Saturday 20 July 2013

Unanswered Questions: Strauss's Capriccio

(originally published as a programme essay for Royal Opera concert performances of Capriccio in July 2013)

San Francisco Opera production of Capriccio:
Simon Keenlyside (Flamand), Kiri Te Kanawa (Countess)


As the Capriccio Prelude opens, we enter musically and historically into a mordent-ornamented and mordantly ironic conversation. It is both playful and played at higher stakes than Strauss might previously have imagined; it seems to be a conversation that has been in progress for some time prior to our eavesdropping. What might we have heard, had we tuned in earlier? We both want and do not want to know, like the Countess Madeleine herself with her impossible choice between words and music; and the impossible choices Strauss, and we, must face.

Capriccio’s opening string sextet – the conceit being that it is itself a new work by Flamand – had already been performed before the opera’s 1942 premiere. The sextet’s first performance was given at the villa of Baldur von Schirach, the Vienna Gauleiter who helped Strauss to secure his Belvedere home and who concluded an agreement that would have had Strauss play a role in furthering Viennese musical life in return for protection for his Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice, and his grandsons. (They would not have to wear the Star of David in public and would enjoy the privilege of an ‘Aryan’ education.) Schirach had acted as patron to the 1941 Mozart Week of the German Reich, held in Vienna, during which Goebbels had given a speech at the State Opera, declaring that Mozart’s ‘music rings out every evening over homeland and front. It is part of what our soldiers are defending against the wild assault of Eastern barbarism.’ Schirach was one of the two defendants who spoke against Hitler at Nuremberg (the other being Albert Speer), and he would serve twenty years in Spandau Prison; he was released in 1966.

Baldur von Schirach
In negotiating with Schirach, Strauss was at one level simply – or not so simply – acting as he had long done with other patrons, royal, noble, political, or otherwise. Ariadne auf Naxos had shown that, though the patron called the tune, the artist might still retain integrity. Whether that were the case in such a radically different situation from that of Ariadne is another matter; now the musical arch-manipulator – Strauss always knows how to elicit the right response, even, perhaps especially, when one knows that one is being used  – was himself  manipulated.

What should we make of an opera conceived and first performed in such circumstances? It is hardly a work of overt protest, though how could it be? In its ‘aristocratic’ refinement, both verbally and musically, it stands at one level about as distant from the catastrophe enveloping Europe in the 1930s and ’40s as one could imagine. Yet when one considers it more deeply, all sorts of difficulties (intentional or otherwise) emerge, indeed defiantly present themselves. 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. Brahms might have edited Couperin, but one will struggle to find his name or his music in Third Reich performances and musicology. Even leaving aside matters of nationality, such composers were not part of the musical mainstream; indeed, many composers would not necessarily have been well acquainted with their music. 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 – and at other times through allusion. There seems, then, to be an assertion of humanist, perhaps aristocratic, values, lightly done, as needs must, yet which connects well with Strauss’s increasing re-immersion in the work of Goethe, with Metamorphosen as its ultimate fruit.

The apparently apolitical becomes highly political, whatever the straightforward ‘intention’. Arguably true, yet the Rococo – neo-Rococo? – setting cannot help but seem like a refuge, a retreat. We have, perhaps, returned to the Rosenkavalier problem, albeit intensified, for retreating from harmonic experiment after Elektra is one thing, withdrawing from a world of war and genocide quite another. 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. Yet we can hardly avoid considering it. Perhaps surprisingly, this is just the sort of setting favoured by Nazi cultural policy. Goebbels wanted Unterhaltung (entertainment), not Wagnerian challenge. Capriccio is certainly not unusual in offering an eighteenth-century setting. What is more unusual, though not unique, is the combination of that setting with such reflection, explicit and implicit, upon the nature of art and its relationship with its historical context. Masks and games both gratify and haunt: Straussian detachment and irony works its wonders through posing of questions without evident response (at least from the composer). In context, this was a reinstatement of the artistic criticism that so troubled Goebbels, who had requested that journals simply report upon the content of a piece rather than attempting assessment of its aesthetic quality.

