BLOG – Coming to Terms with Strauss – Part 2 of 3

This is the second of three posts I am writing in preparation for the South London Chamber Concerts performance on Saturday, September 28, 2013. As a disclaimer, let me say that I know that this post is far too short to adequately deal with Adorno’s critique of Strauss or with Strauss’s position in the changing musical landscape in the first half of the twentieth century.  There is very little offered in the way of musical proof for my claims here, though I do believe that there is plenty that could be cited, albeit in a more appropriate place.

My goal is to offer an idea, namely that Strauss’s typical position in twentieth century music—that of the end of the old guard—needs reevaluating in terms of the greater project of twentieth-century music.  The list of references below is short, but I hope they are sufficient to offer a taste of some of the issues.  As always, if you wish to challenge anything I have written below, please feel free to comment here or to email me.

 * * *

Richard Strauss enjoys a strange place in twentieth century music.  His operas have become standard repertoire. Salome was not only theatrically scandalous, but musically tested the very limits of tonality. Daphne, to take a much later example, is theatrically distilled.  Even if the orchestra is of typically Straussian size, there is not an extraneous character or line in the piece, and the opera’s finale my be the only instance in the composer’s output that his tone-poetic form was put to use in the theater where it arguably always belonged.

Yet, it is his tone poems, and the way that their form pervades Strauss’s work, that have gotten Strauss into trouble with twentieth-century critics, most notably Theodore Adorno. Adorno attacks Strauss’s composition as being empty, but for effects and sonic simulation, and he indicts Strauss as the great traitor to the musical tradition the composer so dearly loved.  Adorno cites as his evidence that Strauss’s music, in particular the tone poems and operas, is organized by principles entirely outside of the music itself, and that in so organizing, Strauss manipulates the listener rather than creating musical truth value.

However, I would argue that Adorno’s critique fails to recognize certain trends in twentieth-century musical aesthetics that are now widely accepted. His view of Strauss is that the composer writes old music in the era of “the new music” of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. He writes that “had Richard Strauss never existed, contemporary music might long ago have ceased to call itself new.” [1] Rather than the late-Romantic sound of Strauss, Adorno believes Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance” to be the key (so to speak) of music’s future.

Retrospectively, we can see that this was only one of the twentieth century’s “emancipations.”  Edward Venn claims that the ideas behind Luigi Russolo’s “Art of Noises” represent the “emancipation of timbre.” [2] Both of these concepts, the emancipations of dissonance and timbre, separate certain elements of music from the specifically musical. Twelve-tone composition dislocates pitch from its previous hierarchical compositional use. Russolo’s ideas for the use of noise and his “noise harmonium,” which influenced the likes of Stravinsky and Varèse, separated timbre from its traditional, instrumental-vocal orientation.

By Adorno’s own words, Strauss’s musical organization is non-musical when compared to the nineteenth-century German compositional tradition, about which Lydia Goehr writes:

Musical form was no longer to be thought of as following the text or the shape of some ‘extra-musical’ occasion, but as independently designed and independently coherent…musicians with both theoretical and practical interests began at this time to give utmost consideration to the development of purely musical forms. [3]

Strauss’s compositional technique, then, can either be viewed as regressive, i.e., as turning to pre-nineteenth-century compositional practice, or as forward-thinking, as resulting in the emancipation of musical form from the purely musical.

In order to understand the sides of this debate, we should first come to an understanding of why musical form holds such an important place for Adorno. To put it simplistically, Western composition was synonymous with German composition as perfected by Beethoven. He holds this view in large part because Beethoven, as a composing subject, bent to his will objective material (form) while maintaining its identity as such.  Objective material, in Adorno’s terms, is essential as a transmitter of cultural truth and identity.

This explains why, for Adorno, Schoenberg was the successor to Beethoven, and Strauss was a music-for-theater composing dilettante. Schoenberg was able to create new music by treating dissonance and consonance as equals, thereby eliminating the need for, while still maintaining and developing, inherited, purely musical formal relationships. Strauss, on the other hand, abused inherited music by using its tonal-melodic principles with no regard for their supposedly concomitant organization.

Yet, for Adorno, Strauss’s formal abuses go beyond neglect. Adorno paraphrases Alban Berg in his Aesthetics, saying:

When Alban Berg answered in the negative the naïve question whether Strauss was not to be admired at least for his technique, he pointed up the arbitrariness of Strauss’s method, which carefully calculates a series of effects without seeing to it that, in purely musical terms, one event emerges from, or is made requisite by another…Music organized in such temporal-dynamic fashion as that of Strauss is incompatible with a compositional method that does not coherently organize temporal succession. Ends and means are contradictory. [4]

It is the extra-musical manipulation of musical material that offends Adorno most. Strauss’s music is a well-planned series of events that play at being spontaneously composed. Adorno writes:

Strauss’s technique frees itself from the subject matter and confronts it as an independent entity.  It prides itself on being equal to every situation within the composition.  Parallel to this is the objectification of what now falls under the control of technique: the emotions.  The one pole of traditional music, evanescent invention, is cultivated at the expense of everything else…thus music’s richness of nuance is immensely increased, as is its ability to nestle into the psychological stream by means of ‘turns.’ Inversely, however, the fixating gaze falsifies that which has its essence in its very evanescence, and the other, objective dimensions of composition are perniciously neglected. [5]

Thus there is a falsehood created on both sides of the musical object.  The listener receiving it is forced to confront a musical object without objective and a composing subject with only the semblance of ego, only a façade of the self.

