Strauss on my mind

I’ve had Strauss on the mind lately. Richard Strauss, that is, not Johann the Waltz King – although, to judge from the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, Richard could have gone in that direction had he so wanted.

It all started a few weeks ago, when I found out that I would be working for a couple of weeks in offices in central London. So, naturally, I looked to see what was on in London in the evenings during those two weeks. And I found, to my delight, that the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under their Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly, was giving over a few days a series of three concerts of Strauss and Mozart. So I booked myself for all three of them. I mean, it would have been churlish not to.

Strauss has a bit of an odd reputation. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that it was Mahler, Strauss’ contemporary, who was the true genius, pouring out his tortured soul in works of emotional profundity and spiritual intensity, while Strauss was merely a showman, who cared more for effect rather than for substance, who often strayed into the crude and the vulgar – a sort of musical Barnum and Bailey. While I have no doubt at all about the stature of Mahler, I have never been at all happy with such an appraisal of Strauss. Yes, he was a showman, he could be crude and vulgar, and, yes, there are many works of his in which showmanship takes precedence over substance. But this is by no means the whole story. In the first place, showmanship need not preclude depth, or even artistic integrity; and in the second place, the composer of Elektra and of Metamorphosen deserves to be taken seriously – every bit as seriously, to my mind, as the unremittingly serious Mahler.

The three concerts included what Chailly has described as Strauss’ “core” tone poems, plus the late work Metamorphosen. Interestingly, Chailly does not include Don Quixote among this “core”, insisting that it was conceived as a set of orchestral variations rather than as a tone poem. And neither does he include the Alpine Symphony, a work which probably does lend credence to Strauss’ reputation of being a showman rather than a serious artist. Even some of the “core” works don’t quite, perhaps, dispel that notion – but the boundary between artistry and craftsmanship seems to me a very blurred one at best. And anyone who says something such as Ein Heldenleben is not a supremely beautiful and moving piece of music is a bounder and a cad, and can meet me afterwards in the car park outside.

Ein HeldenlebenA Hero’s Life – formed the second half of the first of the three concerts. In the first half, we had one of Strauss’ earliest masterpieces – the gloriously ardent and swaggering Don Juan. The orchestra played superbly: the sound was mellow, but deceptively so, as, at the dramatic climaxes, it packed a tremendous punch; but even at its most dramatic, the sound never lost its refinement, never became harsh. And no matter how thick the orchestral texture may be, the sound was never congested: there was always a sense of space around the various strands of the music.

Sibelius had once commented that Strauss provided his listeners with rich and exotic cocktails, whereas he gave the listener pure spring water. We need spring water as well, of course: going straight from one rich and exotic cocktail to another can become a bit too much. Here, the spring water was provided not by Sibelius, but by Mozart, a composer who was very close to Strauss’ heart. Between Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, the Gewandhaus Orchestra accompanied Maria João Pires in a performance of Mozart’s 27th piano concerto. It is a work often described as being a late Mozart work, and indeed it is – although we should keep in mind that Mozart was only 35 when he composed it, and that the works Strauss had composed at that age are regarded as his early works. It is a work of ethereal beauty: there seems something quite other-worldly about it. Gone is the exuberance and the drama of Mozart’s earlier piano concertos: where, previously, the second group of themes had contrasted dramatically with the first, here, they seem to complement each other. The music does indeed dance along gracefully, but the brilliance of Mozart’s dancing in his earlier works seems to have vanished, leaving behind a ghost of its former self. Huxley had once commented that Mozart’s music is saddest when it seems to be happy, but never has the happy surface been quite so transparent as it is here, revealing the depths below. It is a work that smiles, and yet breaks the heart, and I don’t think I could hope to hear it performed better than I did here. There is a passage in the first movement development section that is particularly close to my heart: the key changes come so frequently and so quickly, that it seems to give an impression of drifting between keys: I know of no other music quite like this.

After the interval, we were in a different world entirely: Ein HeldenlebenA Hero’s Life. In many respects, it’s a work of utter megalomania: in the section labelled “The Hero’s Works of Peace”, Strauss gives us a collage of themes from his own earlier pieces, leaving us in no doubt as to who the hero of the title is. But I think that to criticise the work on this ground is to miss the humour: whenever I hear this piece, I seem to see a twinkle in Strauss’ eye, a wink and a nudge. Similarly in the second section of the work, which depicts the hero’s enemies: it’s a glorious cacophony of winds, suggesting to absolute perfection a band of snivelling idiots. One may ask what is so very heroic about defeating such a miserable bunch, but once again, this is to miss the humour of the thing. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but break into a broad grin when I hear this.
And then, there is the love scene. The hero’s companion is depicted by a solo violin, and the hero, in the form of the orchestra, woos her ardently; but she is no doormat merely to do the hero’s bidding. Time after time, the violin solo seems to be responding to the hero’s amorous overtures, merely to go off into intricate cadenzas and arabesques: this is a companion who is very much her own person, and with her own mind, who will respond to the hero as and when she wants to, in her own time, and in her own way. And when she finally does, we have a love scene like no other in music: Strauss gives us sounds so gorgeous, and so opulent and sensual, that it’s almost indecent.

