Music for the stage
Strauss considered his operas to be his major contribution to the 20th century, and from Salome to Capriccio he averaged a new opera every two to three years. The two operatic ventures that predate Salome, however, were less than successful. Encouraged by Ritter, he began sketching his own libretto for Guntram in late 1887, and the work, both its text and music, is unthinkable without the legacy of Wagner. But it is no mere copy of Wagner: Wagnerian literary and musical styles from various periods, from Tannhäuser to Parsifal, are often interlaced in critical fashion, and the work as a whole has a distinctly un-Wagnerian quality. Indeed the ending, where Guntram seeks redemption by abandoning his fraternal order and his art, can be read as an abandonment of Wagnerian metaphysics. That is certainly how Ritter interpreted it and, as a result, his intense friendship with Strauss was damaged irreparably. If the reception at the work's Weimar première in 1894 was lukewarm, the more important Munich première during the next season was an outright failure. Strauss was dismayed by the negative reaction of the musicians, the vehemence of the press and the duplicity of the Munich Hofoper management. This experience of the strong conservative elements in the Bavarian capital is central to an understanding of his later development, for it rekindled a dormant love-hate relationship with the city of his birth, a relationship that endured to the end. But the setback made him recognize that he was no librettist, see the danger of getting too near the Wagnerian shadow and realize the harshness of Munich's philistinism, which would serve as the subject for his next opera, Feuersnot.
This one-act work, too, is unthinkable without Wagner, especially in its clever and numerous tongue-in-cheek musical quotations; but now Strauss is engaged in the Eulenspiegel-like world of satire as he pokes fun at the citizens of medieval Munich, a setting owing much to Die Meistersinger. His librettist was Ernst von Wolzogen, a satirical playwright and later founder of the Berlin Überbrettl cabaret, who based his text on the Flemish legend The Extinguished Fire of Audenaarde, in which a young man is rejected and humiliated by the woman he tries to woo. The hero tells his woes to a magician, who extinguishes all fire in the town: only when the object of the young man's affection is herself humiliated can fire be restored. Strauss and Wolzogen moved the setting to Munich and the magician, not seen in the operatic version, became a thinly disguised Wagner, and the young man, his apprentice, an even more thinly disguised Strauss. ‘When love is united with the magic of genius’, Wolzogen remarked, ‘even the most annoying philistine must see the light’. Seldom performed outside Germany, this fascinating work features waltzes parodied in a manner that foreshadows Der Rosenkavalier, and it requires a chorus of great technical skill, especially in the difficult children's parts. It had its première in Dresden on 21 November 1901 and, given the bizarre sexual content (much of it unstageable), had trouble with the censors from the very beginning.
Censorship and scandal were the norm for innovatory art at the turn of the century, and Strauss's next opera, Salome, with its unsettling blend of oriental exoticism and sexual depravity, would not disappoint. Lust, incest, decapitation and necrophilia joined with sinuous chromaticism and dazzling orchestration to create a work that provoked simultaneous fascination and revulsion. Strauss became interested in the Wilde play as early as 1902, and seeing Gertrude Eysoldt in Max Reinhardt's Berlin production a year later strengthened his resolve. Dissatisfied with a German versified version of the text, he decided to set the play directly, in Hedwig Lachmann's translation, making his own cuts and alterations (fig.8). Above all he was impressed by the text's contrasting images as well as its symmetry: Herod, Jochanaan, the Jews; Salome's three seduction songs with Herod's three persuasive speeches; Salome's ostinato ‘Ich will den Kopf des Jochanaan!’; and, of course, her erotic Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome's disturbing final monologue, where she becomes increasingly detached from the outer world, is one of the great culminating scenes in opera. Strauss remarked that it was easy to say after the fact that Wilde's play was ‘crying out for music’: ‘That [music] had to be discovered’.