Clemens Krauss, a skilled careerist, conducted the 1942 Munich premiere (with his wife Viorica Ursuleac singing the role of the Countess, by persuading Goebbels, with whom Strauss had once again fallen out of favour, to assume its patronage as part of a Strauss festival mounted in the honoured Hauptstadt der Bewegung. (The ‘Capital of the Movement’: Munich was always more palatable, more ‘home’, to the Nazis than ‘red Berlin’.) The director Rudolf Hartmann was present at the premiere, and recalled it thus (arguably with a dose of sugary romanticism that tells its own story):

Who among the younger generation can really imagine a great city like Munich in total darkness, or theatre-goers picking their way through the blacked-out street with the aid of small torches giving off a dim blue light through a narrow slit? All this for the experience of the Capriccio première. They risked being caught in a heavy air raid, yet their yearning to hear Strauss’s music, their desire to be part of a festive occasion and to experience a world of beauty beyond the dangers of war led them to overcome all these material problems... Afterwards it was difficult to relinquish the liberating and uniting atmosphere created by the artistic quality of the new work. But outside the blackened city waited, and one’s way homewards was fraught with potential danger.

Strauss’s æstheticism almost seemed confirmed in such an experience. What might once have seemed anti-political now offered an alternative or complementary community to that of the ‘real’ world.

Aerial bombing would very soon incinerate the Munich Nationaltheater. Wartime performances would nevertheless be heard subsequently in Darmstadt, in Dresden (whose destruction lay close) and, almost inevitably given Schirach’s patronage and predilections, in Vienna. Since so much of the drama concerns itself with artistic patronage, we almost seem invited by the material, even despite the composer, to consider the patronage of Schirach and Goebbels. How do we read in context a work in which it is the patroness, the Countess, who insofar as anyone can, resolves or, perhaps better, suspends dramatic conflicts?

Munich, May 1945
La Roche, moreover, takes an affectionate cue from the Jewish impresario Max Reinhardt, an old and valued collaborator of Strauss from the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, even before even their part in the foundation of the Salzburg Festival. In that context, it becomes crucially important, even a case of dissent, that La Roche/Reinhardt, riled by the impudence of callow poet and composer, has his say, above all in his dignified panegyric to the theatre. His monologue is boastful. Yet what La Roche says of himself – ‘Without my kind, where would the theatre be? – applies to art more generally. Art chips away at the political present’s would-be totalitarianism. What might, in Ariadne – dedicated to Reinhardt, its first director – have concerned itself more exclusively with the business of putting together and putting on an opera, takes on a different light in different times.


There may also be an echo of Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina, itself a defence of aristocratic culture, albeit during World War I rather than World War II, the first performance taking place in Munich in 1917. In a stroke of irony (perhaps someone should write an opera about this!) Pfitzner would be interned opposite Strauss’s Garmisch villa in 1945.  A presentiment closer to home might be the attack in Strauss’s 1901 second opera, Feuersnot by Kunrad upon the Wagnerphilister of Munich. If only, then, Strauss had not joined the party he had once excoriated by signing, alongside Pfitzner, Hans Knappertsbusch, and several others, the 1933 protest by the ‘Richard Wagner City Munich’ against ‘Mr Thomas Mann’, the ‘national restoration of Germany … [having] taken on definite form’. There was nothing necessarily ‘National Socialist’ about the protest; indeed, it had more in common with a far more conservative form of nationalism. Its defensive, philistine attitude towards Mann’s brilliant, provocative portrayal of Wagner as a ‘cultural Bolshevist’, and its acknowledgement of Hitler’s movement as national saviour nevertheless did none of the signatories any credit.

The outside world will not cease intruding. Schirach was not the most favoured of the Nazi establishment by this time, his criticism of conditions attending deportation of the Jews having annoyed the high command. Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler would in turn find occasion, even at this point when they might have had more pressing concerns, to visit petty humiliations upon Strauss, ensuring that he receive no public honour. Strauss’s conduct was not that of a moral beacon; still less so was Schirach’s. Yet that does not equate them with Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler. Strauss’s accommodationism, ‘real’ yet not without limits, was owed partly to his need to safeguard his grandsons, Richard and Christian, and somehow it all sounds very much more ‘real’ when one names them. Wort oder Ton – ‘words or music?’ – is far from the only question Capriccio asks us.