A Letter from Salzburg

What’s the “Record” Seventy Years After Strauss?

This year, September 8 marks seven decades since the death of Richard Strauss. While I agree with Alex Ross and Bob Shingleton that anniversaries often lead to embarrassing surfeits of activity, this milestone carries a certain poignancy worth consideration. The copyright on Strauss’s compositions will lapse at the end of this calendar year, sending the scores into that neverland of public domain. For a composer who devoted consistent energy throughout his life in asserting his intellectual and financial rights as an artist, this is the ultimate (and literal) reversal of fortune and end of an era for one of the most lucrative musical estates of the twentieth century.

But whither “Kaufmann Strauss”? The episode is not without its resonances for the present. Despite the conventional divide between “art music” and “popular music,” the challenges that Strauss faced in the commercial side of the music industry continue across the divide. Even though the bulk of the composer’s efforts were devoted towards live performances of his works, it should never be forgotten that Strauss lived well into the era of modern media and was (to a point) an active participant. The battle for intellectual and monetary rights by musical authors and artists in an ever-expanding world of streaming services, (il)legal download platforms, and sections of the public growing incrementally averse to actually paying for music is just as relevant as it was a century ago.

It was just before this anniversary that the Internationale Richard Strauss-Gesellschaft (IRSG), in cooperation with the Richard-Strauss-Institut, the Herbert von Karajan-Institut, the Universität Mozarteum, and the Universität Salzburg, hosted the conference “Strauss on the Record: Karajan and the Legacy of Sound Materiality” in Salzburg. The joining of Strauss with another major music titan was apt. Arguably the most media-savvy of twentieth-century conductors, Herbert von Karajan’s legacy is indelibly bound up with that of Strauss as a performer and stage director, to say nothing of politics. The ten presentations between September 6 and 7 offered a stimulating range of perspectives on these topics, as can be seen from the full program book.

Discussing a masterpiece of visual camp, or a record cover from hell. Photo by Sally Drew.

My offering for the conference discussed the place of Strauss’s operas in the catalog of Decca Records via the lens of Christof Loy’s 2011 production of Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Salzburg Festival. Collectively, the gathering illustrated the richness of the current scholarship and the potential for evolving dialogues to develop between the archive, theory, criticism, and analysis. All this was capped by a magnificent Strauss Liederabend with soprano Lavinia Dames and pianist Carson Becke revisiting a special program performed by Strauss and Elisabeth Schumann in 1922, complete with improvised transitions in the Straussian tradition. As the IRSG continues to take root in its new home in Salzburg, and with a growing network of partnerships, the exchanges between scholars of various backgrounds about Strauss and his world will likewise prosper.

On top of the glorious stresses of delivering a paper, this trip marked my first visit to the city where Strauss and Karajan both cast long shadows as major cultural figures, the former as a founding father of the annual Salzburg Festival a century ago, and the latter as the prime mover of its aesthetic and commercial growth in the postwar era. The 2019 season had ended before my arrival, but as the founders knew full well, the city and its environs offer a theatre unto themselves, acted out everywhere from its twisting alleyways to the baroque promenades of its most stately edifices. Due homage was paid Sunday at the Kollegienkirche, site of the famous 1922 production of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Das Salzburger Große Welttheater, and Schloss Leopoldskron, once the home of the director and impresario behind the Festival, Max Reinhardt. The rainy and overcast sky lent the still surroundings of the Großes Festspielhaus and Felsenreitschule an expectant atmosphere. The 2020 Festival will offer yet another occasion for celebration and reflection as to the achievements of the founders and how their past efforts persist in our living present.




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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