), and in 1905 and 1908, Salome and Elektra.

But Strauss’s most fascinating development during this period was actually not his newly found allegiance to the paradigm of Liszt and Wagner, but the synthesis he created between his classical training and early predisposition, and this new ideology of how music could communicate and express meaning. Strauss employed with uncommon virtuosity the musical armament not only of Classicism and early Romanticism, but the innovations of Wagner that included a new harmonic sensibility and a unique skill in linking musical gesture with ideas, personalities, and emotions. Wagner added a layer of comprehensibility in musical language that could appeal to a wide audience. He made it easier to use musical procedures derived from classicism to tell a story or to express one’s reaction to the external world. Finally, Wagner helped invent a form of musical prose and an orchestral sound that Strauss mastered with unequaled virtuosity and flexibility. By the turn of the century, he catapulted himself into a position as the most important and revolutionary successor to Richard Wagner.

This status Strauss achieved not through opera but in instrumental music that expressed love, death, apotheosis, sexuality, Nietzschean philosophy, and biography. By the composition of his final tone poem, Symphonia domestica (1905), Strauss had so perfected the integration of musical formalism and extra-musical narration that he was able to depict through music in an uncannily powerful way the most trivial details of everyday life, such as bathing the children or having a domestic quarrel. Indeed, precisely because of his excessive gift for musical representation, Strauss dragged this musical genre down from the elevated regions of philosophical idealism to the quotidian depths of the mundane. Even his first forays in this genre foreshadowed its ultimate trajectory: for instance, a tone poem inspired by one of the most complex of Shakespeare’s heroes (Macbeth, 1888), and today’s travelogue Aus Italien, an obvious debt to the tradition among German intellectuals and artists from the time of Winkelmann and Goethe who traveled south to Italy for aesthetic inspiration and relief from the oppressive harshness and stolidity of Europe north of the Alps.

Strauss’s attainments by the date of the completion of his last major large-scale piece of instrumental music, An Alpine Symphony, were not immune from doubt and contestation no matter how celebrated the composer had become. Among the useful rivalries in the history of music that it has been fashionable to repeat, much has been made of the tense relationship between Strauss and his contemporary, Gustav Mahler. Unlike the case of Wagner and Brahms, there is here a record of friendship and considerable contact as well as mutual admiration. Mahler desperately wanted to conduct the premiere of Salome in Vienna, but was prevented by the imperial censors. Mahler’s repertoire as a conductor included many of Strauss’s pieces, including Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan, Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel, Death and Transfiguration, Symphonia domestica, and Aus Italien. Strauss in turn organized the premiere of the first several movements of Mahler’s Second Symphony in Berlin. No doubt the wives of both composers, each rather notorious in their own way, helped to fuel the impression of privately held antipathies between the two composers. There were indeed important aesthetic differences, but there are also a number of similarities and mutual debts. Mahler ultimately never completed an opera of his own, although he toyed with the idea and wrote music that certainly contained operatic elements. His early symphonies carried explicit extra-musical programs similar in character to those upon which Strauss relied, such as the life and death of heroes and the relation between humanity and nature, and even the setting of a text by Nietzsche and the evocation of resurrection. But unlike Mahler, Strauss remained loyal to Nietzsche. Often Strauss is depicted as a superficial man lacking profundity. But in fact, he was well read and committed to a philosophical point of view, for which he credited Nietzsche. That view involved the need for humanity to transcend Christianity. For a long time the sketches for An Alpine Symphony contained the title of one of Nietzsche’s last works, “The Anti-Christ.” This symphony is an effort to explore man’s experience of nature and the presence of nature as a way to overcome the limits of Christianity and its disfiguring influence. Mahler, in contrast, never lost his fascination with Christian mysticism.

Yet there is in addition a fundamental and audible contrast in the work of these two composers, and they seem to have written music with the evident consciousness of a gulf between them. Early in his career Strauss abandoned the framework of the symphony. Mahler stuck to it (even in Das Lied von der Erde) and sought to reshape and reinvent it. But Mahler altered his direction and the use of literary or poetic programs. Mahler returned to the ideal of absolute music, whereas Strauss, particularly in An Alpine Symphony, adhered to Beethoven’s model in which music functions as a mirror of feelings and ideas. Strauss reveled in chromaticism; Mahler retained a diatonic frame. Both expanded the sonorities and instrumental possibilities of the orchestra, but to Strauss some of Mahler’s work seemed overwritten and over-orchestrated, and to Mahler, some of Strauss’s work seemed a bit glib. The rivalry and contrast between these two composers are important of course to the genesis of An Alpine Symphony. When Mahler died in 1911, there is little doubt that his early death shocked Strauss and left him not with the sense of an open field for himself (despite his venality and ambition), but with the sense that his only truly great contemporary passed away. Having attended premieres of Mahler’s symphonies and looked carefully at them, he remembered his own early foray into symphonic form. Particularly in the Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, Strauss knew how successfully Mahler had inverted his own strategy. Listeners tend to remember the subject of a Strauss poem before its thematic material. Listening to Mahler, the overwhelming power of the musical material and its treatment can successfully obliterate the implicit presence of a literary program. Mahler’s Third Symphony may once have been about nature, but finally that seems irrelevant, as Mahler’s own later disavowal of any relevant programmatic content to his early symphonies indicates.

