The late Strauss, 1930–49
Though the 1930s was Strauss's most prolific decade as an opera composer, this was also a time of personal, professional and political crisis. It began with him bereft of his collaborator, and work on Arabella, not surprisingly, progressed slowly; the score was not completed until the autumn of 1932. By then he had already met someone he believed a worthy successor: Stefan Zweig, the Austrian novelist and biographer. However, events surrounding the Arabella première (1933) signalled grim political realities that would ultimately force Zweig out of the picture. Hitler had become German chancellor, and Busch, the opera's co-dedicatee, who had been chosen to conduct the première, was forced out of his Dresden post; the opera was conducted instead by Clemens Krauss. During the late 1920s Strauss's negative feelings regarding the National Socialists were known only to his close friends and colleagues, and later he could not imagine, despite their political success, that they would impede his career, especially given the fact that in the autumn of 1933 he was appointed president of the Reichsmusikkammer. By the late 1920s and early 30s, artists of various political viewpoints had become disillusioned with the Weimar government's ineptitude in cultural affairs, and in 1933–4, before the realities of Kristallnacht, it is not difficult to conceive how some, including Strauss, could have thought the Reichsmusikkammer might improve musical life. One positive consequence of Strauss's influence came early in his post as president, when he was finally able to secure full copyright protection for all German composers – something he had not achieved during the Weimar period.
It has always been difficult to gain a clear understanding of Strauss during this period; our picture of him has been obscured either by uncritical rationalizing and omission on the one hand or by simplistic accusation on the other. He was surely no political hero during the period of National Socialism, but neither was he a Nazi sympathizer or anti-Semite. He was a composer who, until 1933, had always been able to put his personal and professional life above politics. The Toscanini episode serves as an unfortunate case in point. Shortly after the deaths, in 1930, of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner, Strauss tried to repair decades of bad feelings between himself and Bayreuth. By replacing Toscanini, who had resigned in protest from the Wagner festival in 1933, Strauss saw an opportunity to make a gesture of goodwill towards the Wagner family, yet in doing so he clearly chose to ignore the fact that this played right into the hands of the National Socialists, who were eagerly seeking international legitimacy. Indeed, the more he tried to ignore political events around him, the more politics seemed to invade his world, a world he felt to be removed from the rules of the regime: refusing to call Hitler ‘der Führer’, for instance, was not so much an act of civil disobedience as an expression of artistic ego.
During the early 1930s he focussed his attention on composing Zweig's libretto Die schweigsame Frau, but as he neared completion and began thinking about future projects, he refused to accept that a Jew could no longer be his collaborator. The composer's reaction to Nazi anti-Semitism is revealing, for he dwelt not so much on its global evil but on how it affected his career. An impassioned letter to Zweig that insulted the Nazi regime was intercepted by the Gestapo, and as a result of this naive gesture Strauss was forced to resign the official post he had held for nearly two years. Die schweigsame Frau, first performed in Dresden under Karl Böhm in 1935, was banned after four performances. But Strauss did not sever his relationship with the Reich, and in various ways – by conducting his Olympische Hymne in 1936, composing the Japanische Festmusik in 1940 and cultivating relationships with specific Nazi officials – he tried to stay in the good graces of the government. Without such influence in high places, the potential for the persecution of his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandsons (officially classified as ‘grade-one half-breeds’) was indeed great. Their protection became an increasing obsession for the composer after the Schweigsame Frau scandal.
It was now clear to him that he needed to look for another librettist; Zweig had suggested, among others, his friend Joseph Gregor, a Viennese theatre historian who fancied himself a librettist. Gregor was not a Hofmannsthal, nor even a Zweig, but he was all Strauss had during a time when, in his 70s, he preferred composing opera to searching for yet another collaborator. Zweig, moreover, promised to help Gregor behind the scenes, and Strauss reluctantly agreed to take him on. The Strauss–Gregor collaboration was a unique working relationship, where the composer assumed almost total artistic control. Having learnt much from Hofmannsthal, he could be blunt and outright insulting to Gregor in order to achieve the required results: sometimes he would rewrite passages of text himself, and he never hesitated to seek outside advice, principally that of Krauss, who worked with him on his final opera, Capriccio.
