Article by Boyd D. Cathey
The author uses Richard Strauss as an example of preserving the best of Western culture as he stands against “the onrushing decline of Western music and art during the first half of the twentieth century.” He succeeded, but the obligation now extends to another generation. His Vier Letze Lieder can be taken as a farewell to all that is great in our tradition or they can serve as an incitement not to accept a farewell.
For a number of years I’ve greatly admired and enjoyed the music of the German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). In his early years prior to the First World War, he was considered forward-looking, even musically avant-garde. Indeed, the aged defender of the German classical tradition—and another favorite—Max Bruch (d. 1920), found Strauss’ compositions too advanced and straying from that tradition.
Yet Strauss was formed in the richly productive culture of southern Germany, Bavaria and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and, even if he experimented with harmony and vocal lines in his operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), he never really departed from that early musical formation and an inspiration that he drew from his love of his native Bavaria and of imperial Vienna and the brilliant society that accompanied and informed it. Son of noted musician and horn player in the Bavarian Court Opera Franz Strauss, from an early age, Richard received a thorough and complete musical education, demonstrating extraordinary talent in composition when only in his teens. By the late 1880s and 1890s, his symphonic tone poems, including Don Juan (1888), Death and Transfiguration (1889), and Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) had established his fame throughout Europe and the United States. But it was later, in opera, that his eventual and permanent renown and preeminence would be secured.
In many ways as I listen to Strauss, I hear a great champion of Western culture, standing athwart the onrushing decline of Western music and art during the first half of the twentieth century.
Recently, I went back to listen in detail to several of Strauss’s vocal works. Re-hearing them, I reflected on their significance and resonance as our society sinks deeper into cultural decay.
Undoubtedly, Strauss’ most famous operatic work is Der Rosenkavalier (Dresden, 1911)—The Cavalier of the Rose. With a superb libretto by the great German dramatist and essayist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who shared Strauss’ conservative convictions,
Der Rosenkavalier is a gloriously sentimental story of love and nobility, set in Vienna in the mid-18th century. Like some of Mozart’s stage works, it is essentially a comedy of manners, but one that pays deep and wistful honor to a bygone era and to a cultivated society that seemed to be disappearing even as Strauss was composing it. Indeed, through its comedic action runs, as well, a continuing, not so concealed sense of regret, a sense of loss of those customs, those standards and beliefs, those artistic traditions which made society worth fighting for.
The famous Act II waltz-sequence, with buffoonish character Baron Ochs dancing about, is justly famous. But even more so is the scintillating and wistful final scene, a trio, in which the Marschallin gives up her young lover Octavian to her rival Sophie, with both resignation and a special dignity that characterized the age.
The famous color film from the early 1960s with the legendary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf remains a remarkable work of art in itself.
Der Rosenkavalier, Final Trio, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, Anneliese Rothenberger; Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Chorus, in a film directed by Paul Czinner, 1962
Another Strauss work, the monumental mythical opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten [“The Wife without a Shadow”], premiered in Vienna in October 1919 right after the utter devastation of World War I (again with von Hofmannsthal the librettist): it could well be a musical metaphor for his very traditional view of marriage, and serve as an affirmation of life as a sacred gift from the Creator, as it is a passionate defense in music of childbirth and motherhood, and per extension, of the family. The story is a combination of fantasy and myth, with strongly symbolic elements that have much to say to our present-day society.
The main character, the Empress, is barren—symbolized by her lack of a shadow—and has every chance to seize a peasant woman’s shadow, thus enabling her to become fertile and have children. But coming to understand the sublime love that exists between the peasant woman and her husband Barak and the importance of children to them, she cannot bring herself to follow through with such an evil act, even when the life of her husband, the Emperor, depends on it. Fathoming this, she summons up moral courage and utters a refusal to take the peasant woman’s shadow: “Ich will nicht” (“I will not”). And because she now understands the importance of the unbreakable marital bond between husband and wife, and the significance of the procreative act and childbirth, miraculously, she too then is granted a shadow and the ability to bear children. The opera ends with a monumental chorus of children yet to be born and with both couples happily embracing. It is a moving story line.
In certain ways, it might serve as a musical emblem for the contemporary pro-life movement.
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