Re-rating Richard part III: Strauss, personality and politics


Part III- Strauss’s personality and politics are as misunderstood as they are talked about.

(Part I- “He was no Mahler, he was no Wagner” is here” Part III  Strauss- Innovation and Absolute Music is here)

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.

5- He was an egomaniac

Strauss’s personality seems to really wind a lot of people up (mostly those who never knew or worked with him).

The first thing I would like to say is that, for all composers, it doesn’t really matter if they were kind or cruel, driven or passive, neurotic or iron-willed. It’s the music that counts. Somehow, most people are able to separate Wagner’s great music from his odious personality, but far fewer are able to separate Schumann’s equally great (if not greater) music from what they’ve read about his personality. [The irony is that modern research has shown that the caricature of Schumann as a manic depressive neurotic whose mental struggles inform and limit every bar of his music is horse crap. Throughout his career, he had a normal range of ups and downs, as do all creative people, then in 1854, his syphilis progressed to final stage and he had a complete breakdown. We have no music from him written when he was mentally ill. ]

It doesn’t take a lot of reading research, or perhaps it takes just reading a bit of reading between the lines, to see that many of Strauss’s personality quirks were really social and emotional defense mechanisms. His apparently cavalier and mercenary attitude to life and music were behaviors adopted to cover up the same kind of vulnerability and insecurity that most composers suffer from. Gustav Mahler understood that about Strauss- Alma Mahler didn’t.

But what about Ein Heldenleben? Isn’t it the single most stomach turning example of pure musical egomania in musical history?

Really people- lighten up. I said before that Strauss was one of music’s great humorists. Heldenleben is, first and foremost, a really cracking piece of music (one of the 5 most fun works to conduct ever written). It’s also a great lampooning and deconstruction of the whole notion of Romantic heroism. It has a sex scene that is both funny and sexy.  What could be more funny or more telling than the battle music in Heldenleben? It’s ridiculously over the top, and insanely dramatic, and actually is about nothing more serious than a battle between composer and some music critics. Of course, music critics haven’t always had the greatest senses of humor about themselves, so maybe that’s why some don’t get the jokes in the piece. Perhaps the thing that really bothers people about Heldenleben is not that Strauss takes himself too seriously, but that he doesn’t take the idea of Romantic heroism all that seriously.

Strauss is making a serious point about the idealized notion of the Romantic superhero in Ein Heldenleben. After all, who is the more compelling figure- Richard Strauss, upper-middle-class composer, or the violent, narcissistic, gullible, half-witted Siegfried, who marries his aunt only to forget her? Strauss was absolutely right that what will really save the world is heroic ideas and great art, not “heroic: deeds.

6- He was a Nazi?

For a detailed comparison of two views of Strauss during WW II, I recommend comparing the biographies by Michael Kennedy and Matthew Boyden. I am far more inclined to condemn Orff and Pfitzner for their actions during the war than Furtwangler and Strauss. That said, I also think history ought not to let important people off the hook for their own actions at crucial historical moments. Could Strauss have done more for the good of humanity during the war? Absolutely. Was he a great man? Probably not. Was he a great villain? Probably not. Was he a great composer? Absolutely.

It’s extremely emotional territory for many people, and I’m loathe to take the responsibility  of explaining the historical record. In short- Strauss loathed the Nazi party, his daughter-in-law and grandchildren were Jewish, and he ended up on the wrong side of the regime.

The criticism I hear most often of Strauss’s conduct between 1933 and 1945 is that he could and should have left Germany. Many of his peers, both Jew and non-Jew did leave, and not just from Germany but also Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. In retrospect, cut off from their homeland, many great composers of the pre WW II era never again regained either the acclaim or artistic fluency they had before the war, while others suffered and struggled with the adjustment before regaining their musical form. Bartok found it hard to compose in America, cut off from the folk culture that had inspired so much of his music. Korngold and his fellow émigrés in Hollywood found a way to make a living as composers, but at the expense of their maturity as composers of concert music. Hans Gál came to Britain and became the greatest composer nobody had heard of between 1945 and 2005- thank goodness he kept writing in spite of the lack of recognition. Schoenberg found compositional life in Los Angeles difficult, and Hindemith struggled too.

All of them were younger than Strauss. I think he would have found adjusting to life in America or Britain even more difficult than they did. If he’d left, we wouldn’t have Metamorphosen. Also, like Furtwangler, he may have honestly thought he was doing the right thing for the culture by staying. It’s absolutely fair to suggest he made the wrong decision, but it’s harder to prove that he didn’t make it for the reasons he said he did.

At the end of the day, we always have to separate our judgment of the music from our judgment of the man. That was not something the Nazi’s, who insisted on hearing music through a racist prism, could do.  History was awfully hard on Strauss the man- unfairly so as far as I can tell, but whatever you make of the man, listen to the music with open ears.

