The Path to the Project, part 2; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Strauss as a Theater Historian

When I switched my graduate school track from stage management to musicology, I had been a dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerian for as long I can remember. Wagner (for all his foibles and figurative warts) was the first person and subject that inspired me to do “research” as a young amateur. As I wrote previously, my late approach to music as an academic discipline came amid the Wagner bicentenary, and the glut of scholarship on Leipzig’s most cantankerous son meant that a new topic for my academic and (hopefully) professional career had to be chosen.

This process, however, was not easy. The totalizing legacy of Wagner’s life and work imparts arrogance and chauvinism to varying shades in those who follow its path. In my case, I can say that being a Wagnerian demands an arduous path of experiencing and amending cultural myopia within yourself. The prognosis is all the more acute for the auto-didact who navigates the landscape independently, as I did. As in the rest of life, however, one exists to improve, to see the errors of the past as opportunities for growth, and to recognize new vistas for understanding.

For myself, Strauss was part of this expansion. He was a longtime blind spot, especially among twentieth-century composers. The most I knew of him at this point were the orchestral works and a handful of the operas. In my junior year of high school, I remember purchasing a CD of Rudolf Kempe’s outings with the tone poems. Till Eulenspiegel made a strong impression, as did the excerpt of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome. Here, as elsewhere, Strauss wielded irony with a Mephistophelean elegance few have equaled. Within that year, I had my hands on Solti’s recording of Salome with Decca, and going off to undergrad meant more recordings, more scores, and more literature to devour. Bizarrely—or maybe presciently—Elektra was the first opera I ever had to stop listening to midway through because I found the music and scenario too intense to continue. My aversion, thankfully, did not last long.

My reading on Strauss, however, progressed more slowly. As a first-year master’s student in musicology at the University of Illinois, I took advantage of my coursework to address my deficiencies. Mentions of Strauss’s control over stage productions prompted my exploration of the staging manual crafted for Der Rosenkavalier, and a seminar on music and politics offered a chance to dive into the perennially impugned Friedenstag. I found my appreciation growing deeper for not only the compositions but also Strauss’s life and career. Completing my master’s work dovetailed with my application and acceptance into the Ph.D. program in musicology at Duke University. This adventure only lasted a year before I moved back west to the Theatre Studies program at Illinois. The project I envisioned was inclining ever more towards a theatrical approach to Strauss, and the variables at my one-time alma mater were favorable.

Of course, the summary of these years leaves out plenty of unpleasant details better withheld for the moment. It is sufficient to say that for all the peaks in my relationship with certain academic disciplines, there have been plenty of troughs. Regrettably, to some in the academy, there is no sin like not knowing everything. Case in point: I was once told that I could not hope to make any adequate study of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s operas unless I was fluent in French and Italian and had read the entire corpus of Moliere’s plays. I fully admit—and openly regret—that my life’s course has not led to greater proficiency in instruments, extensive theoretical study, or multiple languages. My autodidact’s path—which I am fiercely proud of for all of its failings—wended its way through backstages and library shelves, probably the best teachers I ever had. To some individuals at the top of the heap, those who approach higher degrees via unconventional routes will only ever be nagging interlopers, persistent dilettantes, or worse. Educators of this ilk, if they can truly be called “educators,” remind me of the loathsome mother from Samuel Beckett’s short story “The End”: “A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.” I can only hope there is a special place hereafter for educators with the same mindset, especially those who use students as pawns in inter-faculty catfights.

This is all to say that I was incredibly lucky to have strong mentorship and assistance throughout my research. Many acknowledgments will be made in this series of posts, but several should be mentioned here. Like any Straussian writing in English, much was, is, and will always be owed to Dr. Bryan Gilliam of Duke University for blazing many trails intellectually and intercontinentally. His gracious support after my short time at Duke remains a blessing. I also found a true scholastic sibling in Dr. Matthew Werley of Salzburg, whose knowledge and connections across Europe are a wonder. Finally, the entire project would have been impossible without my advisor Dr. Katherine Syer. From my master’s thesis through to the dissertation, her example made so much possible. It is a hard business to have one academic foot in the world of music and the other in the world of theater. Dr. Syer has kept her balance between them (and much else besides), and I can only marvel at her tenacity, enthusiasm, and belief in opera as a sum above the parts into which the academy frequently divides it.

