Toscanini on Richard Strauss: "To Strauss the musician I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it on again." For those who don't know (in which there's no shame, by the way: our public schools don't teach musical history, so it's a bit snobbish to expect people to've grounded themselves in it), Richard Strauss is not the waltz guy: that's Johann, an unrelated Viennese composer. Richard Strauss was from Munich, and is largely renowned for his operas.
Germany, along with Vienna, had been an intense hub of musical activity for almost a century when the Nazis took power. Strauss stayed in Germany during the war, and was designated head of the State Music Bureau by the Nazi goverment. He does not appear to have had any Nazi leanings himself; his daughter-in-law was Jewish. Nevertheless, people have rightly tended to take a hard line with respect to anything that smells like collaboration. Some historical moments demand personal sacrifice; the Second World War was one of them.
Asked why he didn't go to the United States as had so many other concerned artists, Strauss replied that Germany had 56 opera houses, while the United States had only two. This may sound cold to us, but a man's got to eat to live. A stain will always be on Strauss's name, since history indicates that it was possible for many conductors and composers and performers to flee Germany and somehow occupy themselves during the war years, either by going to France or America. But it's not an easy stain to describe.
When I was younger I would have judged Strauss more harshly than I do now; there seemed a moral imperative to punish him. I am more inclined now to take the long view. His music is transcendent, and I use that word with full malice aforethought. Richard Wagner is another question, since his ideology was openly nationalistic and anti-semitic (there is an interesting treatment of this question here), but I suspect that in the end the answer must rest on the question of how the notes sound in the air.
I must say that Strauss's notes sound incredible. He comes from that incredibly fertile time in German music when the romantic impulse was giving way to the modern. His own tone lies, to my ear, closer to the former quality than the latter; in Metamorphosen, to which I am listening at the moment, I don't hear the terror of uncertainty that comes through in Mahler, nor the metaphysical preoccupation that makes Bruckner such a remarkable crossroads figure. But he shares with Bruckner and Mahler (and probably with Wagner, who I still keep mainly at arm's length) a certain view of the depths: an attraction to structures and intervals and questions of pacing that slow down the listener and create a contemplative space. The mountains and valleys of romanticism are opening upon some dark great ocean for Strauss; but the naked emotionalism of the romantic era still holds considerable charm for him. So, at any rate, it seems to me this morning, listening to Deutsche Grammophon's reissue of two classic Berlin Philharmonic recordings under the direction of Herbert von Karajan - who is also something of a difficult historical figure, for reasons almost identical to those cited above. I can't listen to this record without thinking a lot about the nightmare visited on 20th-century music by what can only be called historical coincidence: had Strauss or Karajan been born in Uruguay or Thailand or Fiji, their genius would have been visited on other efforts or channeled into other pursuits. Instead, they were German, and they worked in Germany in a time when to do so placed one at an unfortunate historical nexus, the meeting of a musical tradition's apex and one of history's darkest hours.
No easy answers here. But this music, and these treatments of it, are simply magnificent, and perhaps the baggage they carry contextualizes them in more ways than are at first apparent. Perhaps not; I'm an amateur here. It seems something worth suggesting, anyhow, and now that I've done so, I leave it over to you.
TrackBack URL for this entry: