Richard Strauss and the Survival of Western Culture

Strauss, with his full understanding of modern orchestration, was old-fashioned when it came to “tunefulness.” Like the Empress in Frau ohne Schatten, to the deconstructive tendencies of modernism in music, he too uttered: “Ich will nicht!” Strauss uses the full panoply of “modern” instrumentation and soaring melody to make a valiant stand for continuity and tradition in music. In a sense Strauss stood against the early 20th century “Vienna School” of dodecaphonic (“twelve tone”) music of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and others, which seemed to over-intellectualize and cut off the artist and separate him from traditional sources of inspiration, while making his creations inaccessible to a vast majority of listeners.

In 1945, after viewing the horrible ruins of his beloved Munich, its famous National Theater opera house and so much more bombed into smithereens, an aged Strauss composed his deeply moving “Metamorphosen” for string ensemble. A meditation on both the insanely destructive power of war and a concomitant musical commentary on Europe’s apparent cultural suicide, “Metamorphosen” also, by its very title, suggests something more, something yet hopeful amid the ruins. For a “metamorphosis” or re-birth, both cultural and spiritual, for Strauss was still possible, despite his own innate longing for a more civilized and decent age now gone.

Four years later, in 1949, Strauss composed his Vier Letze Lieder (“Four Last Songs”) only a few months before his death, and thirty years after the premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna. These four songs are a remarkable tribute not just to his late, autumn-like genius, but a final, glorious tribute to the incredibly vibrant and rich cultural milieu of late Imperial Habsburg Vienna and Wittelsbach Munich where his career flourished. To listen to these short songs is to hear a noble artist of great culture, achievement, and sophistication bidding good-bye to all that is grand and truly estimable in Western tradition.

In the fourth song, Im Abendrot—“In the Gloaming”—(a setting of a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff), Strauss consciously says farewell, not only to his own well-lived life, but also to the civilization with which he has had a passionate love-affair, but now is in steep decline.

The words of the song bespeak what Strauss observes in post-war Europe:

Around us the valleys fold up,
already the air grows dark,
only two larks still soar
wistfully into the balmy sky.
O spacious, tranquil peace,
so profound in this gloaming.
How tired we are of traveling –
Is this perchance death?

Yet even here in what seems a wistful good-bye to a great and noble culture lost, Strauss injects a quotation from his much earlier tone poem of sixty years past, Death and Transfiguration, indicating that there is always a glimmer of hope for “transfiguration” and eventual renewal, if we strive for it—and if we have faith.

As in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the “Four Last Songs,” and in his operas Der Rosenkavalier and Arabella set in the glory days of Habsburg Vienna, Strauss evoked marvelously a past time of civility, high culture, and grace—a time in which the Christian faith annealed the culture, ironically reminding us in our barren age of just what we have thrown away and lost. And in so doing he joined the battle for our civilization and our future, a battle that continues and encompasses our cultural institutions and traditions, our art, our architecture, our film, our music, and so much more—integral elements that help shape and form us, and without which our lives are made barren and susceptible to disintegration and dissipatio

Too many times our contemporary society does not know how to compare and contrast the real achievements of our historic Western Christian civilization with the present cultural detritus that surrounds and threatens to inundate us.

Recall the great writer Hilaire Belloc’s statement about our civilization now surviving off the fumes of a once-great culture. Is this not where we are in 2021? Our challenge today is to preserve what is being lost, not only our precious faith under such severe assault, but the incomparable historic culture that it produced and in which it flourished. That task is multi-faceted and must encompass those noble and sublime accomplishments that form our true artistic legacy. Strauss, despite his wistful celebration of a golden past, never lost hope for the future. Nor can we.


[1] There is a superb, two-hour BBC documentary, “Richard Strauss Remembered” (1984), narrated by Sir John Gielgud, with numerous rare photographs and historical film clips of Strauss, his performances and events in his life. Although never released formally on DVD, the private Encore label issued it, and it has been available through the Berkshire Record Outlet.

[2] Dr. Paul Gottfried has written perceptively on Hugo von Hofmannstahl and his traditionalist and aristocratic vision of Europe, a vision reflected in his dramas and other literary works:

“After the First World War, this literary giant [Hofmannstahl] devoted the remainder of his short life to reviving a popular interest in medieval Austrian culture. His most famous contribution to this effort is the German version of Everyman (Jedermann), which he brought to the stage at Salzburg and which became an annual production there. Despite his outspokenness as an Austrian patriot, Hoffmannsthal called for a “new European ego” in an address in Berne in 1916. The problem of cultural and social dissolution that the War had unleashed seemed to the distinguished author to have affected the entire continent; and in the interwar period, Hoffmannsthal contributed to Karl Anton von Rohan’s “Europäischer Revue,” a leading advocacy publication for European unity, a process that the editor Rohan, an Austrian nobleman, hoped to see take place according to traditionalist and presumably pro-Habsburg principles. In a speech in Munich in January 1927, Hofmannsthal famously called for a “conservative revolution” aimed at bringing back a true European identity. This speech was specifically critical of the Germans for “their productive anarchy as a people.” Hoffmannsthal contrasted the sentimental outpouring to which his German cousins were prone to a “binding principle of form,” which he thought necessary for the restoration of a Europe of nations. Unlike T.S. Eliot, Hofmannsthal wrote as a close friend of royalty as well as someone who was an aesthetic and cultural reactionary.”

[Paul Gottfried, “Puritans or Habsburgs,” The Unz Review, May 8, 2007.](Republished from New English Review by permission of author or representative)

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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:

        • 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… 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:

    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” ( 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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