In any case, Strauss’s wartime actions have affected the reception of his music in a different way.  One of the founding tenets of post WWII musical modernism was  that Romanticism had to some extent been culpable for what Germany turned into under the Nazi’s.  There are whole books about this, but the short version is: “Wagner made Hitler do it.”

I’m not about to take on this whole subject, nor to dismiss out of hand the notion that certain aspects of the music of Bruckner, Wagner and Liszt in particular served a useful purpose for the Nazis, but I am keen to point out that not even Wagner, for all his megalomania and racism, could possibly have foreseen the madness and insanity of National Socialism. And millions of people before and since have played, heard and studied Wagner without murdering anyone. If any music is going to make me commit murder, it’s probably Satie.

Anyway, Strauss’s music and musical aesthetic were front and center in this discussion. For people who had never forgiven Strauss for turning away from atonality in 1911, the post War years were critical payback time. Strauss was culpable in their eyes not just because of his actions during the war, but because he had abandoned the progressive movement in music and returned to a tonal, Romantic approach, continuing the grandiose, Romantic Wagnerian thread that had done so much to inspire the Nazis.

We’ve already talked about how Strauss was actually one of the first composers to critique the ideals of Romanticism in music. Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben are hugely important works for the way in which the explode the myth of the Romantic hero- Don Juan shows us how the struggle of the Romantic hero leads not to Faustian liberation and transcendence, but to pointless violent death. Ein Heldenleben satirizes the very grandiosity that Strauss’s critics accuse him of. However, this satire is extremely nuanced- rather than writing a farcical depiction of heroism, he writes a thrilling and dramatic depiction of daily life and normality. If any German composer can be said to have stuck the first and sharpest knife into the overcooked turkey of the Romantic movement, it was Richard Strauss. If only the Nazi’s had studied their Strauss in depth.

What makes Strauss such an interesting figure is the way in which he was able to critique the shortcomings of Romanticism as a philosophical movement without painting himself into a corner as an artist. His post 1911 music was not a return to Romanticism, but a reinvention and restoration of a musical language. He discovered that he could take music “forward” by continuing to say completely new and relevant things about life. If the philosophical underpinnings of Romanticism were looking threadbare in1900, both Strauss and Mahler showed that the musical language was far from exhausted. Mahler came up with a new metaphysical underpinning for his music in Das Lied von der Erde and in doing so transformed but didn’t abandon his tonal language. Strauss adopted a worldly and urbane modern man’s outlook on his post 1911 music, and his music gradually replaced increasing harmonic intensity with sophistication.  By the end of his career, he had gone from the violence  of Elektra and Salome to writing music of sublime decency like the 2nd Horn Concerto, the Oboe Concerto, Metamorophosen and the Four Last Songs. If Mahler uses music to transcend the pain of existence, Strauss uses music to make existence bearable.



 (Music to make life in a miserable world tolerable- the 2nd mvt of Strauss 2)

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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6 comments on “Re-rating Richard part III: Strauss, personality and politics”

  1. Jenn

    I do love reading your posts; thank you for this! (I’m afraid I have never managed to stir up more than a very deep respect for Strauss; it’s just not where I live musically…but I can still acknowledge him as fabulous!)

  2. David Galvani

    The Kennedy biog is well-balanced but protective of RS.
    Do you think concert-goers underrate RS when they not opera-goers, because opera lovers appreciate his genius?

  3. Kenneth Woods

    @David Galvani
    Opera fans certainly have an advantage, but I wonder if some opera fans treat his opera works as serious Strauss and the instrumental music as less important. Ideally, knowing both parts of his output should position one to understand all of it the best. Just as symphonic fans sometimes think Strauss got way less interesting after Rosenkavalier, some opera fans think that same moment is when he grew up and started writing proper music. Both parts of his career are essential for understanding him as a musician.

  4. Peter

    Let’s not forget Strauss was also a fabulous composer of Lieder and represented a real late flowering of the Romantic art-song tradition. He was one of the most literary-minded of composers – setting the great German Romantic poets and working with the best librettists imaginable, such as Stefan Zweig and, of course, Hofmansthal. To work with writers at that level required a substantial intellect, refined taste, to be widely read and to have shrewd understanding of human psycholohy. Strauss was no mere Skat-playing Bavarian boor.

    Fundamentally Strauss was a lyrically expressive composer – one of the great melodists in fact. It was just his misfortune that he lived for almost half a century when that kind of lyricism was going out of fashion.

  5. Travis

    “If Mahler uses music to transcend the pain of existence, Strauss uses music to make existence bearable.” Such a succinct and accurate way to put it. I’m going to have to use this line with students, giving appropriate credit of course.

  6. Pingback: Re-rating Richard part III: Strauss, personality and politics | Love, Limbo, and Loose Ends.

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