Then comes the battle scene, in which the hero defeats his enemies. This is a section that could come over as overblown – but in this performance, it was genuinely thrilling. The orchestra of about a hundred or so players, including five percussionists (yes, five – I counted ‘em!) went at it hammer and tongs, and yet, somehow, they never compromised the beauty of tone. It was magnificent. And afterwards, the enemies vanquished, we move into the hero’s works of peace – a glorious collage of themes of Strauss’ earlier works. In Don Juan, there had been a thrilling moment when a swaggering horn fanfare had sounded over the massed orchestra: we had heard this only earlier that evening; well, since that moment was so wonderful, Strauss thought he would repeat it again in Ein Heldenleben: and no, it doesn’t suffer from the repetition – it remained just as thrilling.

How does one finish a work such as this? Strauss decided not to pile Pelion on Ossa (or is that the other way round?) – after all the thrills and spills, he opts for a quiet ending, as the hero, having achieved all that could be achieved, renounces worldly things. The music is extraordinarily moving and beautiful. Showmanship? Perhaps. Who cares?

The second concert was not really in the class of the first: this was nothing to do with the playing or the conducting, but because the programme wasn’t as good. It started with Strauss’ early tone poem Macbeth, and interesting though it was to hear this played live, it isn’t a patch on Don Juan, the opening piece in the first concert. The Mozart piece was the 3rd violin concerto, and, lovely though it is, and beautifully played as it was by Christian Tetzlaff, it is not in the same league as Mozart’s last piano concerto. After the interval, we had Also Sprach Zarathustra, and again, I couldn’t help wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this: isn’t the very idea of setting Nietzsche’s philosophy to music a bit of a joke? Once again, I couldn’t help seeing a twinkle in Strauss’ eye. And similarly with the section in which the Übermensch dances: what sort of music would an Übermensch dance to? Strauss makes him dance to a Viennese waltz, and, although the rest of the audience didn’t seem to find this particularly funny, I thought it was hilarious. The piece also has the very famous opening, of course; and the ending too is very beautiful. But for all this, it seems to me somewhat incoherent: despite all the lovely moments and beautiful passages, there is much that seemed to me a bit dull and uninspired. It was all great fun, I suppose, but whereas Ein Heldenleben had been more than just fun, this, I don’t think, was. Once again, this is not a comment on the performance, but on the music itself: there is no doubt in my mind that Strauss was a very great composer … but it’s fair to say, I think, that he was not always great.

For the third and last concert, there can be no doubt at all: it was, from beginning to end, utterly magnificent. It started with the magnificent Tod und VerklärungDeath and Transfiguration; the final section of this work, representing the transfiguration of the soul after death (or some such), is a gloriously opulent passage even by Strauss’ standards; my expectations were high, and the orchestra did not disappoint. After that came another of Mozart’s late masterpieces – the clarinet concerto. I must admit that, immediately after the ending of Tod und Verklärung, my ears took a bit of time to adjust to Mozart’s very different sound world, but once they did, it was utterly irresistible. The soloist, Martin Fröst, shaped and coloured each phrase exquisitely, and as we moved into the interval we were left wondering how anything could possibly come after this and not seem an anti-climax.

What came afterwards was Metamorphosen, one of my personal favourite works by any composer. It is a piece for 23 strings, an unbroken span of some half hour or so; it was composed by Strauss in his eighties in the years after the end of the Second World War, and it is a lament for the depths into which the culture had sunk in which Strauss had been steeped. Now, Strauss’ relationship with Nazism remains controversial: from what I can work out, he was, personally, a very decent and generous man, without any hint at all of racism or of anti-Semitism; but the unfortunate fact remains that, in his admittedly old age, Strauss did allow himself to be wheeled on by the Nazis as the great representative of the German Musical Culture. It was naïveté on Strauss’ part rather than anything else, and while such naïveté cannot be anything other than reprehensible, to label Strauss a Nazi, as some have done, does seem grossly unfair. But, be that as it may, Metamoprphosen is a great masterpiece. I went through a phase in my early twenties – not, for various reasons, the most cheerful years of my life – when I used to listen almost obsessively to Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, and to this: its deep gloom and desolation, rising to uninhibited passion before subsiding once again, has long resonated with me, and listening to it live, and played and shaped so beautifully, was for me a particularly fulfilling experience.

