(Something from last December. I'd been thinking then, as I am now -- and with no obvious reason -- about how things change, generally through periods of intense uncertainty and suffering; and how the past is often swept out with little ceremony. We end up relying on the artist, the composer, to have preserved something of the best of those times, and of the human spirit.)
Richard Strauss; Photographed At Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, 1930 (BBC)
I'm listening to music from a vanished world, just now: Kiri Te Kanawa's 1979 rendition of Four Last Songs and Orchestral Songs by Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949) (London Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Davis, Cond.; CBS Masterworks [CD] MK35140).
All of it is music from a world, twice-vanished, if you consider it. Strauss' Orchestral Songs were all written in the world of fin-de-siecle Vienna at the turn of the last century -- Strauss' personification of a composer both prophetic and (for a time) avant-garde; the measured movements and manners of the Hapsburg empire. Riding in the morning and walking on the Ring; pastries from Demel's; where women of the upper classes changed their clothing with their moods; and servants could be dismissed, without reference, their lives irreparably changed, over a trifle.
I've been reading Bill Bryson's At Home recently, and the one thing which stands out in contrast through the book is how hard and constricted the world was when you had no money, or legal protections. Considering only three hundred years of the 17th through the early 20th centuries (relatively more 'modern' and accessible to us than life in the Middle Ages or Renaissance), the "laboring and servant classes" worked far harder than you'd like to imagine.
I've had shitty jobs and bad circumstances in my time, but always had options. The working-class men and women of Strauss' day did not. Our 21st Century state of consciousness would perceive the lot of those without much money or power as unfair, exploited; wage slavery, and worse. And Strauss was among the upper ten per cent of European society by income, at least, if not the '1 per centers'.
That pre-August 1914 world, as Scott Fitzgerald pointed out, could not have existed without the sharp distinctions of class and wealth; still, it rested on the timbers of a thousand years of European culture -- and most of it was blown sky-high by the Great War. It's hard to reconcile the beauty of a Klimt, or Strauss' Mutterändelei, with four years of witless slaughter on the Western and Eastern fronts.
The guns stopped. The map of Europe was altered; the Hapsburg empire was gone. The cultural framework of Europe had been shaken on its foundations -- yet most of it was intact. There was still some continuity between the lost certainties of that Old World, and whatever lay ahead.
Tod, Und Verklärung
The nazis lionized Strauss after their rise to power in 1933, and in that same year appointed him head of the New Germany's Reichsmusikkammer (State Bureau of Music), which tacitly gave Strauss some control over state-sponsored presentation of music -- concerts, and opera.
The nazis did so because Hitler liked (some of) Strauss' music, and Little Joey Goebbels, the Rupert Murdoch of his times, flattered and manipulated Hitler whenever he could. He would use Strauss as a revered figurehead; but privately, Joey referred to Strauss as "a pipsqueak ... Unfortunately we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then ... no further need of this decadent neurotic". Outside Germany, reaction to Strauss' appointment was viewed by some as approval of the nazis; conductor Arturo Toscanini said publicly, "To Strauss the composer, I take off my hat. To Strauss the man I put it back on again."
Strauss continued to promote classical works by Jewish composers in concert, and continually faced pressure from nazi functionaries to stop. Then, in 1935, Strauss composed a comic opera with a friend, the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, who wrote the libretto. It opened in Dresden and was shut down by local nazi authorities because Zweig was Jewish; Strauss tried but could not force reopening the production.
"Do you believe I am ... guided by the thought that I am 'German'?" Strauss bitterly complained to Zweig, who had left Germany for England a year earlier, in a letter. "Do you suppose Mozart was consciously 'Aryan' when he composed? I recognize only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none." The letter was intercepted by the Gestapo; subsequently, Strauss was dismissed as head of the Reichsmusikkammer. Zweig was able to leave Europe to the Americas, only to commit suicide with his wife in Brazil, in 1942 -- a not-uncommon occurrence among escapees from the nazi empire.
Strauss' son Franz was married; his wife, Alice, was Jewish. In 1938, she and her two children were placed under house arrest in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (where Strauss himself had moved in the 1920's). Strauss asked acquaintances in Berlin with nazi contacts to intervene and ensure they were not formally arrested (in 1938, incarceration as a means of extorting German or Austrian Jews of their money or property was common, particularly after the Anschluss). For the next six years, Strauss repeatedly had to ask, plead and beg the nazis for the lives of members of his family.
(An observation: Any person humbling themselves before ignorant bullies is saddening, distasteful. The more gifted and nuanced the individual, the more painful it must be. Given Strauss' revulsion over the nazis, I can only imagine what dealing with them on any level -- let alone begging them for mercy, based on nothing but the strength of his international reputation -- must have felt like.)