Gregor, who wrote three texts for Strauss, ranks next to Hofmannsthal in libretto output for the composer. The first Gregor opera was based on a subject suggested by Zweig: the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. This pacifist work, Friedenstag, though completed in 1936, was not performed until 1938, by which time Germany was preparing for world war; once the war had started, performances were curtailed. Shortly after finishing the final sketches for the opera, Strauss began composing a cello concerto, his first foray into this genre since the horn concerto of 1883; he never completed it. The subtitle to the planned work reflects his feelings in the wake of the Schweigsame Frau affair: ‘Struggle of the artistic spirit [solo cello] against pseudo-heroism, resignation and melancholy [orchestra]’. In the same sketchbook, drafts for two pieces ultimately not included in the Drei Männerchöre (1935) also suggest his despair and frustation with the Nazi regime. In both instances we see him as an artist internalizing social forces.
The one-act Friedenstag was planned to form a double bill with Daphne (1936–7), Gregor's only original libretto. This ‘bucolic tragedy’ was the ninth and last Strauss opera to have its première in Dresden and was dedicated to Böhm, who conducted. But the two operas went their separate ways, and Daphne, with its stirring transformation scene at the end, became one of Strauss's best-known late operas. Strauss now felt his tragic vein depleted, and he was reminded of a mythological comedy that Hofmannsthal had sketched shortly before the collaboration on Die ägyptische Helena. He asked Gregor to forge a ‘cheerful mythology’ from this fragment, but the result was a work far more serious than originally intended. Indeed, these were hardly cheerful times. During work on the new opera, Die Liebe der Danae (1938–40), Strauss's daughter-in-law was placed under house arrest in Garmisch, and Strauss appealed to Heinz Tietjen, the Berlin Intendant, who had high political connections, to help ensure her and his grandsons' safety.
Danae was scheduled for a 1944 première in Salzburg, but cancelled after a dress rehearsal by an order from Goebbels to close all theatres in preparation for total war. In the meantime Strauss composed his final opera, Capriccio (1940–41), which had its première in Munich in 1942. By then he and his extended family had been allowed to move back to their Vienna house; Alice and her children were under the unofficial protection of the Viennese Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach. But Vienna proved increasingly unsafe, and Richard and Pauline returned to Garmisch in June 1943, leaving Franz, his wife and their children behind. The composer and his wife returned a year later for a festive week of music celebrating Strauss's 80th birthday, ‘unofficially’ celebrated in the former Austrian capital where, months earlier, the Gestapo had abducted the composer's son and daughter-in-law from their Vienna residence, imprisoning them for two nights. Fame and humiliation became increasingly sharp juxtapositions for Strauss as the war progressed. In 1944, the most that he could hope was for a safe return to Garmisch, where his daughter-in-law was now under house arrest, as she was to remain until the end of the war. He withdrew increasingly from society, re-reading, among other things, the writings of Wagner and the works of Goethe. The destruction of Goethe's house in Weimar, and of the opera houses of Dresden, Munich and Vienna – monuments of his Europe – brought him to utter despair; his Metamorphosen (1945) is a moving testament to his resignation. Throughout his career he spoke of ‘liberation through work’, and his late compositional activity, as well as the writings of various artistic manifestos – plans for rebuilding post-war German cultural life – brought him out of depression from time to time.
Allied forces arrived in Garmisch in late April 1945, and Strauss's villa was declared ‘off limits’ by musically sympathetic military officers who had visited him. One of them was the American oboist John de Lancie, who inspired the Oboe Concerto of 1945. With food and fuel shortages, the coming winter looked grim for the elderly composer and his wife. Moreover, there was no stabilized currency, and Strauss's accounts and future royalties had been frozen. Forced to leave their family behind, they went to Switzerland in October 1945, staying in a hotel in Baden, near Zürich, where they were befriended by the Swiss music critic and the composer's future biographer Willi Schuh. The sale of sketchbooks and manuscripts provided loans and some income; nonetheless, the composer's health declined steadily. In October 1947 a three-week trip to London, his last foreign tour, offered both hard currency and, more important, a transfusion of sorts for the ailing composer (fig.6). He heard excerpts from his operas, tone poems and a complete performance of Elektra for the BBC, and conducted Don Juan, the Burleske, waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier and the Symphonia domestica.
Shortly after his return to Switzerland he completed the Duett-Concertino (1947) for clarinet, bassoon and strings; he was also in the midst of extensive sketching for a chamber opera, Des Esels Schatten, though this was never finished. His main compositional efforts during his final years were four orchestral songs (Im Abendrot, Frühling, Beim Schlafengehen and September) completed between May and September 1948. He had also orchestrated his song Ruhe meine Seele in June of that year – the month he was cleared by a de-Nazification tribunal in Munich. In December he underwent bladder surgery and was in hospital for many weeks. His health rapidly worsened. He returned to Garmisch from Switzerland in May 1949, and on 10 June he conducted in public for the last time: the end of Act 2 of Der Rosenkavalier at the Prinzregententheater in Munich. He suffered a heart attack on 15 August and died of kidney failure shortly after 2 p.m. on 8 September. The final trio of Der Rosenkavalier was conducted by Georg Solti at a memorial service at the Ostfriedhof in Munich. Strauss's wife died eight months later.