In the autumn of 1905 Strauss once again saw Eysoldt in Berlin in a Reinhardt production, this time of Hofmannsthal's Elektra, a Freudian interpretation of Sophocles' tragedy. He was rivetted by its use of gesture, the concentration of action and the steadily rising tension towards Electra's dance after her father's murder has been avenged. He was immediately struck by the musical possibilities and contacted Hofmannsthal for permission to use the text. Numerous parallels have been drawn between Salome and Elektra: both works feature a strong female protagonist consumed by an idée fixe, both culminate in dance and both heroines are finally undone by their neurotic fixations. Those similarities caused Strauss, who preferred contrasting adjacent operas, to hesitate momentarily, and it took a determined Hofmannsthal to keep him on course. If Elektra is performed less often than Salome, it is because it contains Strauss's most difficult soprano role. The singer is on stage for every scene save the first, and she must do constant battle with a tumultuous orchestra, which proudly displays an ardent young composer's skill in handling leitmotifs. The opera is arch-shaped, the keystone being the central confrontation between Electra and Clytemnestra, which is the tensest scene in any Strauss work and certainly the most daring in terms of its hyperchromatic harmonic language. Years later Strauss was embarrassed that much of the singing was ‘handicapped by instrumental polyphony’, and he later suggested – tongue firmly in cheek – that it should be conducted like Mendelssohn, as ‘fairy music’.
But it was the world of Mozart, not Mendelssohn, that inspired his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier (1909–10), set in 18th-century Vienna. This was his first true collaboration with Hofmannsthal, and though the libretto bears an intentional resemblance to Da Ponte's Le nozze di Figaro it conflates a wide range of sources, including Beaumarchais, Molière, Hogarth and even Die Meistersinger. It also unites comic elements with themes of profound seriousness. Strauss chose a musical language beyond the chromaticism of Salome and the dissonance of Elektra, and, as a result, Der Rosenkavalier represents a critical multilayering of musical styles – referring to Mozart, Johann Strauss and Verdi – and a modernist preoccupation with the dilemma of history. It is an opera about time and transformation on multiple levels. In its very opening lines (‘What you were, what you are – that nobody knows, that no-one can explain’), Octavian transforms the verb ‘to be’ from the past to the present tense. In Act 1 Baron Ochs boasts that he is ‘Jupiter blessed with a thousand forms’, but it is Octavian who takes on various transformations throughout the opera: as the Marschallin's adolescent lover, as her chambermaid, as a rose cavalier and, by the end, as a wiser young man.
To Hofmannsthal the miracle of life is that an old love can die, while a new one can arise from its ashes; yet in this transformation, which requires us to forget, we still preserve our essence. How is it that – in the same body – we are what we once were, now are and will become? This great mystery of life is, in one way or another, a theme that permeates much of Hofmannsthal's work. The Marschallin ponders this enigma in her poignant monologue ending Act 1, one of the opera's great moments in both score and libretto. Beyond the monologue, the delightfully anachronistic 19th-century waltzes, the magical presentation of the rose in Act 2 and the sublime final trio of Act 3 constitute some of Strauss's best-loved music. Yet the popularity of excerpts, independent of the whole, has overshadowed the theatrical brilliance and modernity of the work. Strauss, the lover of parody, pastiche and contrasts, had found his ideal librettist.
Ariadne auf Naxos (1911–12, rev. 1916), like Der Rosenkavalier, is a remarkably modern theatrical piece which, in its historicism, exploits an established canon as a source of parody. The opera forges a new relationship between composer, performer and audience, for without the audience's knowledge of tradition, parody cannot function. If in Rosenkavalier Strauss alludes to the style of other composers, Ariadne quotes specific musical works: Harlequin's song (‘Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen’) is based on the opening theme of Mozart's A major Piano Sonata k331, and the melody of the Nymphs' trio (‘Töne, töne, süsse Stimme’) comes from Schubert's Wiegenlied (‘Schlafe, schlafe, holder, süsser Knabe’). Although Zerbinetta's famous coloratura aria makes no direct quotations, Strauss's letters to Hofmannsthal make it clear from the outset that he looked to Bellini, Donizetti and others as stylistic models.
