Jupiter in his smirking guises: Some birthday jottings for Richard Strauss

Why still Strauss and why Strauss still.

Steichen_Early Years_07
Strauss as photographed by Steichen in 1904.

“Richard Strauss, then, seems to me to be more than the greatest man of music of our time. He iin my opinion a central figure in today‘s most crucial dilemma of aesthetic morality—the hopeless confusion that arises when we attempt to contain the inscrutable pressures of self-guiding artistic destiny within the neat, historical summation of collective chronology.”—Glenn Gould, “An Argument for Richard Strauss” (1962).


I’m frequently asked by friends and acquaintances alike, “Why Strauss?”, and I, with equal frequency, pause and ask myself that same question, especially on his birthday, June 11. When I first made the leap from stage management to musicology, it should have by all rights been for the sake of Wagner. But those were the days of his bicentenary and though there is still more to be done with the magician of Bayreuth, there seemed to be at that time very little of R. that needed turning over in the scholastic moment.

Seeking avenues beyond Wagner, Strauss as scholarship became a reality for me that same year thanks to two seminar papers, one on the Regiebuch for Der Rosenkavalier and the second on Strauss’s Friedenstag. The first has fed directly into my dissertation research on Strauss’s stage collaborators and key collaborations, but the second is still a labor of love. With this, as with all my ventures in Strauss, the goal is to dig past the dreaded enemy of conventional knowledge to what lies beneath.

My early route to Strauss, however, was more circuitous, helped along the way by the treasured compact disc. The first Strauss addition to my catalog, indeed my first extended exposure, was a compendium release of tone poems conducted by Rudolf Kempe with the Dresden Staatskapelle: Zarathustra, Till, Tod und Verklärung, and always infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome. I recall I bought it mostly for the work “freely after” Nietzsche—in reality, for what came after the introduction which I had never heard in full. I confess I continue to vacillate in my reactions to TuV, but I never looked back after hearing Till and the always infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils.” (Being a self-contained excerpt, Kempe’s version is one of the few to keep the long line of the piece in balance with its wildness.) To my growing ears, they both shared two things which still bring me back to Strauss’s works every day: their sheer thrill as well as their inherent wickedness.

With that term, I don’t mean “wickedness” in the sense of outright sin, though such a distinction does have merit for these examples, two of the composer’s most irreverent compositions and characters. Nor do I mean to characterize the composer in Manichean terms as “evil.” Strauss’s career in many ways does boast its blasphemies: the “unconventional” (inadequate to some) choices of subject matter, the adherence to his own milieus of composition, his eclecticism, his bourgeois attitudes, even the later political missteps. Beyond these, however, Strauss, like Mann, remains the consummate ironist: turning our personal and cultural norms up their heads by means of a jocose and elegant antagonism that rarely strays into crude maliciousness. I have come to believe that this “wicked” ambivalence, neither ebulliently optimistic nor numbingly pessimistic, keeps Strauss’s works alive. One hundred and fifty-four years after his birth, there are few dead ends to be found in Strauss, even in works which many would (and still) consider to be “disappointing” or “uninspired.” Riddles perhaps, fogs occasionally, but rarely a full stop. As Gould observed over fifty years ago, Strauss’s vitality spawns from his capacity for debate, for reevaluation, for, as he did time and time again, wickedly flaunting whatever may be said, written, or thought of him.

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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