Strauss's compositional career was as long as it was prolific, beginning when he was six and not ending until months before his death at the age of 85. When not composing, his favourite pastime was reading or, especially when on tour, playing the South German card game Skat. He always kept his cards close to his chest, for he was a man of puzzling contradictions: aloof and phlegmatic in life, extroverted and sanguine in art. Averse to the Romantic posture of the artist set apart from worldly life, he cultivated the image of a composer who treated composition as everyday work, as a way of earning a living. But however true this may have been on one level, it was no less a pose, a persona so real to others that he could disappear behind it and gain the seclusion necessary for creative work. In short, no-one was more aware of the disjunction between man and artist than Strauss himself, who revelled in conducting his most expressive musical passages with minimal body gestures and a face devoid of emotion.
At some level, he recognised the inability of contemporary art to maintain any unified mode of expression, and from Der Rosenkavalier onwards he relished creating moments of grandeur only to undercut them, sometimes in the most jarring fashion. Unlike his contemporary Mahler or the younger Schoenberg, who both held to the 19th-century notion of music as a transcendental, metaphysical phenomenon, Strauss faced the problem of modernity straight on, and he did it in a typically dialectical way, using a Wagnerian musical language to discredit a metaphysical philosophy that gave us that very language. Music, he concluded, could be nothing more than music. His attraction to Nietzsche stemmed from a desire to debunk the Schopenhauerian notion of the ‘denial of the Will’ through music; Nietzsche provided the necessary apparatus for his joyful agnosticism.
In an essay written shortly before his death, Strauss lamented the fact that this aspect of modernity – the recognition of an unbreachable gap between the individual and the collective (Adorno's subject-object dichotomy) – went unnoticed in his works. Implicit in this remark was his realization that for a younger generation of composers a new view of modernism had emerged: one that emphasized technical progress, whereby musical style was viewed as evolving necessarily towards atonality. This Schoenbergian ideology, with its firm German-Romantic roots, was alien to Strauss, who recognised a profound disunity in modern life and saw no reason for music to be any different. He treated musical style in an ahistorical, often critical fashion, which prefigures trends of the late 20th century. Adorno and his followers preached the ‘aesthetic immorality’ of continuing to compose tonal music, which meant that Strauss, deemed guilty of musical faults, was the more easily condemned also for political ones.
Music historians often look for inner unity in a composer's output, and in the broader connections between that output and the age. The extensive Straussian repertory, however, which shows a composer equally at ease in the concert hall, recital hall, ballet, cinema and opera house, is resistant to cultural biographers in this regard, especially to those clinging to notions of music as an autonomous, transcendent art. Strauss once suggested that his body of work was one ‘bridged by contrasts’, and indeed there are hardly two temporally adjacent works that continue in the same mode, tragic or comic. Ein Heldenleben is preceded by the anti-heroic Don Quixote; the hyper-symbolic Die Frau ohne Schatten is followed by the light domestic comedy Intermezzo. But in exploring these contrasts one finds intriguing connections: the two tone poems probe and criticize heroism in its various guises, and the two operas explore domestic relationships on metaphysical as well as mundane levels. If there is an important consistency in Strauss's oeuvre, it is in the desire to suggest the profundities and ambiguities in everyday life, even in the apparently banal. The sublime final trio of Der Rosenkavalier is, after all, based on a trivial waltz tune heard earlier in the opera.
Contrasts notwithstanding, there is a coherent shape to Strauss's compositional output, which begins with a focus on instrumental music: solo piano and chamber music at first, then orchestral music by the 1880s. At the turn of the century, after an intense exploration of the tone poem, Strauss moves on to the stage, and opera remains his principal preoccupation over the remaining decades. But after Capriccio (1940–41), the elderly Strauss bade farewell to the theatre and returned to the genres of his youth, such as the wind serenade and the concerto. There were also, of course, the abundant lieder interwoven throughout his career, from the naive youthful pieces to the exalted last orchestral songs. The earthbound composer wrote music that could soar, especially when catalysed by compelling textual or visual images, for he was a literary or pictorial composer in the sense that he required extra-musical images to charge his imagination or challenge his intellect to creativity.