BLOG – Coming to Terms With Strauss – Part 3 of 3

This is my final post on Strauss in preparation for tomorrow’s concert, and I thought it would be appropriate to take some troubling aspects of Strauss’s biography, specifically his complicated relationship with the Nazis prior to and during World War II.  Additionally, I will introduce some musical aspects of Strauss’s Sonatina No. 2 in E-Flat, which is the piece I’ll be conducting for the South London Chamber Concerts tomorrow evening.  The concert is at 7:30 p.m. at the St. Mary Magdalene Church on Munster Square.  I hope if you are in London and available that you’ll come to hear.

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Strauss reputation has, since the end of World War II, been under repair. The composer of Rosenkavalier, as he referred to himself when he met the Allied soldiers who had come to occupy his home, has received much criticism for his involvement with the Nazi party. He was the first president of the Reich Chamber of Culture, and he occasionally wrote fanfares and other short pieces for Nazi events, most notably the 1936 Olympic games.  However, documents now available show him to have been out of favor with the Nazis, especially Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda.  He was often under threat, as were his grandsons, Richard and Christian, whose mother was Jewish.  If this is the case, why did he stay in Germany? Many German artists (and not only the Jewish ones) fled the country for safer environments, why not Strauss?

There are two compelling answers to this question. First, Strauss was in a unique position: He was the greatest living musical figure in Germany during the 1930s.  This position made it possible for him to call in favors and exercise a certain power in order to protect his friends and family. It is clear now that it was Strauss who prevented Alice, his Jewish daughter-in-law, from being arrested throughout the Third Reich period.  He also made deals to protect his grandsons and to keep friends out of prison. In 1940, for example, at a reception for the composer’s birthday, Strauss asked the newly appointed governor of Vienna to release his friend Manfred Mautner Markhof from captivity.  He told the governor “it was all he wanted on his birthday,” and his wish was granted. [1]

The second possibility as to why Strauss may have stayed in Germany is that he felt deeply responsible for continuing the tradition of German music that had passed from Mozart through Beethoven and Wagner.  Strauss felt this culture so deeply that Michael Kennedy, Strauss’s most recent biographer, claims it to be the “mainspring of his being.” [2]  Strauss wrote upon accepting his post in the Reich Chamber of Culture that he “hoped to do some good and prevent worse misfortune if from [then] on German musical life was going to be…‘reorganized’ by amateurs and ignorant place seekers.” [3]

Perhaps the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler best summarized the feelings of Strauss and many other artists when he said:

All those who became emigrants, or demanded that one should emigrate, have relieved Hitler of having to prove a thing: his claim that he was the true representative of the German Nation.  They thought that they had to leave a Nazi Germany, but this is wrong.  Germany was never a Nazi Germany, but a Germany subjugated by the Nazis. [4] (Kennedy, 271)

The result of the Nazi years on Strauss composition is audible. After Daphne, his pieces grow decidedly smaller and more personal. Of the works listed as having been composed after 1937 by Norman Del Mar in his three-volume Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works, none requires the forces of his previous work. [5] The late works for winds (of which the Sonatina No. 2 is one), Metamorphosen, and the oboe concerto require a chamber orchestra or smaller. Only the Vier Letzte Lieder is composed for a typical Strauss orchestra, and of the four Frühling and September use reduced brass and percussion sections.

Certainly, this can be a sign of the composer’s advanced age, but the war took its toll. We can hear Strauss’s style shifts as well. For example, Metamorphosen, though thoroughly Romantic in its harmony, is almost Bachian in its counterpoint. The oboe concerto uses a Mozart orchestra and, along with the late works for winds, veers toward Mozartian style.

Sonatina No. 2 in E-Flat is structured like a Mozart symphony, including the third movement minuet and trio, which had long since fallen out of use by Strauss’s time. The outer movements use sonata form, and the second movement is a lyrical andante. This is perhaps not unusual in and of itself, but it stands apart in the context of Strauss’s work for one main reason: there is no program or libretto.

In fact, of the pieces composed after 1937 only one is an opera (though the Vier Letzte Lieder obviously set text).  The majority of these works are non-programatic and organized by musical principles alone.  This, coupled with a tendency towards Mozartian style, can be seen as representative of a composer longing for a simpler time, trying to compose a way out of the atrocities of the Second World War.

In fact, Strauss was not the only German artist to attempt such a reversal of time.  To extrapolate from Dr. Faustus, we might say that Thomas Mann viewed the German Idealism and humanism as precipitating the Nazi takeover.  When Mann’s composer, Adrian Leverkühn, writes his final piece, he uncomposes Beethoven’s ninth symphony in order that it be “taken back.”  He wants to make it so that it never was, and so in the context of his own The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus Leverkühn composes an “ode to sorrow.” [6]

Strauss, perhaps uncharacteristically, is not quite so heavy handed.  In Metamorphosen, perhaps his own “ode to sorrow,” Strauss composes an in memoriam for the whole of Germany and German culture to a quotation from the funeral march from Beethoven’s third symphony.  Can we not see this as Strauss’s own uncomposing of Beethoven, as Strauss returning to the spirit of Mozart?

Stylistically speaking, this was Strauss’s trend in the final decade of his life, especially in the years following World War II.  Sonatina No. 2 is perhaps the best indication.  In it he composes his relief at the end of the war, and he finds solace in the style of Mozart.  Finally, almost as hint to every future player and listener, Strauss dedicates the piece “to the spirit of the divine Mozart at the end of a life full of thankfulness.” [7] This is how we should hear the piece, and how we will do our best to play it on Saturday.

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[1] Michael Kennedy, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1999), 319.

[2] Ibid., 270

[3] Ibid., 281

[4] Ibid., 271

[5] Norman Del Mar, Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works. London: Barrie and Jenkins (1972), 496-498.

[6] Thomas Mann trans. John E. Woods, Dr. Faustus.  New York: Vintage Books (1997), 501.

[7] For a brief discussion of the dedication and how it relates to World War II and Mozart, see Kennedy, Richard Strauss, 365-366.

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