Part II- Strauss and Modernity, Strauss and Program Music
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, but to look at whether too many of us have been listening to his music with ears and hearts only partly opened.
3- Strauss turned his back on modernity
I hinted at this in my discussion of Mahler and Strauss. It was long accepted as a truism that Strauss had somehow betrayed history and sold out when he went from the hyper-intensity and violence of Elektra to the sophisticated lyricism and humane wit of Der Rosenkavalier. I remember one of my teachers saying “Strauss had promise, but he spent the last 38 years of his career discrediting himself as a composer.” Really?
First of all, Strauss was modern way before Salome and Elektra- his very modern sounding Burleske for Piano and orchestra was, amazingly, written in 1885. Strauss had had been deploying a tremendous facility with dissonance and dislocation for over 25 years by the time he wrote Rosenkavalier- he was smart enough to realize that he had to continue to grow and develop, which for him, meant making his style more classical and melodic. Strauss always said that the musical language of Salome and Elektra had been a response to the stories they told, not the outgrowth of an aesthetic program. He didn’t want to keep retelling the same stories, retreading the same emotional territory.
Strauss’s real contributions to modernity go far beyond the searing dissonances unleashed in Elektra. Strauss was the first great composer to see the bankruptcy of the Romantic project. Take Don Juan, one of his earliest major works. What first seems like the quintessential Romantic and heroic orchestral showpiece turns out to be more like a vivisection of the genre. After 20 minutes of Romantic clichés on steroids, Strauss kills his Don in one of the most shockingly nihilistic endings in all of music. Not for Strauss a cathartic funeral march, or a searing death aria- just the cold realization that it is over. Almost all of the endings to Strauss’s early tone poems avoid a sense of closure and fulfillment. He’s not one for catharsis. The beginning of Also Sprach is infinitely more exciting and satisfying than the bleak and ambivalent ending. Till is executed, Quioxte dies. In many ways, Strauss saw the world with more “modern,” clear-eyed skepticism than Mahler. Strauss understood that life is messy, complex and confounding. Where Mahler almost always manages to solve all the problems of the universe by the last bar of a symphony (and nobody ever did it better), Strauss’s endings are truer to life- sometimes incomplete, sometimes violent, sometimes enigmatic, and with the very notable exception of Death and Transfiguration, almost always hinting that problems remain to be solved.
What the case of Strauss illustrates all-too-well is just how comically narrowly people defined musical modernity and innovation for most of the 20th c.. Dissonance and innovation are not the same thing. Yes, Ariadne auf Naxos is not as dissonant a piece as Elektra or Lulu or Erwartung, but it is a hugely original and innovative piece- it breaks more new structural, philosophical and instrumental new ground than any of those three modernist masterpieces. And how much fresher, more orignal and more interesting is this piece than any number of orthodox regurgitations of serial orthodoxies by composers not on the same level as Berg and Schoenberg?
Strauss got to neo-Classicism before anyone else, and he got to post-Modernism before anyone else.
4- Strauss was “just” a program music and opera composer who couldn’t write in classical forms.
This is a very common and deeply wrong assumption about Strauss. First of all, Strauss did write a number of marvelous instrumental works in pure classical forms. The two Horn Concertos and the Oboe Concerto mark the pinnacle of the concertante repertoire for those instruments. Fortunately, they’re fairly well known (although it’s a pity the 2nd Horn Concerto isn’t played as often as the 1st. It’s a far greater piece, but extremely, extremely difficult for the orchestra).
(Strauss’s 2nd Horn Concerto makes mincemeat of the violins of a very good orchestra, but Radek Baborak nails it to the wall)
If you don’t know them, run, don’t walk to your local CD store and get recordings of the wonderful Violin and Cello sonatas. They’re infinitely fresh, exciting lively and very classical works. I love the Cello Sonata and play it every chance I get- I read it just the other day with a friend and was really struck by just how much the young Strauss manages to demonstrate a complete knowledge of the genre, with lovely shoutouts to Mendelssohn and Beethoven, while at the same time giving us a work that could only be by Strauss.
(Oscar Shumsky and Glenn Gould play Strauss)
Another piece I’ve been playing a lot is his wonderful 5-minute long String Trio “’s deandl is harb auf mi.” It’s just a very straightforward Theme and Variations, but incredibly clever, tuneful and very, very funny. Strauss was absolutely one of music’s great humorists- people see the humor in a piece like Till Eulenspiegel because it is explicit in the program, but not in a lot of his operas and other tone poems. Like Haydn, Strauss loves to undermine expectation at every turn. Till may be a funny, light-hearted work, but it’s the product of a deeply serious musical mind. As Gunther Schuller wrote in The Compleat Conductor, “Strauss’s constant re-invention of the main thematic materials results on one of the most tightly (and, perfectly) constructed works in the entire 19th-century repertory. Not since Mozart’s Jupiter Finale and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had there been anything quite as succinctly integrated as Till. Nor– looking forward towards the 20th century– was there to appear anything as rigorously developed as until until some of Webern’s scores of the 1920’s”
Also, most of his programmatic works are actually written in or around classical forms. There is the Theme and Variations of DonQuioxte, the Sonata Rondo of Till Eulenspiegel, and a Sonata form for Death and Transfiguration. While one can make a case that some of Liszt’s tone poems are organized almost entirely by their programs, in Strauss, the music always stands on its own as a musical design, and there are always levels of meaning not included tin the programs to explore. This is why the Strauss Tone Poems have endured in a way that Liszt’s, for all their excitement and drama, have not.