Part I- He was no Mahler, he was no Wagner.
Richard Strauss’s music is an intergral and popular part of the modern concert repertoire, and yet, he remains one of our most misunderstood and underrated composers.
We all know the case against Richard Strauss: he was no Gustav Mahler, he was no Richard Wagner, he turned his back on modernity, he was “only” a program-music and opera composer, who couldn’t write in classical forms, he was an egomaniac, he was a Nazi, his music lacks spirituality and depth.
My purpose here is not to rehabilitate Strauss as a historical figure (one can argue that no such rehabilitation is needed), but to look at whether too many of us have been listening to his music with ears and hearts only partly opened.
1- He was no Gustav Mahler
It has become all-too-convenient as a form of modern critical shorthand to present Strauss and Mahler as late Romanticism’s bad guy and good guy. In this misreading of history, Mahler was the tormented and sincere musical saint struck down by fate in his prime, who, had he lived, would have invented the twelve-tone method and prevented World War II with a stream of universe-changing atonal masterpieces. Likewise, Strauss was a shallow musician and cynical, commercially-minded composer, who turned his back on early hints of modernity and ended his long life and career as music’s most notorious reactionary. Mahler was idealist, the visionary, the innovator, the poet and the prophet. Strauss was the cynic, the mercenary, the conservative- the man who turned his back on the future of music.
(Elektra- the piece that made me love opera overnight)
How differently would we see these two composers had Strauss died in 1911 and Mahler in 1949 instead? Strauss would have been remembered for Elektra and Salome as the prophet of modernism who didn’t live to see its full flowering, Rosenkavalier, which would have been his last work, could be comfortably dismissed as satire or an aberration- at the very least, more critics would have noted that Rosenkavalier is more harmonically complex and sophisticated than Elektra.
And had Mahler lived another 38 years? I think anyone who contends he would have joined or even preempted Schoenberg’s revolution in doing away with tonality and functional harmony is either deluded, deluding or ignorant. Yes, Mahler’s music may have continued to get more dissonant and complex, and his harmonic schemes more fraught, but tonality and tonal structure was absolutely central to everything Mahler did as a composer. Without a sense of a tonal starting point and a hierarchy and progression of tonal centers, Mahler’s whole approach to form couldn’t possibly work, and for Mahler, each key, however extended or obscured, had symbolic meaning. Commentators who cite the famous 10-note chord at the climax of the first movement of the 10th Symphony as proof that somehow Mahler was aiming at a Schoenbergian liberation of dissonance are misunderstanding this amazing moment. It is so harrowing and so moving because of the tonal context in which it is placed- it works as possibly the most agonizing musical illustration of “oh shit, something has really gone wrong here” in history because of the strong sense that Mahler has created of what “right” is in this symphony- the rich, noble, sad sound world of F-sharp Major.
The stories of Strauss’s obsession with money and his general cynicism are legion, but if Mahler had been a such a pure, naïve and completely idealistic man, he would have ended up like Hans Rott instead of as director of the Vienna Opera. Mahler could be a shrewd negotiator, he could be a pragmatic, even cynical, manager. He understood budgets and audiences, and he could be tough as nails when he needed to be. Mahler knew perfectly well how to twist arms until they broke. Likewise, Strauss had his principles, clearly articulated in his music- a disdain for pomposity, a compassion for the human condition, a belief in the importance of savoring the complex riches of every day life rather than consoling oneself with dreams of the fantastic.
(Magic in the mundane- Sinfonica Domestica)
Ultimately, both men were complex human beings and great musicians.
2- He was no Richard Wagner
When I was in school this was an even bigger topic of conversation in music history classes. Again and again, we were taught that Strauss the opera composer was essentially a Wagner imitator who lacked Wagner’s genius for innovation and emotional range. Wagner-lite. Or as we used to say after class- there’s Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, and we all know which was the real big Dick.
(Tristan und Isolde: Is it really fair to compare anyone to the guy who wrote the greatest single opera ever?)
First of all, the comparison is rather pointless- there was only one Richard Wagner, (and thank goodness for that- what would we do with two Rings or to Tristan’s?!?!). Similarly, Strauss was very much his own man as an opera composer. Yes, Wagner was a huge influence on Strauss, particularly in the areas of instrumentation and the use of a symphonic/motivic approach to illustrating the drama and emotional arc of the stage action in the pit.
In the area of instrumentation, Strauss may not have been as innovative as Wagner, but he was certainly more accomplished. Wagner left us some nearly un-solvable technical problems- be honest, when have you ever heard a good live performance of the Prelude to Parsifal, one where the wind and brass writing was really in tune? It’s damn near impossible (but worth the effort). Strauss’s orchestral writing is often more athletic and can sound more over-the-top, but it’s far more idiomatic. The balances work better, the wind chords are organized in such a way that they’re far more likely to be in tune. In the area of motivic structure- Strauss took Wagner’s leitmotif technique and made it a little more flexible, slightly less pervasive and generally managed to ingrate the motives so that we can hear them as extremely important and obvious (as they mostly are in Wagner) or far more subliminal.
So, in many ways, Strauss was able capitalize on being in a generation that could refine, extend and polish the ideas of a great visionary like Wagner. Quite a generation it was, but for all that Wagner’s influence looms large in Strauss, the same can be said for Chausson, Debussy and many others. Strauss was not a revolutionary, but neither was J.S. Bach.
However, Strauss wasn’t simply a more polished if less innovative Wagner. I would contend that Strauss was more successful in eventually escaping Wagner’s shadow than someone like Debussy (Francophile readers, bring on the outraged comments, please!). His range as a dramatist was far bigger- he could do comedy, he could do epic, he could domestic drama, he could do irony. His characters are more diverse, vivid and human than Wagner’s, and it seems certain that his characters illustrate a far wider breadth of human experience. Strauss did the greatest depictions of madness and evil you could ever hope to hear in Salome and Elektra, but he also gave us characters like the Marschallin. Three-dimensional, believable compelling personalities.
(Three three-dimensional personalities and Carlos Kleiber giving a serious masterclass in making magic.)