The opera within the opera juxtaposes the worlds of opera seria and commedia dell'arte, and the vivacious prologue of the revised version presents a behind-the-scenes view of the operatic stage. The work's mix and fragmentation of elements (e.g. the everyday world of the Prologue against the loftier Opera) foreshadows opera that other composers were to write in the 1920s: it offers a complex amalgam of contrasting literary and musical styles that, at face value, appear to undermine its coherence. In the hands of lesser artists, uniting these jarring contrasts might have proved an impossible task. But Strauss's penchant for accommodating the trivial alongside the exalted made him the ideal match for Hofmannsthal, whose chief aim in Ariadne was to ‘build on contrasts, to discover, above these contrasts, the harmony of the whole’. Ariadne continues Hofmannsthal's preoccupation with the mystery of transformation: through Ariadne's love, Bacchus is transfigured, and Ariadne, who had longed for death in the wake of Theseus's departure, is herself transformed by embracing Bacchus and life.
Strauss's incidental music for the Molière play of the first version of Ariadne was not wasted, for it was used in a revised adaptation of the play that included pantomime and dance, though it is heard most often in the form of an orchestral suite. Gesture and dance were two modes of artistic expression of central importance to both Strauss and his collaborator. Indeed, Hofmannsthal's very first letter to the composer (11 November 1900) concerned a possible ballet scenario: at the time Strauss was already at work on a ballet of his own, Kythere, though it was never finished. Thus it was probably inevitable that Hofmannsthal, who viewed gesture as the purest form of communication, would ultimately approach Strauss with another ballet proposal, first Orest und die Furien (which Strauss rejected in 1912) and then Josephslegende (1912–14). The Joseph project, which included the significant collaboration of Hofmannsthal's friend Harry Graf Kessler, was planned for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with Nizhinsky in the title role and choreography by Fokine. By the time of the staging Nizhinsky had fallen out with the company, and the Paris première of 1914 featured Leonid Massine as Joseph. The exotic, oriental extravagance of the score recalls Salome, as does the erotic conflict between the chaste Joseph and the seductress Potiphar's Wife. The score, which incorporates material from Strauss's unfinished Kythere, foreshadows some of the more exotic moments in Die Frau ohne Schatten, especially in its timbral qualities, with the use of harp, celesta and first violins in three parts.
Serious work on Die Frau ohne Schatten began in the same year, 1914. In its dense orchestration, rich polyphony and intricate symbolism, this is Strauss's most complex stage work yet in many ways also his most personal. Though the subject concerns the shadowless Empress's search for humanity, the subplot of the Dyer, his wife and their troubled marriage touched Strauss more deeply than any other aspect of the story. His own marriage was troubled during this time, and Hofmannsthal hinted at this domestic friction when he suggested that the Dyer's wife could be modelled ‘in all discretion’ after Strauss's. Significantly, the ‘symphonic fantasy’ derived from the opera in 1946 presents themes related primarily to this aspect of the plot. Die Frau ohne Schatten is as difficult to cast as it is to stage, for it requires an ensemble of strong singers and is both complex and expensive to produce. But after the composer's death this work, always among his favourites, finally earned its deserved international acclaim.
Die Frau ohne Schatten was followed by three ballet projects: the unfortunate Schlagobers (1921–2), the Couperin Tanzsuite (1923, only choreographed as part of Verklungene Feste in 1941) and a reworking of Beethoven's Die Ruinen von Athen (1924).
Strauss seems to have wearied of late Romanticism. ‘Let us resolve’, he wrote to Hofmannsthal as early as 1916, ‘that Die Frau ohne Schatten will be the last Romantic opera. Hopefully you will have a fine, happy idea that will definitely help set me out on the new road’. But Strauss was to go that road alone, to Intermezzo (1918–23), a comedy that again featured his wife Pauline as model for the leading female role. The work was based on an incident that occurred when Pauline mistakenly accused her husband of philandering while on tour. Strauss called his work a ‘bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes’ and firmly believed that he had established a new operatic genre (Spieloper) for the 20th century, so much so that he felt compelled to write a preface to the score. The innovatory aspects of the work lay in its realistic, contemporary subject matter, in its separation of conversational and lyrical impulses (by putting the latter in the interludes), and in its quasi-cinematic dramaturgy (13 short scenes in just two acts). Opinions among contemporary critics were mixed, but most praised the delightful interludes, which became so popular that Strauss published four of them in a concert arrangement nine years after the opera's première.