Addressing such rifts between music and theatre became part of my search for an appropriate Strauss dissertation topic. As a doctoral student in music, I had considered pursuing work on Friedenstag, but I put that aside out of a need for something new. I tried to formulate a scheme for a production history focused on specific works and periods, but no meaningful ideas coalesced. (I had considered a post-1949 study, and it is something I shall be pursuing further.) New ideas, however, emerged with rumination. While production histories and analyses of Strauss’s works are in their way robust, they have yet to spotlight specific theatrical collaborators with any great depth. The regular exception is the superlative artist and stage designer Alfred Roller, who worked with Strauss and his operas for decades. (Roller is a significant presence in my dissertation, but I take a more critical perspective distinct from the regular hagiographic assessments.) Glancing back at my accumulated seminar papers, I observed that in my discussions of Strauss as a theatrical artist, there were a number of theatrical collaborators in existing literature who were little more than passing references. A select handful received more glorified mentions, the most regular being stage director Max Reinhardt, whom I shall address in a separate outing. The list of the theatrically overlooked soon began to take a greater heft in my mind, and it offered me a cross-section not only of different theatrical fields (administration, stage direction, design, and technology) but also time periods of Strauss’s career, from the earliest days of Strauss’s career to its final stages before his death in 1949.

With plenty of doubt and toil, I managed to hammer out a prospectus for this idea. I never felt more stupid than when I was writing that document, but it was a well-fought and well-faced challenge. The end result sketched out four chapters prefaced by an introduction exploring Strauss as a theatrical collaborator in practice and in existing literature. As initially conceived, chapter one would focus on Strauss’s approach to theatrical practices and his early collaborators and influences. The final version favors the latter topic since collaborators proved fundamental to Strauss’s burgeoning stage aesthetic. Chapter two took as its subject Count Nicolaus von Seebach, the intendant in Dresden before the First World War. The count’s contentions with Strauss about the details for the world premiere of Der Rosenkavalier in 1911 as a springboard. Chapters three and four altered substantially between conception and execution. Chapter three would have explored stage direction with Max Reinhardt as a case study. Four would tackle stage designers through the somewhat ungainly lens of three important early productions of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Die ägyptische Helena. My later posts will cover the transformation to the final versions in more detail.

While my prospectus was approved during my preliminary exams, a far more intense task awaited: securing funding for research abroad. I launched headlong into the application processes for the Fulbright and the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD) with the gracious offer of support and hosting from the Richard Strauss Edition research office in Munich, attached to the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Anyone pursuing major long-term grants knows that the process is grueling and seemingly endless. One works for weeks and months to perfect single-spaced proposals that condense what seems like a universe of research into just a few pages. Then, they are vetted through various mills and interviews before going off into the bureaucratic ether for many more months before any hint of update appears. I was lucky that my DAAD application was successful and was proud of myself for at least being named a Fulbright Alternate. I can only advise those who follow the same path not to lose themselves scouring Slack channels for information or endlessly refreshing inboxes. It is injurious to one’s health.

“Vollendet das ewige Werk!”—Sixty Years of Decca’s Das Rheingold

A marvel of recording history, still glittering sixty years on.

Cover, DAS RHEINGOLD
Hans Wild’s original cover art for Decca’s release of Das Rheingold, easily the best of his series for the Ring.

“The artists were rolling in, the rehearsals started, and we had to get out of the clouds and on with a job of work.”—John Culshaw, Ring Resounding.

On this date in 1958, sixty years ago, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a cadre of the great Wagner singers of the post-war era, conductor Georg Solti (not yet Sir), producer John Culshaw, and the technical marvel known as the Decca Boys went into the Sofiensäle in Vienna to begin their stereophonic recording of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Hitherto unrecorded in such a format, it represented a huge risk for all involved. Culshaw’s still-thrilling account of the process, Ring Resounding, depicts the sense of trepidation and occasion leading up to the first sessions:

As September 24 approached, there was a feeling of tension unlike anything I had experienced. We were going flat out for something new and untried, and a lot of money was about to be spent. There was the usual nagging feeling that something might go hopelessly wrong and put us two sessions off schedule; there was also the feeling that whatever we did, Rheingold might be a failure. There is always the serious possibility with a recording (or a film or a play) that no matter how much heart everyone puts into it, there may simply not be enough people in the world sufficiently interested in the result to justify the expense.

The attempt was not the first. At Culshaw’s insistence, Decca had recorded rehearsals and performances of the Ring under Knappertsbusch at the first post-war Bayreuth Festival, anticipating a full release of the complete work on LP. The quality of performances (and a likely contractual halt from EMI’s éminence grise Walter Legge, whose wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was a member of the cast) snared the dream of a full release at the time. (The recording of Götterdämmerung from that set has, however, been issued on the Testament label.)  Nevertheless, the dream persisted, and after moderately successful 1957 studio recordings of acts 1 and 3 of Die Wälkure with Kirsten Flagstad (with the Todesverkündigung scene from act 2), the Decca repertoire committee committed to a recording of Das Rheingold in 1958.

The choice was somewhat reckless. Rheingold, as the “fore-evening” (Vorabend) of the Ring, is hardly a stand-alone work, and indeed it is hardly produced outside of the rest of its Ring siblings. Its staging challenges are legion, everything from the Rhein river, to giants, to serpents, and rainbow bridges. Yet such a work had no studio or stereophonic recording in any company’s catalogue, and it encompassed enough technical challenges to make it a viable project for the company.

