Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Case of Richard Strauss

(paper given at the conference on Music and Morality, Institute of Musical Research, University of London, 16 June 2009)

‘Wagner is the most highly controversial figure in the entire history of the arts.’ These words, with which Wilhelm Furtwängler opened his penetrating essay, The Case of Wagner, may still hold true; I am sure that they do for music. But should they? Germans, and German musicians in particular, are very fond of ‘cases’. Nietzsche had his Case of Wagner, the title at least consciously echoed by Furtwängler. Looking to the twentieth century, Schoenberg remains intensely controversial. A host of devotees sees him, with greater or lesser qualification, as a Moses-like figure, leading composition into an atonal and subsequently serialist, Promised Land; others see this as the point where it ‘all went wrong’. There are other questions but the Case of Schoenberg has not changed essentially from the moment of the emancipation of the dissonance. A composer who ought to be just as controversial as Wagner or Schoenberg, is Richard Strauss. The reasons for controversy are not the same, even though they may sometimes be related. I want to outline a Case of Strauss and to ask the moral terms in which much of it would be couched might tell us about some issues concerning music and morality.

A mainstay of conceptions of Strauss is that the modernist composer hurtles forward as far as Elektra, before the regression of Der Rosenkavalier, in terms of musical language and subject matter. There are many problems with this ‘case’. I should certainly question how ‘modernist’, at least in a post-Schoenbergian, ‘New Music’ sense, Salome and Elektra are. But rather than considering this in itself, let us see how it might reflect, perhaps even further, conceptions of music and morality. The teleology envisages a hero’s valour pressing him forward before that teleology is reversed or at best stunted. Others continue to go forward, whether with nostalgia (Berg), with no regrets (Webern), or somewhere in between (Schoenberg). Strauss turns back. But it is not, according to this claim, just that he turns back. He seeks refuge in an confected conflation of his name sake, the Waltz King, Johann Strauss, and post-Mozartian or sub-Mozartian parody. Still worse, he does this to please the audience, perhaps to please himself – and, it would seem, to rake in the cash, all the more shockingly when Salome had in any case purchased him his villa in Garmisch. Contrast, later, Schoenberg in American exile, suffering for his art, with the private premiere of the prologue to Capriccio at the home of Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach, who helped Strauss to secure his threatened Belvedere property in Vienna. A villa here, a villa there, even when the whipped cream has been transformed into something a little easier on the arteries. It all adds up: the property portfolio and the calories – and doesn’t the composer know it?

What do we have here then? There is of course the ‘failure’ – an apt characterisation of the charge, even if not of the reality – to continue along a modernist line. There is a retreat, perhaps to court (relative) popularity, perhaps to maximise the financial proceeds, perhaps even so as not to engage with the world around him: the aristocratic manners of Capriccio’s eighteenth-century château might seem less than relevant to the world of 1941. (Again, I should stress that these are not necessarily my own views.) Technical, perhaps especially harmonic, innovation often tends to lead, or at least to be seen to lead, to exploration of new emotional, psychological, æsethetic, even political and societal realms. If the political had been notably absent from Elektra, the psychopathological had not. Similarly, lack of innovation tends to suggest a general lack of adventure. It is barely a step from this to seeing middle- and often late-period Strauss, with at best a few exceptions, as failing to face up to the demands of the present, whether through weakness or the composer’s own deliberate fault: a loss of nerve, incomprehension even, or more or less straightforward cynical exploitation.