The two-act Die ägyptische Helena (1923–7) completes Strauss's trilogy of marriage operas and, in doing so, returns to the more elevated world of Greek myth. But the composer, encouraged by his comic Intermezzo and feeling destined to become, in his own words, the ‘Offenbach of the 20th century’, this time sought not tragedy but mythological operetta, and Hofmannsthal, eager to lure him away from Wagnerian ‘erotic screaming’, was all in favour. Especially in its densely symbolic second act, however, the work was to prove far removed from La belle Hélène. Indeed, it explores many important themes central to Ariadne and Die Frau ohne Schatten: memory, marital fidelity and the restoration of trust. Hofmannsthal considered Helena to be his finest libretto and, though it has been ridiculed by many commentators, it remains underrated. Moreover, as in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Strauss renders complicated myth on a powerful human level. The work was composed during his Vienna period, and he had specific Staatsoper singers in mind, such as Maria Jeritza, though she did not in fact sing the title role at the première. The second act was revised for a revival in Salzburg in 1933, but the work has never become part of the basic repertory.
Strauss and Hofmannsthal's final collaboration, Arabella (1929–32), was a different matter. Helena had failed to satisfy Strauss's desire for lightness: he believed he still had within him another Viennese comedy, without the ‘mistakes and longueurs’ of Der Rosenkavalier, which he nonetheless considered his high-water mark. Arabella marks a return to Vienna, but to the Vienna of the 1860s, the ‘Ringstrasse period’ when the Austrian capital experienced its final upsurge. In constructing his libretto, Hofmannsthal returned to two earlier works: an unfinished play, Der Fiaker als Graf, and a short story, Lucidor. The play provided setting and atmosphere (especially the Fiaker ball), but the essence of the story came from Lucidor which, however, focussed attention more on Arabella's younger sister than on Arabella herself. Strauss sensed this problem in the first libretto draft and asked that the title character be given a soliloquy to close Act 1. Hofmannsthal's solution (‘Mein Elemer’) delighted the composer, who immediately sent a telegram of congratulations to his librettist. But the telegram remained unopened. Hofmannsthal had suffered a fatal stroke the day it arrived.
Work on Arabella then progressed slowly, and the stunned composer felt artistically isolated, even disorientated. Though Act 1 was in good shape, Acts 2 and 3 were doubtless to have been further refined, and Strauss could not bring himself to alter what he considered Hofmannsthal's ‘final bequest’. Dramaturgical problems in Act 2 notwithstanding, Strauss created an opera of compelling lyricism and poignancy. The Arabella-Zdenka duet of Act 1, infused with the flavour of Hungarian folk music, is one of Strauss's finest. Act 2 features another memorable Hungarian duet, for Arabella and Mandryka, as well as some remarkable coloratura from the Fiakermilli. But the greatest moment of all is the final scene of the work, which opens with a downward sweep in the orchestra in a gesture recalling the song Allerseelen (1885). Arabella descends the staircase to offer a glass of pure water to her betrothed, a ‘Hungarian custom’ invented by Hofmannsthal, just as the ‘Viennese tradition’ of the silver rose had been his device. Yet, despite her gesture of submission, Arabella is a woman fully in control of her surroundings throughout the work, ‘an entirely modern character’, according to Hofmannsthal. Indeed, in the final line of the opera she informs Mandryka that she can only be herself: ‘Nimm mich wie ich bin’.