Such an inauspicious project managed to attract a range of talents. Solti’s recording career was beginning to take flight (he had helmed the act 3 Walküre with Flagstad) and within a few years he would be at the head of Covent Garden. Of particular value to this recording is its cast. As Culshaw wrote at the end of his liner notes for the LP release, “there would be little chance of assembling a cast of this caliber on the stage today, but there may be some point in trying to establish a standard on records, not only because the special conditions enable you to try for musical perfection, but because stereophonic recording is a medium in which great performances may be produced with dramatic impact.” Two of the singers were Wagnerian champions. Gustav Neidlinger was secured as Alberich—at the time intended to be his farewell to the role—and a still-vibrant Set Svanholm, once a reigning Siegfried, as Loge. Culshaw elected for a young George London to sing Wotan, befitting the god’s youth before the more mature strains of the character appear in Die Walküre and Siegfried.

The casting of the Norwegian Wunder Kirsten Flagstad in the role of Wotan’s spouse Fricka (a role she never sang onstage) was lynchpin on many levels but another gamble.[1] Her credits, of course, were beyond compare. The foremost Wagner soprano of the 1930s, Culshaw had hoped to convince her to commit to a recording of the Ring as Brünnhilde. Yet her age, health (her life was eventually claimed by bone marrow cancer), and trepidation about recording a major Wagnerian role after the debacle of the EMI Tristan in 1952[2] left such a dream unfulfilled. An American press leak about her involvement almost shelved the project, but Culshaw’s determination as producer saw her through.[3] Still, there was trepidation. The Decca method of intensive piano rehearsals prior to a full orchestral session was misconstrued by some members of the cast as an indulgence for the project’s grand dame, but Flagstad’s professionalism soon put them back into place. She did not suffer fools. Or those who thought she hailed from Sweden.

The evening before the first session, Culshaw and Solti ran into rival producer Walter Legge in the bar of the Hotel Imperial. Two days of piano rehearsals had gone well, and the mood was somehow buoyant. The project was now common knowledge in Vienna, but Legge, a formidable but esteemed rival, feigned ignorance as to what was about to be undertaken. When the duo told him, he simply said, “very nice, very interesting. But of course you won’t sell any.” After its release in the U.S., it inexplicably shot to the top of the Billboard charts along with Elvis and Pat Boone. (Strange company for Wagner, to say the least.)

The session on September 24 began at 1500. (The Vienna Philharmonic maintained a vigorous schedule that fall for Decca, recording Beethoven symphonies in the morning and Rheingold in the afternoons, all before playing another full opera that evening at the Wiener Staatsoper.) First up was a test passage for the orchestra, the descent into Nibelheim that formed the transition between scenes 2 and 3 of Rheingold. The version eventually recorded for the release was the first to meticulously observe Wagner’s detailed scoring for eighteen anvils of varying sizes. (The same goes for the seven harps required at the work’s conclusion.) The real meat of the session consisted of scene 2 with George London, Claire Watson, Walter Kreppl, and Kurt Böhme, rounded out by a radiant Flagstad, who gave all naysayers (and some members of the VPO) a double-take with the scene’s opening and impassioned exclamation, “Wotan! Gemahl! Erwache!”

Unbeknownst to all in that moment, it would expand into one of the greatest achievements of the recording industry: the first complete stereo recording of Wagner’s Ring. Others have come and gone, some better, some worse, but there’s always a magic in those LPs unlike anything else. Decca’s Rheingold was my entry to the Ring, and it’s still my favorite recording of the work. Quixotic without presumption, it still rivets. Having checked out the first CD release from my county library in high school, I was dumbfounded to learn that the project had be undertaken in the 1950s. The sound, the voices, the orchestra, the drama—all of it had the clarity and freshness that it seemed to be a product of yesterday, that its vitality lived on in its own unique recorded time. Like Wotan’s Valhalla of the drama, it was a dream constructed by seemingly unsustainable means, but unlike the god’s heavenly palace, itself, its spirits, and its power linger on.

Coda. One of the glories of this recording are Neidlinger’s laughs, an element which can easily topple over into hamdom on record. His are all controlles, however, all power, all evil. The malice in his chortle in scene 4 after “Bin ich nun frei?” is curdling. There’s even a motivic interpolation in his offstage laugh in the transition between scenes 1 and 2. Wagner wrote the exhortation in the stage directions, but Neidlinger’s delivery mimics the thematic idea associated with the Nibelungs hammering. Genius.

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[1] Decca scored a similar coup in securing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to sing the role of Gunther in Götterdämmerung

[2] It got out that Schwarzkopf had “substituted” for Flagstad for Isolde’s high Cs during the studio sessions.

[3] It wouldn’t be the final casting challenge. Along with occasional MIA singers, the casting of the Rhine Daughter Wellgunde became undone at the last minute and Hetty Plumacher was deputized following an appendix operation, one story which Culshaw left out of Ring Resounding.