As Aus Italien suggests, one of the most traditional avenues for program music since Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was the subject of humanity’s response to nature and the external environment. Engagement with nature is central not only to Mahler’s Third Symphony, but with the recurrent sounds of birdcalls and cowbells as well as the presence of humans in the natural world to marches and Horn calls, the theme of nature and man’s place in it persists throughout Mahler’s oeuvre. The challenge left to Richard Strauss after the triumph of Der Rosenkavalier in 1912 (shortly after Mahler’s death) was to explore the avenue that Mahler had charted and which Strauss had abandoned. An Alpine Symphony is Strauss’s effort to revisit the possibilities of symphonic form in a manner that is both responsive to Mahler and representative of an alternative method. Ultimately it was Beethoven rather than Mahler that took hold of Strauss’s imagination. Strauss finally depicts not only a landscape but also a journey as perceived through the eyes of a narrator.

The ghost of Gustav Mahler nevertheless suffuses An Alpine Symphony. At the end of the work, beginning with the “Setting of the Sun” and through the “Ausklang” (“Echo”) before the return of night, there are direct musical references to Mahler, including the figuration of the violins and the harmonies before the onset of “Night.” These references are cast against the clearly Straussian character of the entire symphony. As if to identify with Mahler as the outsider who never finds a home, and possibly referring to Strauss’s own inner isolation despite all outward appearances of sociability, on the brink of night’s return Strauss directly quotes the motive from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. After all, both Mahler and Strauss owed an enormous debt to Wager, and none of Wagner’s work so exemplifies the lonely fate of the artist in a musical manner that evokes the classical traditions of composition as does The Flying Dutchman.

What is most ironic about approaching An Alpine Symphony through the example of Gustav Mahler is the recognition of how ultimately neoclassical and conservative Strauss’s solutions are in that work. It was indeed Mahler who resurrected an old, venerable form, the symphony, which Wagner had derided as passé, and used it as a vehicle for musical innovation. In contrast Strauss took on the appearance of radicalism with the notion of the tone poem, which actually only cloaked an intense inner conservatism which he never quite abandoned. An Alpine Symphony, along with much of the music Strauss wrote after Der Rosenkavalier (until the Indian summer marked by the composition of Metamorphosen in 1945), has sometimes been dismissed as lesser Strauss, the repetitions of a smug, self-satisfied virtuoso. There is little truth in this view, particularly from our present post-modern vantage point. An Alpine Symphony is in fact a fascinating experiment and marks a new direction away from the facility and strategy of the Symphonia domestica, which is the transitional work between the early narrative tone poems and An Alpine Symphony. Strauss liked the work very much and recommended it to Hugo von Hofmannstal and at the end of his life to the conductor Josef Keilberth. He hoped the work would provide a musical expression of hope that “when Christianity has disappeared from the face of the earth,” a “better humanity” might come into being. Man’s command and engagement of nature was one route, just as it was man’s ambition to scale the earth’s highest peaks. Consider these entries from Strauss’s own diary from May 1911:

“Gustav Mahler, after being sick for a long time, died on the 19th of May. The death of this striving, idealistic, and energetic artist is an enormous loss. I have just read Wagner’s riveting autobiography with feeling.

I am also reading Leopold Ranke’s German History in the Age of the Reformation. It provides evident confirmation that the factors that encouraged culture in the past are no longer capable of doing so, just as the great political and religious movements can only for a given period of time be truly productive.

The Jew Mahler could still find something uplifting in Christianity. As a wise old man, Richard Wagner, under the influence of Schopenhauer, descended to Mahler’s level. It is absolutely clear to me that only through the emancipation from Christianity can the German nation assume a new power for action. Have we really progressed no farther than the times of the political consolidation of Charles V and the Pope? Wilhelm II and Pius X?

I want to call my Alpine Symphony the ‘Anti-Christ’ because of what is there: ethical purification out of one’s own agency, liberation through one’s work, and the adoration of eternal, splendid nature.”

Listeners to this massive Mahlerian extravaganza of sound, description, experience, and color, to this homage to the lost colleague, and who have an acquaintance with the very last period of Strauss’s music, will recognize the lifelong debt that Strauss possessed to classicism. In the end it was Mozart rather than Wagner who remained his guide, and in that debt to Mozart was a cultural conservatism that kept Strauss from looking beyond the Alps or even Italy. The son of Bavarian business folk, Strauss had little connection with anything that could remotely be considered exotic. It would be left to Mahler the outsider, the discomforted Jew from the non-German speaking realms of the Habsburg Empire who struggled for acceptance in an anti-Semitic Europe, to look in his later years to China and to the exotic as fresh forces of musical form and material. But as perhaps a final note of irony, the indisputable prophet of a new way Arnold Schoenberg, who owed an enormous personal debt to Mahler, was also helped and influenced by Strauss, to whose work he referred constantly in his 1911 “Treatise on Harmony.” Aus Italien and An Alpine Symphony are peaks in the startling career of the last great exponent of a uniquely European cultural language, who during the nineteenth century reached the height of his flexibility and capacity to mirror and comment on the human experience. But as Schoenberg knew, unlike Mahler Strauss stuck to the self-contained, closed formalism that music made uniquely possible. Indeed Schoenberg would formulate a philosophy of modernism that was, technically speaking, more Straussian than Mahlerian.

As these two works by Strauss on this afternoon’s program suggest, this fin-de-siécle European tradition of instrumental music sought to celebrate the individual in the massive expanse of landscape and world around him. These works were written at the height of the conflict between the urban and the vanishing rural landscape. Strauss’s musical evocations, however, are not critical of man’s engagement with nature, and do not seek to render the individual meaningless and irrelevant, but instead grant his agency in understanding the world around him as observer and artist. Rather, as in the opening of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, Strauss, using music as his medium, followed Nietzsche by inverting the idea of the individual who thanked the sun for smiling on him. Instead Strauss offers us the conception that the sun owes a debt to the individual for constructing meaning in such a way as to grace nature with sacred significance.