As with so many of Strauss's collaborations with Hofmannsthal, Arabella changed as it was being made, and though not without its humorous moments, it is not the light comedy he intended. Indeed, his only work in the true buffa tradition was his next, Die schweigsame Frau (1933–4). And where Arabella was composed during some of Strauss's darkest personal moments, this next project found him at his brightest. Not since Der Rosenkavalier had he shown such unbridled enthusiasm for an operatic project, and he declared Zweig's libretto, based on Ben Jonson's The Silent Woman (1609), a ‘born comic opera … more suitable for music than even Figaro and the Barber of Seville’. However, the text's closest affinity is to Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Both Don Pasquale and Morosus, the leading male figure in Die schweigsame Frau, are crotchety old bachelors upon whom friends and relatives play abundant good-natured tricks. There are numerous and amusing allusions to Italian operas, in both words and music, throughout a work that contains some of Strauss's lightest music for the stage. Indeed, the consistent parlando style, with only rare moments of lyricism, has made this opera, especially for non-German-speaking audiences, somewhat tedious. Strauss nonetheless was delighted with the result and always considered it one of his finest stage comedies.
Zweig, unable to work again with Strauss, proved true to his promise to help Gregor in writing the libretto for the composer's next opera, Friedenstag (1935–6): the idea was his, and he offered advice right up to the final revision. Friedenstag, Strauss's first one-act opera since Elektra, occupies a unique place in his output. Inspired chiefly by the female voice, Strauss now found himself writing mostly for male singers, and he no doubt drew on his earlier experience of composing for men's choruses. The music of Friedenstag is dark and brooding, lacking the warmth of his other operas; the only exception is the role of Marie, the wife of the steadfast Commandant and the only solo soprano in the opera. Ironic allusions to the march, in a distinctly Mahlerian guise, suggest the distance between Strauss and his military material, for what had attracted him to the libretto was its hope of peace between opposing German forces. After the two rival commandants embrace, Strauss composed an extended C major choral finale, a conscious allusion to the end of Fidelio. With its paucity of stage action and extensive choral treatment, the work is perhaps as much a scenic cantata as an opera, and its rare performances have usually been in concert form.
Daphne (1936–7), its intended partner, marks a return to a theme dear to Strauss's heart, that of transformation. Unlike the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten, who desires humanity, the nature-worshipping Daphne disdains it, and by the end of the opera she is transformed into a laurel tree. The flaws in the unwieldy first version of the libretto were immediately clear to Strauss: with its lack of focus, human conflict and sense of shape, it failed to suggest felicitous musical possibilities. But after extensive revision and outside advice from Zweig, Krauss and others, a usable libretto was crafted. Even Gregor's beloved final chorus was scrapped, for Strauss was far more interested in the process of transformation than in a stiff choral finale. The splendid music he wrote for this scene develops into a miniature tone poem with wordless vocal obbligato, combining a seemingly effortless interweaving of returning motifs with skilful harmonic pacing. The enchanting orchestral sound is at once rich and refined – a hallmark of Strauss's late period.
The roots of his next opera, Die Liebe der Danae (1938–40), reach back to 1920, when, after the tortuous Frau ohne Schatten, Strauss wanted to write a lighter, more cheerful work. Hofmannsthal had responded with a scenario, Danae oder Vernunftheirat, that conflated two myths, Danae's visitation by Jupiter in the guise of golden rain and the legend of Midas's golden touch. As much as Strauss admired many details of the sketch, there were too many insurmountable dramaturgical problems, and he became increasingly preoccupied with his own Intermezzo. Hofmannsthal's next offering to Strauss was to be a ‘light mythology’ based on an entirely different source, Die ägyptische Helena. Danae was soon forgotten. But by 1936 the Thirty Years War and Greek tragedy had taken their toll on Strauss, who asked Gregor to work up the Hofmannsthal sketch, even though Gregor had earlier shown the composer a Danae scenario of his own. The fragile satire of Hofmannsthal's draft was beyond Gregor's grasp, whose job was further complicated by the very dramaturgical problems that had vexed Strauss in 1920. After long, diligent work, and much outside assistance, a libretto was finally forged.