The concert could have ended here, but they obviously wanted to end with a bang: so, to finish off, we had the hugely witty and exuberant Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’ musical depiction of the prankster from Germanic folklore. It is a tremendous orchestral scherzo, and it was played with great verve and gusto: it brought the house down.

So, after all that … was Strauss a great musical genius, or just a showman? I incline towards the first option – how could the composer of Metamorphosen be anything but a genius? – but frankly, I don’t know that I care much. Genius or showman, this is music that I love, and I wouldn’t be without it. And that’s all that really matters.

12 responses to this post.

  1. Do people really think that about Strauss? I find that a bizarre idea, but I’ve always considered him a genius, so I may be prejudiced. He was a terrific conductor as well — if you can lay hands on his performance of Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis overture (I have a scratchy old recording somewhere bought forty years ago), it’s amazing (and for a long time was all you could find of any Gluck beyond the famous one — thank goodness for today’s wide range of recordings!). At any rate, I envy you your concert experiences, though I fear the last one might have worn me out. I don’t have the stamina I did forty years ago…


    • I suppose I should have been more circumspect: instead of speaking of a “consensus”, I should have said “many think…” or even “some think…” But it is true, I think, that Strauss is often thought of as a less serious composer than Mahler. I remember reading an obituary of Karajan when he died back in 1989 (I can’t find it on the net to link to) which said that Karajan was a better conductor of second rate music than of first rate music, and gave as an example his mastery of Richard Strauss, and compared it to his interpretations of Mahler, which the obituarist deemed lacking. I disagreed with this (and diagree still) on so many levels that I hardly know where to start. In the first place, Karajan’s recordings off Mahler were, in my opinion at least, top drawer; but more pertient to teh discussion here is that Strauss was considered, compared to Mahler, a “second rate composer”. I have seen many other instances of this kind of thing, but yes, I should have provided a few links to support my point.

      I’ve never actually heard any recording of Strauss as conductor. I’ll have a hunt around for his recording of the Gluck overture you mention. I think there are some Mozart recordings as well, that should be worth investgating.


  2. A kind of musical Barnum and Bailey. Damn it, I wish I had said that!

    OK, Himadri, I’m trying to resist the temptation but… Ken Russell’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. There. I’ve said it.

    More seriously, I would have no hesitation in recommending the same director’s ‘Mahler.’ Just brilliant. (And of course, completely over the top.)


    • I’ve actually seen both those Ken Russell films! “never Knowingly Understated….” It’s not so much his lack of understatement that bothers me, but more his unbuttoned lunacy… I wouldn’t mind seeing that Mahler film again, though: completely daft, but very enjoyable, from what I remember. I’d say, though, that Ken’s best film is Savage Messiah.


      • Found your piece on Strauss and the Leipzig / Chailly concerts very insightful. The notion of defining what constitutes a genuine masterpiece, as opposed to something you love because it speaks to you on a personal level, is the crux of all musical / art / literature appreciation. Best to ignore the clamour of expert ‘opinion’, and just go with the heart is best in my experience. After all, your mind and emotion are ultimately the only available theatres in which to grapple with a particular work.
        Recall seeing the Mahler film (I think starring Robert Powell as the composer) about 30-odd years ago, near the start of my obsession with his works Completely loony-tunes, but how else to represent such a complex character. So it was quite valid as a piece of cinema in my view.
        Have just got hold of the scholarly and seriously annotated Richard Strauss: A Musical Life by Raymond Holden, published by Yale Univ Press, and will comment in due course.

      • Hello, and thank you or that. I agree – one can only go with what one thinks, but given that no individual mind can take in everything worth taking in, it’s just as well trying to find out what others think as well, and to enter into dialogue. Strauss, I do feel, was (at least as his best)as serious and as great a composer was was Mahler.

        It has been many years since I saw that Ken Russell film: I’m afraid it’s that looney-tunes element I remember most – but there’s nothing wrong with that. Robert powell looked remarkably like Mahler, I thought!

        Please do let us know what you made of Raymond Holden’s book on Strauss. I have not had a musical education, and much of the technical analysis goes over my head, I’m afraid. I do venture into some works on music, but am rather wary of doing so.

