Richard Strauss and the Survival of Western Culture

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.[1] 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,[2]

 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.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=31CtNc0Zp2c%3Ffeature%3Doembed

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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12 Responses to Richard Strauss and the Survival of Western Culture

  1. Avatar Deap says:

    Thank you for exploring this man’s complex and precious works. I initially was captivated when Barbara Tuchman wrote in “The Proud Tower” (Europe in pre-WWI)
    that Strauss wrote “augen-musik” – compositions on paper so complex they could not be performed by an orchestra with normal human dexterity limitations.

    His fellow musicologists could see where he wanted to go musically, but human hands on instruments at that time would never be able to carry it out. Within his body of work I find some I love and some I hate. Some that gave me chills upon first hearing. And some that simply take time to reveal themselves, when first appearing as cacophony.

    At one performance of Der Rosenkavalier at the SF Opera House, we were flattened to the backs of our seats and did not move after the glorious final trio – I still get spontaneous chills just writing about that. What is it about sound waves in certain combinations that go well beyond the ear, into something much deeper and far more visceral than merely auditory.

  2. Avatar O.B. says:

    There are some of us that, while being committed to the restoration of Western civilization, or civilizations – I believe there are two and a half, or three, not sure, of them – which will require a travel into the past as well into a future worthy of living -, do not agree with what is designated as pro-life argumentation.

    At any case, moving towards the core of your piece, I was reading you, and recognizing in the music of Richard Strauss a stance of unashamed solemnity, uprightness, honour. How is it possible that decades have passed without hearing his Metamorphosen. This is a piece for our times. Walk through the shadows, in the present, for later, through cleverness and intuition, being reborn.

  3. Avatar akaPatience says:

    Der Rosenkaalier is a favorite. The beauty of its finale is truly astounding – I get chills just thinking about it. And while Elektra isn’t near the top of my favorites list, I appreciate the absolute tour-de-force required of its its leading soprano. Some degree of tunefulness is key for me – I’ve squirmed through modern and contemporary operas like John Adams’ Nixon in China, and while it’s been my hope to develop an ear and taste for such music, it hasn’t happened yet!

    I kind of feel the same way about Stephen Sondheim’s music. It seems to me his later works are also an acquired taste, enjoyed and celebrated the most by musicians/vocalists who relish the relative challenge in performing them, or audiences with more sophisticated taste than mine – people who attend musical theater more often and who want something different from the usual chestnuts. But again the notion of tunefulness is a deciding factor for me.

    • Avatar Deap says:

      akaPatience, I am in your camp. Some modern opera acts more like a palate cleanser but not a steady diet since I am stuck in the sugary Italian romantics – Puccini, Verdi, and picking carefully around the 19th Century bel canto works. Some French too, of course. But I miss the lusty robustness of sung Italian.

      I found the recent MET production of Brunel’s “The Exterminating Angel” compelling sung drama with musical background sounds, but not one I will ever play for listening pleasure. The surreal story line needed something on the edge musically.

      Richard Strauss is as far as I will go into the more austere non-Italian composers, yet still highly musical. I met his music when living in Switzerland so by then the German language had become much more musical to my ears through every day familiarity. Wagner will grab me powerfully, but honestly with more orchestral appeal than being sung. I have yet to make peace with Mozart, but people tell me to give it time.

      I taught an Elderhostel class for a number of years – Introduction to Puccini Operas. An oft asked question was what is the difference between an opera and a musical.

      My response was (I am not musicologist by any means, only a dedicated listener), if you can sing it in the shower it is a musical; it you cannot then it is an opera. Musicals connect tunes; opera is the development of musical themes over several acts.

      (Exceptions abound of course, but this was a lay introduction class. Plus, what did I know?)

      Yes, Four Last Songs – wistfulness is the perfect description. May they be the last sounds I hear as I go into to the great beyond – or as Puccini composed for Liu in Turandot – the night that has no morning ……

      • Avatar akaPatience says:

        Deap, while my recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni features Bryn Terfel, maybe this video of the gorgeous Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the seducer could possibly win you over:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iZHwbxLBO0

        • Avatar Deap says:

          Thanks fr the recommendation. I will give it a try. I do admit Mozart has his moments – parts of Cosi and Zauberflaute are now welcomed, and Don Giovani has great dramatic appeal…..so perhaps over time and more exposure he will worm his way into my soul.

          That he was an exceptional musical genius is not in dispute. He was a gift for all ages to come—but for he is more tedious than tuneful. But then I don’t like Jane Austin either. (!!)

  4. Avatar José L. Campos says:

    It is so comforting to know there are people somewhere that are moved by the same manifestations of humanity that I am moved by. It is a communion of spirits. I am in my 87th year and listen to Beim Schlafengehen often. The solo violin moves me. In the present desolation the publication of ancient Greek poetry and romantic German verses keeps alive the hope that not everything is lost. Thank you.

  5. Avatar Peter Hodges says:

    Mahler and Strauss were the end of Western Art Music. Mahler 9, Electra, Salome…these were the epitome of what could be done with an orchestra and still be sensible art. Listen to Salome sing to the severed head of Jon the Baptist…this is also a parable on our civilastion. They might have gone farther, but Mahler died and Strauss reverted to more traditional music. Until on his deathbed he wrote Metamorpheson. And of course, the Four Last Songs. You will never hear the German language in such beauty.

  6. Avatar wtofd says:

    Thanks for this piece.

    Here is the documentary mentioned in Note 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0ImK5CpSmo

    And I saw Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met. Beautiful production.

  7. Avatar Clueless Joe says:

    To echo Peter Hodges, when reading that piece, I was actually thinking that before Strauss’ swan song of classical music, there already was a similar “end of an era” composition that definitely had the same mindset and intent, though interestingly that one was composed before Europe’s terrible collapse: I’m speaking of Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (1909), which ended with Der Abschied (the Farwell) – one of his last compositions and one he might have feared, just like with his 9nth symphony a few months later, would actually be his last piece.
    Though one can always argue, I suppose, that all of this had already been foreseen and foretold in Isoldes Liebstod…

  8. Avatar Twit says:

    My great uncle studied music with/from Richard Strauss in 1945-46. He (my uncle) was a Viennese Jew and a great pianist who played with the Vienna Philharmonic at age 12 and emigrated to the US with the help of Fritz Kreisler. He was then drafted and served in Patton’s army as a “Ritchie Boy” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritchie_Boys) intelligence / psyops specialist. After VE day he finagled his way to be stationed near Strauss’s home so he could study with him in the evenings (days spent interrogating captured SS officers). Sadly, my uncle died in suspicious circumstances shortly before he was due to return to the US, so we only have a few light sketches of this time, but I think of him every time I hear Strauss.

  9. Avatar Stephanie says:

    The First Waltz Sequence from “Der Rosenkavalier” is not as well known as the second but it is a lushly beautiful piece of music, with the waltz seeming to waver and almost disintegrate. It was set for dancing (not on pointe), gorgeously, by George Balanchine, a great master of the previous century who is now getting the woke fish eye in some quarters, in his “Vienna Waltzes.” His setting can be seen on YouTube with its original ballerina, Suzanne Farrell.

    Balanchine also made ballets to Strauss’ “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” and “Tyl Eulenspiegel” but they didn’t stay in the repertory. At one time he wanted to do a ballet to “Don Juan” but abandoned the idea. I’d like to have seen that one.

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