Strauss admittedly did not help his case here, making bourgeois, even philistine pronouncements pour épater les anti-bourgeois. He was a profoundly cultured man, who had read – and criticised – Schopenhauer at an early age and knew his Goethe inside out. Karl Böhm relates: ‘sometimes it was quite impossible to follow Strauss in every topic of his conversation: one had to be as well up in literature as in music to be able to hold one’s own with him. He was at home in German literature as no other musician ... he knew Faust by heart. He was equally familiar with Russian literature.’ And yet, he often portrayed himself as being more interested in playing cards or counting the receipts. Karl Kraus provided the biting description – does he ever fail to draw blood? – of Strauss as ‘certainly more of a stock company than a genius’. Even in an intercepted letter to Stefan Zweig, in which Strauss came as close to an outright attack upon the Nazi regime as he ever did, he could not resist, or seemingly did not wish to resist, a financial reference. ‘For me,’ he wrote, ‘the Volk only begins to exist when it becomes the audience. It’s all the same to me if they come from China, Upper Bavaria, New Zealand, or Berlin, so long as they have paid full price at the box office.’

It has become commonplace to deplore aspects of an artist’s behaviour, whilst admiring his art. This does not seem to hold for Strauss, suggesting that something additional is at work. One often finds in Strauss’s accusers a sense of moral outrage, or at least distaste, that a composer of such gifts is, for more or less reprehensible reasons, letting them go to waste, frittering them away, acting dishonestly. One sees a school-report-like suspicion that Strauss could easily – and ‘ease’ suggests the composer’s facility – have done so much better. Carl Dahlhaus, far from an outright anti-Straussian, opines: ‘The break between self-satisfied cantabile and orchestral sophistication in Strauss ... is impossible to ignore,’ the ‘relationship between technique and expression’ being ‘precarious’. This implies a squandering of fabulous technique, an easy way out, almost because he could. Elgar or Pfitzner are, for instance, and irrespective of one’s gauging of their music’s musical worth, generally seen as ‘honest’ or ‘honourable’ conservatives. There is integrity to what they are attempting, even for those who doubt the quality of the outcome. Strauss is, in a word, irresponsible, whereas an authentic modern artist must, in post-Romantic style, shoulder responsibility, for the development of his art, and even for the moral health, instruction, and progress of the world around him. For Strauss, poets or artists should not be the legislators of the world, not because they are unimportant, but because being an artist is so much more important than being a legislator. His creed is æstheticism through and through.

This is a composer who notoriously could not understand the preoccupation with redemption evinced by Mahler, who has latterly come to be seen as the prophet of twentieth-century music. With candid honesty, Strauss could tell Otto Klemperer: ‘I don’t know from what I am to be redeemed. When I sit down at my desk in the morning and I get an idea, I don’t need redemption. What did Mahler mean by it?’ Mahler’s own claim – often misleadingly quoted – ‘The time will come, when men will see the chaff separated from the wheat – and my time will come when his [Strauss’s] is up,’ might not quite have been fulfilled; Strauss’s time has never quite been called. Nevertheless, a Mahlerian ascendancy has been achieved, whether in musicological, compositional, or performing circles, and the qualities for which Mahler is admired, be they moral, modernist, or both, tend to be viewed as lacking in Strauss. Indeed, Schoenberg, declining a request for an appreciation on Strauss’s fiftieth birthday, would claim: ‘... since I have understood Mahler (and I cannot grasp how anyone can do otherwise) I have inwardly rejected Strauss’.

In addition to the accusation of squandering gifts, there is also a sense of something unwholesome, unhealthy, degenerate even, in an interesting variation upon a German theme. There is also an abiding moral question: what is Strauss’s music for? Are we being manipulated? If so, to what end? The conclusion often seems to be shockingly nihilistic, the virtual paradox of being manipulated to no end whatsoever, unless one buys the line of financial reward. Far from the most unambiguous of modernists, Hans Werner Henze would nevertheless voice the accusation of a lack of moral purpose with particular force:

