Friday 11 February 2011

Some thoughts on Richard Strauss's Capriccio

Capriccio has been much on my mind over the past week. Not only am I part way through writing a chapter concerned with Strauss; I gave a paper at the University of Surrey on Capriccio and also gave a talk at the Peterhouse History Society on Music in the Third Reich (starting with Triumph of the Will and moving via Furtwängler to Strauss). Here are a few thoughts that have arisen (some taken from an earlier Edinburgh Festival review, for which I hope I may be forgiven).

For what it is worth, it seems to me that, if we must confront the 'facts' with which people are so obsessed when it comes to the Third Reich, Strauss acted in a pretty ordinary way: neither ‘great’ nor ‘disgraceful’. Perhaps that in itself is a problem for us: we find it easier to deal with heroism or evil; perhaps we fear that we, with our everyday concerns and fears would actually have acted in too similar a way to Strauss, yet he has no excuse, since he was a Composer – and that should be a force for good in the world. Strauss certainly proved no hero, though there were occasions when he acted well, as in his defence of Stefan Zweig. He was less of a figure of opposition, say, than Furtwängler, whom many consider nevertheless deeply compromised; there is no equivalent to the anger expressed in some of Furtwängler’s wartime performances, though there is some equivalent to that expressed privately in Furtwängler’s notebooks, albeit perhaps more disdain than anger. Sadly – and one can hardly help feeling a certain sadness, if one cares about Strauss’s music – politics were not of interest to him; art was. There were particular personal difficulties: his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren, for instance, whom, with considerable difficulty, he managed to save from being sent to a concentration camp. That seems to have been a reason for accepting the presidency in 1933 of the Reichsmusikkammer – that, and it may be noted, an apparently genuine desire to safeguard the performance of music by Jewish composers, such as Mendelssohn and Mahler. That post came to an end the following year, however, upon the Gestapo’s interception of the letter to Zweig, in which Strauss protested in no uncertain terms about Nazi cultural policy towards Jewish artists. Likewise, Strauss refused to have Zweig’s name as librettist removed from the programme for the premiere of Die schweigsame Frau; Goebbels refused to attend, and the work was soon proscribed. The former is just as one might expect, I might add, for someone who, whatever he believes or does not about anyone else, does believe in art in a way that goes far beyond self-interest. One might well dissent from such a world-view but it is far from cynical.

Capriccio itself of course originated in an idea from Stefan Zweig, derived from his British Library researches into eighteenth-century opera; taking his cue from a rival of Lorenzo da Ponte, Abbé Giovanni Battista Casti, Zweig had wished to create a new work exploring one of the fundamental issues in operatic creation, namely the relationship between words and music. Upon his flight from Austria, Zweig had hoped that Joseph Gregor would take up the plan for a libretto, but Strauss, always a productively difficult taskmaster in these respects, found Gregor’s proposals wanting, eventually proposing to the conductor, Clemens Krauss, that he take on the task. Krauss and Strauss ended up writing the text in collaboration, though the music was of course entirely Strauss’s own. What arose was a metatheatrical conversation piece, very much in the line of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal Ariadne auf Naxos. Set in the salon of Countess Madeleine outside Paris in 1775, that is at the time of controversy over Gluck’s operatic reforms, we witness disputes between the countess, her brother, the composer Flamand, the poet Olivier, and the theatrical impresario La Roche, over the nature of music, drama, and opera; the Count hits upon the idea that the events arising should themselves be turned into an opera, a collaboration between the artists present. The Countess, at least on the surface, proves as incapable of choosing æsthetically between words and music as she is romantically between poet and composer. Unlike Strauss’s preceding opera, Capriccio received wartime performances, being premiered at the Nationaltheater in Munich on 28 October 1942, and moving on to Dresden and Vienna in 1944.

The opening string sextet – the conceit being that it is itself a new work by the composer, Flamand – had already been performed at the villa of Baldur von Schirach, the Vienna Gauleiter. Schirach would receive twenty years imprisonment in Spandau prison at Nuremberg; he was one of the two defendants, the other being Albert Speer, who spoke against Hitler. Krauss, whom it is probably fair to describe as a skilled careerist, managed to secure the premiere by persuading Goebbels, with whom Strauss was once again out of favour, to assume patronage of the occasion.

What, then, do we make of an opera conceived and first performed in such circumstances? It is hardly a work of protest, though how could it be? In what I am tempted to call its ‘aristocratic’ refinement, both verbally and musically, it stands at one level about as distant from the catastrophe enveloping Europe as one could imagine. Yet when one begins to think about it a little more deeply, all sorts of difficulties, intentional or otherwise, emerge. This might seem facile, but the very setting in France has resonances. Moreover, To have the Countess comparing the musical merits of Rameau vis-à-vis Couperin at this time in Nazi Germany is perhaps more telling than one might think. Such composers were not part of the musical mainstream, even leaving aside matters of nationality; indeed, many composers, let alone others, would not necessarily have been well acquainted with their music, though Strauss certainly was – and showed through his composition that he was, sometimes through direct quotation, for instance the ‘Air italien’ from Rameau’s Les indes galantes, when the composer is mentioned, at other times through allusion. There seems, then, to be an assertion of humanist, perhaps aristocratic, values, lightly done, as it had to be, but which connects very well with his increasing re-immersion in the work of Goethe. The apolitical, especially at times such as this, might actually be read as highly political, whatever the straightforward intention.

