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Composers: Return to Richard

3 minute read

In the last four years of his life, Richard Strauss seldom heard his works performed by his own countrymen. The post World War II silent treatment was his penalty for having meekly allowed himself to be paraded as the artistic spirit of the Third Reich. But Strauss’s death in 1949 seemed a signal for a West German revival of his music. Audiences eagerly returned to his masterworks. And this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth, the revival has become almost deafening.

The Berlin Opera is presenting six Strauss productions, from Der Rosenkavalier to Die Frau ohne Schatten and Capriccio. In Munich, where coins are being struck for “Strauss Year,” the Opera’s Strauss festival had productions of all but four of his 15 operas, and the Nationaltheater’s summer festival will present the sweep of his music in 100 concerts. The Luftwaffenmusikkorps band will play his military marches in honor of his birthday (June 11). Bavarian radio will broadcast seven operas, and the Munich Music Conservatory is not only presenting a blizzard of lectures but—going the whole way—is changing its name to the Richard Strauss Conservatory.

Forgive & Forget. Much of Strauss’s music has been firmly placed in the classic repertoire since the ’20s, and outside Germany he had little need of a resurrection. World War I brought a ten-year lapse in the performance of Strauss in England, but World War II caused no lull in England or America. The Strauss of the Third Reich had been an old man, and after he was cleared by the denazification courts, it seemed only just to forgive and forget. Last year, in 175 orchestral performances of his works, Strauss became one of the most frequently played composers in the U.S.

The main argument over Strauss has always dwelt on the dramatic and realistic effects of his music. Wagnerians usually love it but followers of Schumann and Brahms are likely to find it crude and vulgar—”pleasure gas,” a Viennese critic once called it. His mammoth tone poems—Till Eulenspiegel, Ein Heldenleben and Also sprach Zarathustra—show him to be a peerless master of orchestral effect and a wizardly painter of tone color. But Strauss was the last man in a 400-year-old tradition of tonality, and it was his misfortune to work alongside the atonalists without sharing any of their discoveries. Halfway into the present century, he was widely dismissed as a souvenir of the last.

Metaphysically Close. The revival of Strauss’s music is a vivid demonstration that his claim on modern audiences is genuine. His songs are colorful and metaphysically close to the spirit of their texts. His operas are both sensuous and profound. His orchestral works are harmonically infallible. The music he wrote at 80 is clearly the work of the man who at 24 wrote Don Juan: the work of 60 years is united by an amazingly steady vocabulary. But Strauss saved for the end the most revealing expressions of his artistic philosophy. Having been judged a walking anachronism, he felt free to speak his mind.

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