Beethoven regarded his whole enterprise as a contribution to human progress. As with Marxism, his goal is not God but Man, whereas there are other artists who have never given a thought to the moral function of their work; for instance Richard Strauss, who is for me – perhaps I’m going too far – something like a court composer to Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Picking up on the idea of degeneracy, it is worth noting that Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn contracts venereal disease from his visit to the prostitute Esmerelda following a performance of Salome. Having been infected, straining, as it were, to become Schoenberg becomes the fictional composer’s impossible penance (impossible in the sense that it was even for Schoenberg himself). Consider the following words from Adorno, which could never be applied to Strauss, whom we might consider here as Schoenberg’s antipode:

[Schoenberg’s] music denies the very thing we have been accustomed, since Shakespeare’s days, to expect from music as the magical art: consolation. In the era of music’s emancipation it claims to be nothing more than the voice of truth, without the crutches of the familiar, but also without the deception of praise and false positivity. The strength to do this, not illusion, is what is consoling about it. One could say that Schoenberg translated the Old Testament ban on images into music.

If Schoenberg stands for truth, does not Strauss stand for something false, for consolation, for ‘the deception of praise and false positivity’, for illusory images? In other words, if Schoenberg is Moses, is not Strauss Aron? There is no claim to that ‘truth’ towards which Schoenberg’s, Wagner’s, Mahler’s, or Beethoven’s music strains. Nor is there a polemical anti-Romantic stance, such as Stravinsky’s, proclaiming that music cannot or should not strain towards the truth: in itself, amongst other things, a claim to truth. Perhaps this is why after a 1963 performance of Der Rosenkavalier, Stravinsky would say that Strauss could charm and delight, but never move. ‘He didn’t give a damn,’ was the damning verdict. One would certainly search in vain for a ‘message’ to take home from Elektra; to read it as a moral homily upon family breakdown would be an eccentricity too far. Whether we can agree on what Moses und Aron, Parsifal, a Mahler symphony, or the Missa solemnis might ‘mean’, many would agree that some form of argument or transformation is intended; not with Strauss.

One crucial Straussian remnant, however, is something with which moralists have long had difficulty: irony. In Kierkegaard’s words, ‘the ironist sets himself above ethics and morals. ... He renders his ego infinite.’ He may feel ‘remorse, but aesthetically not morally’. Irony has long been associated with nihilism, which again rings true for Strauss. Indeed, Leon Botstein has suggested that, in contradistinction to so many modernist composers, Strauss is content to employ irony, ornament, and detachment, not to ‘undercut wisdom,’ but rather as its instruments. I do not have time to explore the morality of detachment, the morality of ornament – which, you may recall, Schoenberg’s friend, the modernist architect, Adolf Loos, branded a ‘crime’ – or the morality of irony. However, I should like to conclude with a thought upon the latter. When Strauss’s mask drops, as in the Composer’s panegyric to Music in Ariadne auf Naxos, or in Metamorphosen, that great lament for a classical Germany in flames, Strauss proves to be one of the most moving of all composers; he actually appears to be doing what many have thought he ought. It is, I admit, very difficult not to wish that this happened more often. Yet, in the conclusion of his book, The compass of irony, Douglas Muecke writes, against Kierkegaard:

The real basis of his objections to irony is his commitment ... to a closed-world ideology. ... Since he was a believer, there was one direction in which he could not be ironical ... The business of irony is to see clearly and ask questions. ... Irony, mobile and disengaged, has always been an object of suspicion in the eyes of established authority and those who feel a need for its blessing. ... It was not only because Heine was a Jew that the Nazis attacked his works.

If Strauss enables us to see more clearly and to ask questions, if he stands as an object of suspicion in the eyes of conventional, whether justified or otherwise, ways of conceiving of music and morality, then we might consider him rather differently. Henze’s accusation that Strauss had never given a thought to the moral function of his work seems to me untrue; it was, rather, rare indeed for this function to provide the subject matter of his work. Do we really need to attack his works? The greatness of Mahler or Schoenberg will not be lessened by appreciation of Strauss. As a caution against constraints upon thinking and upon experience, against the ‘closed-world ideology’ evoked above, Strauss might prove to be a force for good after all.