He drove to Theresienstadt concentration camp to ask for the release of Alice's mother, Marie von Grab (which was refused) and wrote letters to the SS pleading for the release of her children, his daughter-in law's brothers and sisters (the letters were ignored).
In 1942, he moved himself and his family from Garmisch back to Vienna. In the ten years after his brush with and dismissal by the nazis, Strauss suddenly became focused, more alive, composing some of his most nuanced and challenging work when he was in his seventies and eighties -- especially Metamorphosen (Metamorphosis), A Study For 23 Solo Strings, based on a soul-searching poem by Goethe concerning the causes of man's darker nature, particularly as it is expressed in war. He also produced The Rosenkavalier Suite in 1944, a reworking of the main themes in one of his most successful operas.
Also in 1944, while Strauss was out of Vienna, Franz and Alice and their children were arrested by the Gestapo and briefly imprisoned; only Strauss's asking the Gauleiter of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach (who liked Strauss' music), to intervene saved them from 'deportation'. Strauss took them back to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where they survived for roughly another year under house arrest.
The European conflict in the Second World War ended with Germany's unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945.
Strauss wrote in his journal:
The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.Strauss' Four Last Songs -- Spring, September; Before Sleeping and At Sunset -- were his Abscheid, a farewell, to the world he had been born into, erased by totalitarianism and allied bombing and aggressive war, by the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
But the Songs aren't a raging against the approach of night in the midst of destruction, the aftermath of depravity; they aren't a complaint. They're filled with Strauss' recognition of ending, but with the sense that his personal end is due, fitting: It's time. If anything, they're filled with tenderness, a compassion that sounds sorrowful, but echoes the recognition that ultimately life is in no way fair -- not for the laborer, nor the genius who feels the world through music.
The Last Songs were first performed by Kirsten Flagstad in May of 1950, eight months after Strauss' death. The Norwegian soprano was in her mid-fifties when premiering the works, and while she acquitted herself in performance there were questions beforehand whether she had enough tonal range left in her voice -- and, there were questions whether Flagstad herself (who had remained in Norway, never quite a collaborator but never really a resistor, during the nazi occupation) was the appropriate choice to sing Strauss' final Lieder.
Twelve Years From The London Recordings: Faster, Not Better
I've heard a number of renditions of the Last Songs by sopranos over the past thirty-plus years; my personal favorite is Te Kanawa's 1979 recordings, because she simply puts more of what I believe Strauss was feeling into her interpretation.
I first heard her, doing Beim Schlafengehen (Before Sleeping), one of the most soulful of the four, in the 1981 Australian film, "The Year Of Living Dangerously": Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt) puts on a record for Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) as operatic background to a scene of Gibson's romantic longing for British Embassy (and MI-6) officer, Sigourney Weaver (My girlfriend at the time loved the music, which gave me the opportunity to introduce her to Strauss, generally; sadly, that interest didn't develop. Neither did the romance).
Te Kanawa returned to do the Last Songs twelve years later, in a Decca recording with the Weiner Philharmoniker conducted by Georg Solti, and some of the same Orchestral Songs -- but this time, with only a piano accompaniment.
Scott Joplin once said, "It is never right to play Ragtime fast"... Solti's 1991 interpretation of these Lieder with Te Kanawa is definitely up tempo. It sounds and feels too hurried, for me -- particularly when I compare it with Kanawa's earlier rendition, where Davis let her communicate Strauss' bittersweet longing for life, even at its close, in every passage without reaching for low-hanging fruit.
It would be easy to play Joplin as if it were background music for a grainy, sepia-toned silent film, just as it's simpler to present Strauss and things Viennese as a confectioner's treat in saccharine, Art Noveau swirls, a surface appreciation of place and anguished sorrow at a lost world. It's a caricature.
But that wasn't the reality for Strauss in these compositions; he knew what he was about to lose, personally, and what the world had lost in the real events of his times. And Te Kanawa is an artist. Her work with Davis was a reaching for something in herself to connect with one man's expression of the terrible beauty of living. She succeeded.
Four Last Songs seems appropriate music, for me, these days. The sense that "Neroism is in the air", that we seem to be approaching... something, never feels very far away. Far I hear a steady drummer, drumming like a noise in dreams.
And when we get to the other side of whatever that approaching something is, will everything still seem familiar? Or, like Strauss, will we try our best to be true to -- not crumbling social forms... but to describing the truth of our own lives, expressing our experience as human beings, in whatever way is uniquely our own; even as it transfigures us?