But, this collapsing of composition into the musical event is Strauss’s very contribution to the musical trends of the twentieth century. In terms of style and surface aesthetic, Strauss’s composition was not new, just as Adorno says.  However, Strauss’s formal freedom enabled music to incorporate more into its self-definition. Following Strauss’s formal innovations (with no claim to direct influence, only that of a similar trend) are the Stravinsky of the event-organized Rite of Spring, the Varèse of the timbrally-oriented Amériques, the systematized and extra-musical organization of total serialism, and the Zen-Buddhist-informed organizations (or lack thereof) of John Cage.  And these are only those that appear within Strauss’s lifetime.

More innovations are incorporated as the twentieth century wears on. The century burst at the seams of traditional music as it attempted to incorporate nationalist and non-Western musics, as it accommodated freedom from the consonance-dissonance paradigm, as it reintroduced noise to musical sound, and as it allowed moment-to-moment musical form. Such is Strauss’s place in the trend of twentieth-century music. His music demands a rehearing in the context of the Avant-guard and against Adorno’s German-Idealist critique.

* * *

In my final post, I will tackle Strauss’s difficult relationship with the Nazis, and finally dig into the music of the Sonatina No. 2 in E-Flat for sixteen winds.  We’ll see that Strauss was not the only German artist to retreat to Mozartian times in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War.

* * *

Notes

[1] Adorno, Theodor, et al., “Richard Strauss: Born June 11, 1864,” Perspectives of New Music, 4 (Winter 1965), 14-32.

[2] Venn, Edward, “Rethinking Russolo,” Tempo, 64 (2010), 8-16

[3] Goehr, Lydia, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2007), 164.

[4] Adorno, Theodor, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, Aesthetic Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1997), 215.

[5] Adorno, “Richard Struass,” 18.

3 comments

  1. Do you think Adorno’s anti-Strauss prejudices stem from his general mistrust of the combination of music and theatre? Or at least the combination whereby music is subservient to theatre, as I suppose could be argued is the case in opera?

    Likewise perhaps they stem from his aversion to anything that appears to manipulate?

    Personally I can understand why Adorno believes Strauss’s composition is organised by principles entirely outside of the music itself, and I can understand why he therefore has such mistrust. The depth / richness of his orchestral expression does seem disconnected from the substance of the composition and as much as I adore listening to e.g. Salome and am deeply moved at the time, afterwards I am left with this feeling which I can’t really describe but I know it is one where I’m left wanting. Wanting of Beethoven, or of Schoenberg. Wanting of music which deals simultaneously with the individual and the universal.

    Of course history shows us that Strauss has a sure place amongst Stravinsky, Varese, etc., but he is different to those composers you mentioned. For example even Stravinsky (whom of course Adorno criticised) arguably composed as if the musical event in itself had no power to exert / express any emotion (I forget the exact quotation from Stravinsky but I think he essentially believed that if music could express something, it would only be as a result of the pre-conceived ideas we had about it).

    Why do I get the feeling that Strauss is aware of how the audience will feel and what they will think at every point in his music, and composes according to that?

  2. Do you think Adorno’s anti-Strauss prejudices stem from his general mistrust of the combination of music and theatre? Or at least the combination whereby music is subservient to theatre, as I suppose could be argued is the case in opera?

    Likewise perhaps they stem from his aversion to anything that appears to manipulate?

    Personally I can understand why Adorno believes Strauss’s composition is organised by principles entirely outside of the music itself, and I can understand why he therefore has such mistrust. The depth / richness of his orchestral expression does seem disconnected from the substance of the composition and as much as I adore listening to e.g. Salome and am deeply moved at the time, afterwards I am left with this feeling which I can’t really describe but I know it is one where I’m left wanting. Wanting of Beethoven, or of Schoenberg. Wanting of music which deals simultaneously with the individual and the universal.

    Of course history shows us that Strauss has a sure place amongst Stravinsky, Varese, etc., but he is different to those composers you mentioned. For example even Stravinsky (whom of course Adorno criticised) arguably composed as if the musical event in itself had no power to exert / express any emotion (I forget the exact quotation from Stravinsky but I think he essentially believed that if music could express something, it would only be as a result of the pre-conceived ideas we had about it).

    Why do I get the feeling that Strauss is aware of how the audience will feel and what they will think at every point in his music, and composes according to that?

  3. These are fantastic points, especially regarding Strauss, Stravinsky, and emotion. You’ll find the information you’re looking for in Stravinsky’s “Poetics”, which are a publication of his Norton Lectures at Harvard. He talks quite a bit about music and emotion.

    I do think that to some extent Adorno’s views of Strauss stem from the latter’s theatre orientation. Adorno even goes so far as to call all of Strauss’s music theatre because the music calls attention to its own performance rather than honestly speaking to the audience. But I think it goes much deeper than that. Adorno views Strauss (and this comes across to me as petty and personal, even for Adorno) as a money maker, and as someone who is concerned first with royalties and second with art. This causes a great mistrust on the part of Adorno. We should also not forget that Strauss considered by Adorno to be a Third Reich composer. While Adorno gives Strauss credit for never composing an all-out propaganda piece, he still feels that the composer betrayed his art form by siding with the Nazis.

    Considering Strauss’s earlier music, Adorno feels that the musical content and the musical organization are unrelated in Strauss’s work. For Adorno, this walks back more than one hundred years of German compositional advancement, which offends all of Adorno’s sensibilities. Adorno leveled similar complaints against Wagner, which by the end of his life he had started to walk back. Who knows, perhaps he would have done the same for Strauss if he had a chance at greater historical perspective.

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