Arguably true, perhaps, but the Rococo – or should that be neo-Rococo? – setting cannot help but seem like a refuge, a retreat. (We are back, perhaps to the Rosenkavalier problem, yet intensified, for retreating from harmonic experiment after Elektra is one thing, withdrawing from a world of war and genocide quite another. At least that is how many of us would see it…) Even in eighteenth-century terms, the aristocratic salon with exquisite manners and rarefied æsthetic debate contrasts sharply with what we know was to come after 1789: the alleged ‘truth’ of revolutionary art, exemplified by, the studio of Jacques-Louis David, let alone the Paris of the sans-culottes, seems distant indeed. Once again, masks and games both gratify and haunt us: Straussian detachment and irony.

And since so much of the drama concerns itself with artistic patronage, we can hardly help consider the patronage of Schirach and Goebbels. What then, are we to make of a work in which it is the patroness, the Countess, who insofar as anyone can, resolves dramatic conflicts? Having said that, if, as seems clear, the representation of La Roche takes an affectionate cue from the Jewish impresario, Max Reinhardt, an old and valued collaborator with Strauss from beyond even the foundation of the Salzburg Festival, indeed from the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, then letting La Roche/Reinhardt have his say, above all in his dignified panegyric to the theatre, is not without its importance.

A recent production from the Cologne Opera, which I saw at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007, heightened the contrast between political reality and work, and made a powerful case for political reality as part both of the work and our inevitable response to it. That contrasts strongly and tellingly with the San Francisco DVD I have (see above YouTube link) as ‘traditional’ a production as one might conceive, but which one necessarily reads in a different way once one has started to think about these issues. In one of the archetypal operas about the making of an opera, it is more than usually appropriate to add another narrative layer, in which the era of the making of Capriccio itself features. Our first sight, disturbingly set against the beauties of the sextet – some might be tempted to call it the Schirach sextet – was of the Wehrmacht marching down the Champs-Elysées. The opera therefore remained in France, somewhere outside Paris. The bulk of the action, Capriccio's creation of an opera as opposed to the production's creation of Capriccio, took place in eighteenth-century costume: a final house party, in which the coming of the Gestapo might be put out of mind for a couple of hours. One might have been tempted to wonder: is this perhaps what Strauss himself was doing?

There were from time to time reminders of approaching fate, which grew more numerous as time – a crucially important concept – went on. Every aspect of the production, be it 'political' or 'aesthetic', showed the dichotomy to be false and worked inexorably towards the denouement: the Count's preparation of a cyanide capsule, the last vain attempt to answer or perhaps to evade not only the vexed question of words or music, but arguably to answer or to evade other questions too, and perhaps most chillingly of all, the prompter, Monsieur Taupe, replete with his yellow star, being left behind by the departure of the main party and offered his own carriage ‘home’. In this context, the actress Clairon’s constant refrains that she must depart for Paris sounded differently indeed.

The final scene then depicted the Countess saying farewell. Who knew when or indeed whether she would ever return after being escorted to the railway station? And yet, there was another, equally important side to what was going on. Strauss's music arguably offered some sense of hope, ‘utopian’ in a sense Ernst Bloch might have understood, against this terrible backdrop. Whether the hope were vain or even irresponsible remained unanswered, at least explicitly. Yet just as surely as music always wins out against the words, for the apparently insoluble argument is answered by Strauss in the glory of the closing music set against the banality of the Major-Domo's announcement that supper is served, so perhaps, in Strauss’s very own sense, does art against its surrounding evil. The former certainly does not prevent the other, but nor does it necessarily submit entirely. For the music to the final scene, some of the most heartrending Strauss ever wrote, becomes all the more moving when it confronts rather than retreats from evil. Or at least when, masks or otherwise, it is made to do so. Is the mask slipping, or is it just deployed in a way that utterly convinces the listener? We should not expect – and yet we seem to do so – Strauss necessarily to know himself. Indeed, as Strauss read in Goethe’s Zahme Xenien, which he would consider setting, though instead he wrote Metamorphosen, ‘Niemand wird sich Selber kennen/sich von seinem Selbst-Ich trennen’ (‘No one can know himself/separate himself from his very self.’)

If the beauty – the Mondscheinmusik simply had to begin with a horn solo – of Strauss’s music and, of course, its irony enable 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. Hans Werner Henze’s accusation that Strauss had never given a thought to the moral function of his work seems untrue; it was, rather, rare for that function to provide the intentional subject matter of his work, quite another matter. Though even that is perhaps untrue: some of the works after all not only delight artistically but are in some senses about artistic delight. For many, Strauss included, that is a moral function – and I should like to think that Henze and other decriers of Strauss would recognise that too.