With its numerous transformations and sizable vocal demands on a large singing cast, Die Liebe der Danae is a challenge to stage and cast, and therefore rarely performed. The title role was written for Krauss's wife, Viorica Ursuleac, and there are ample instances of the quiet, sustained high-range singing that made her famous. The role of Jupiter is a tour de force among Strauss's baritone roles, for not only is the range rather high (certain sections are routinely transposed) but the music demands great vocal agility, especially in the final ‘Maia Erzählung’, one of Strauss's best baritone monologues. Despite the work's various contributors – Gregor, Zweig, Krauss, Wallerstein – one detects the spirit of Hofmannsthal in its broad themes. Not unlike Die ägyptische Helena, the opera focusses on marriage, fidelity and memory. Moreover, neither opera turned out to be the mythological operetta that was first envisioned. In the end Danae chooses love over money and power; Jupiter renounces earthly things and, after blessing the union of Danae and Midas, he returns to Olympus. In 1944 an aged, resigned Strauss strongly identified with his Jupiter, and after the dress rehearsal, on August 16, he even suggested that the ‘sovereign gods of Olympus’ should have called him up as well.
Though he often referred to Danae as his last opera, his final completed work for the stage was a ‘Conversation Piece for Music’, Capriccio (1940–41) – a work that was intended neither for the regular opera house nor for the normal opera audience. Inspired by a libretto (Casti's Prima la musica, dopo le parole) that Zweig had come across in the 1930s, the work is an extended one-act debate about words and music. The issue of textual audibility became an increasing preoccupation for Strauss throughout his operatic career, and from Elektra to Daphne he had come a long way in his self-described ‘struggle’ for balance between singers and orchestra. Those two works call for orchestras of similar size, but the latter – emphasizing clarity, lyricism and transparency – is far from the turbulent sonic realm of the former. Important milestones along the way in this evolution include Ariadne, Intermezzo and Die schweigsame Frau.
Set during the time of the Querelle des Bouffons, Capriccio is rich in both historical allusions and self-references: we hear quotations from Gluck, Piccinni and Rameau, textual references to Metastasio, Pascal and Ronsard and self-borrowings from Ariadne, Daphne and Die Krämerspiegel. Moreover, the characters are all allegorical: Flamand (music), Olivier (words), La Roche (stage direction), Clairon (acting) and the Count and Countess (patrons). The title-page suggests that the libretto was a collaboration between Strauss and Krauss, but there were other unmentioned ingredients in the final recipe: Zweig, who rediscovered the Casti text, Gregor, who tried and failed to carry it out, and Hans Swarovsky, who found the Ronsard sonnet on which the work centres. Not unlike Act 3 of Die Meistersinger, where we witness the genesis of Walther's Prize Song, Capriccio also offers a view of compositional process. First the Count reads the sonnet alone; then it is read by its ‘author’, Olivier, while Flamand improvises at the keyboard; finally Flamand sings it to the Countess. The last of the 13 scenes marks the sonnet's final destination in its upward journey from prosaic baritonal readings through a musical setting sung by a tenor to Strauss's favourite medium, the soprano voice. But before we arrive there we must get through the pivotal ninth scene, which Strauss labels ‘Fuge (Diskussion über das Thema: Wort oder Ton)’. The centrepiece of this scene is La Roche's monologue, where he asks, and Strauss with him: ‘Where is the [modern] masterpiece that speaks to the hearts of people, in which their souls are seen reflected? Where is it? I cannot discover it, although I keep searching. They make fun of the old and create nothing new’. An extended orchestral introduction (the ‘moonlight music’) brings us to the last scene, where the Countess must finally choose between poet and composer. To make up her mind she sings through the sonnet one last time. Whom will she choose? Strauss's final curtain seems to leave the question open. Yet this final scene, one of his great soprano monologues, radiates with some of his finest composition, proclaiming clearly that it is not words but music that reigns supreme.
Works are given the no. assigned them in Franz Trenner: Richard Strauss: Werkverzeichnis (Munich, 1993, 3/1999) (TrV)
Principal publishers: Boosey & Hawkes, Fürstner, Universal
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Strauss, Richard: Works
Strauss, Richard: Works