        All the best for now,

  3. Excellent piece (as ever). I think that criticism of Strauss originates from his adherence to tonality at a time when the likes of Schoenberg were tearing up the rule books. From the 60s on it became fashionable in musical establishments to embrace the experimental music of Boulez, Stockhausen et al, while sneering at Strauss and other 20th composers who remained “traditional”. I remember a passage in a book on contemporary music which said something like “we must say no to Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and embrace [some piece by Boulez or Ligeti, IIRC]”. I accept that “modern” music plays an important part in musical history but I can’t help wondering if the championing of atonal music at the expense of more accessible composers led, in part, to the diminishing respect for classical music in favour of pop. It would take a far more erudite person than I to prove this, though!

    Strauss certainly was a genius, though a flawed one; some of his later operas (Intermezzo and particularly Capriccio) are very wordy and have their longueurs. But there is more than enough great music in Strauss to qualify him as a great, rather than just good, composer – the example you give, Metamorphosen, is an excellent example of this.

    Thank you for a fascinating article.


    • Thanks, Neil, for that, and good to see you again after so long!

      Funny thing is that Strauss actually was quite avant garde! Elektra, say, is as modernist as any work you may care to mention – Wozzeck, The Rite of Spring, Bartók’s 4th string quartet, Erwartung, etc. I once read somewhere that Strauss peered into modernism in Elektra, but alarmed by what he found, retreated into conservatism thereafter. What nonsense! Elektra isn’t just “peering into” modernism – it is uncompromisingly, even aggressively, modernist. Strauss was not just a conservative throwback holding out against modernism: he was in a position to say “been there, done that”.

      I don’t know Strauss’ later operas at all – nothing after Ariadne auf Naxos, really – but I am looking forward to filling in the gaps in my knowledge. I’m sure there will be longueurs: there are longueurs in Der Rosenkavalier as well – but I find it worthwhile sitting through the third act for the sake of the trio. And in any case, I’m becoming increasingly sybaritic in my old age: a lush orchestral texture, a gorgeous soprano voice soaring ethereally heavenwards … I mean, what’s not to like?


  4. Hello Himadri

    Too right there are longueurs in Rosenkavalier; Ochs’s boasting in Act 1 and the masks scene in Act 3 seem interminable to me these days and although I’ve never been a fan of opera highlights, this one could just be the exception. Give me the beginning and end of Act 1, the Presentation of the Rose and the last 20 minutes of Act 3 and I’m done. Oh, I rather like the Italian tenor’s bit too!

    I don’t find Elektra that “modern” in comparison to the works you mention, though I can see how it must have been perceived as beyond the pale at the time. Even the more frenetic bits, such as Clytemnestra’s hysterical reaction to the apparent death of Orestes and the two murders at the end are arguably tonal and melodic, if somewhat raucous, and the opera as a whole follows a form that any reasonably advanced music lover can recognise. OTOH I think that Wozzeck and certainly Erwartung are likely to (musically at least) elicit a WTF response from those who like their opera exciting or “nice” or both.

    As for a lush soprano soaring with a gorgeous orchestral texture – bring it on! Try Die Aegyptische Helena – there’s a very decent recording with Deborah Voigt on Telarc – it’s two hours of sheer onanism!



    • Die Aegyptische Helena? Not one that had been on my list frankly, but I’m all for a bit of musical onanism!

      The scene in Elektra where Clytemnestra relates her dream, and the music goes flying off in all sorts of different tonalities at the same time, still strikes my ears as very weird indeed: heaven only knows what Strauss’ audiences must have thought. There’s an unremitting barbarity about the work that leaves me punch-drunk. Perhaps, as you say, it isn’t “modernis” in the sense that Wozzeck or Erwartung are, but it sure as hell ain’t conservative!

      I’ve currently got mself Georg Solti’s recording of Die Frau Ohne Schatten, and Karl Boehm’s recording of Capriccio. Let’s just take this one step at a time! 🙂

      Thanks for the recommendation.


  5. That Solti Die Frau is marvellous, isn’t it? It’s a performance and a half of what I consider Strauss’s finest opera. The last 20 minutes are a bit of an anti-climax perhaps but this opera is certainly proof of this composer’s greatness. Very noisy but nothing to frighten the horses. I still don’t understand the story but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter!


    • I must confess I haven’t quite come to terms with this work yet. There are certainly many beautiful passages, but all to often I find myself thinking “What were Hugo and Richard on?” I remain intrigued, though, and will go on listening!


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