Sunday, 3 May 2015

Richard Strauss: Goebbels’ Decadent Neurotic

In March 1933, when Strauss was 68, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power. Strauss never joined the Nazi party, and studiously avoided Nazi forms of greeting. For reasons of expediency, however, he was initially drawn into cooperating with the early Nazi regime in the hope that Hitler—an ardent Wagnerian and music lover who had admired Strauss's work since viewing Salome in 1907—would promote German art and culture. Strauss's need to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and Jewish grandchildren also motivated his behavior, in addition to his determination to preserve and conduct the music of banned composers such as Mahler and Debussy.

In 1933, Strauss wrote in his private notebook:

I consider the Streicher-Goebbels Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honour, as evidence of incompetence - the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent. 

Meanwhile, far from being an admirer of Strauss's work, Joseph Goebbels maintained expedient cordiality with Strauss only for a period. Goebbels wrote in his diary:

Unfortunately we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic.

Strauss & Goebbels in the 1930's

Nevertheless, because of Strauss's international eminence, in November 1933 he was appointed to the post of president of the newly founded Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau. Strauss, who had lived through numerous political regimes and had no interest in politics, decided to accept the position but to remain apolitical, a decision which would eventually become untenable. He wrote to his family, "I made music under the Kaiser, and under Ebert. I'll survive under this one as well." In 1935 he wrote in his journal:

In November of 1933, the minister Goebbels nominated me president of the Reichsmusikkammer without obtaining my prior agreement. I was not consulted. I accepted this honorary office because I hoped that I would be able to do some good and prevent worse misfortunes, if from now onwards German musical life were going to be, as it was said, "reorganized" by amateurs and ignorant place-seekers.

Strauss privately scorned Goebbels and called him "a pipsqueak." However, in 1933 he dedicated an orchestral song, Das Bächlein ("The Little Brook"), to Goebbels, in order to gain his cooperation in extending German music copyright laws from 30 years to 50 years.

Strauss attempted to ignore Nazi bans on performances of works by Debussy, Mahler, and Mendelssohn. He also continued to work on a comic opera, Die schweigsame Frau, with his Jewish friend and librettist Stefan Zweig. When the opera was premiered in Dresden in 1935, Strauss insisted that Zweig's name appear on the theatrical billing, much to the ire of the Nazi regime. Hitler and Goebbels avoided attending the opera, and it was halted after three performances and subsequently banned by the Third Reich. On 17 June 1935, Strauss wrote a letter to Stefan Zweig, in which he stated:

Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am 'German'? Do you suppose Mozart was consciously 'Aryan' when he composed? I recognise only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none.

This letter to Zweig was intercepted by the Gestapo and sent to Hitler. Strauss was subsequently dismissed from his post as Reichsmusikkammer president in 1935.

Richard Strauss speaking at the German Composers'
Meeting, Berlin on 18 February 1934.

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics nevertheless used Strauss's Olympische Hymne, which he had composed in 1934. Strauss's seeming relationship with the Nazis in the 1930s attracted criticism from some noted musicians, including Arturo Toscanini, who in 1933 had said, "To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again," when Strauss had accepted the presidency of the Reichsmusikkammer.  Much of Strauss's motivation in his conduct during the Third Reich was, however, to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice and his Jewish grandchildren from persecution. Both of his grandsons were bullied at school, but Strauss used his considerable influence to prevent the boys or their mother being sent to concentration camps.

In 1947, Strauss made his first flight to conduct concerts in England arranged by his old friend Thomas Beecham. He was deeply depressed by having to justify himself to the denazification board, which was investigating those thought to have collaborated with the regime. In June 1948, he was cleared on all counts. Despite Strauss being cleared of collaboration, for decades his music suffered the same fate as Wagner’s: the composer’s association with the Nazis sullied the work, which was banned, ignored or reviled as a result. While Wagner is still verboten, Israel lifted its embargo on Strauss in the 1990s.

Strauss completed the composition of Metamorphosen, a work for 23 solo strings, in 1945. The title and inspiration for the work comes from a profoundly self-examining poem by Goethe, which Strauss had considered setting as a choral work. Generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of the string repertoire, Metamorphosen contains Strauss's most sustained outpouring of tragic emotion. Conceived and written during the blackest days of World War II, the piece expresses Strauss's mourning of, among other things, the destruction of German culture - including the bombing of every great opera house in the nation. At the end of the war, Strauss wrote in his private diary:

The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.

Goethe’s poem Metamorphosis of Plants can be found here, but Strauss’ title Metamorphosen undoubtedly refers to both Goethe poems The Metamorphosis of Plants and The Metamorphosis of Animals. In both, the philosopher optimistically conceives of that process as “order in motion.” Strauss's Metamorphosen turns Goethe's concept on its head. In the musical work, self-knowledge does not elevate man; rather, it reveals his bestial nature. To symbolize the inversion of Goethe's noble concept, Strauss reworks a basic motive from his “Niemand” sketch in the Metamorphosen. In the vocal piece, the C-major tonic is initially undermined by either E-minor or C-minor harmonies, either of which may easily be transformed into C major by the shift of a single pitch. Jackson equates those slippery harmonic relationships, which he calls the Metamorphosenmotiv, with the elusiveness of Goethe’s unknowable self. In “Niemand wird sich selber kennen” the poet asserts that self-knowledge is the way in which man elevates himself, a concept that Strauss supports in his vocal setting through the triumph of C major over the E-minor and C-minor harmonies.

In the Metamorphosen, however, Strauss’s transformations of the Metamorphosenmotiv determine the work’s underlying harmonic structure and symbolically contradict Goethe. C major is defeated by C minor, self-knowledge is not redemptive, and only man’s most degenerate nature is revealed.

For a musical form, Strauss employs a loose sonata-allegro design in which the recapitulation necessarily emphasizes the triumph—-or in this case, the defeat of one tonality by another. To focus attention on this background tonal conflict, the six surface motives remain unchanged throughout the work, while the orchestration for twenty-three solo strings imparts a rich and solemn tone well suited to the serious subject matter. Alan Jefferson, viewing it only as a memorial to Munich, called the Metamarphosen “possibly the saddest piece of music ever written”.

The solemnity & simple elegance of Metamorphosen has similarities, at least in its intent, to Vaughan- Williams’ post war Elegy from the 3rd (Pastoral) Symphony and playing the two pieces one after another is sometimes a good exercise in reflecting on creative vulnerability in an age of mass warfare. 

Above is a picture of Munich after the allies had finished with it. Being an industrial city, Munich was a major target for allied bombing missions during World War II, which decimated much of its infrastructure. Most of the buildings we would see today had been heavily damaged or destroyed during the war. When the dust settled, many that remained standing were only a skeletal shell of their previous form. Most were painstakingly rebuilt over time, many in their former traditional style. Amazingly, over six tons of unexploded allied bombs are discovered throughout Germany each and every year during the excavation process of construction projects.

Richard Strauss: a reluctant Nazi collaborator (New Statesman; Jan 2014)
The Richard Strauss Companion- Schmid, Mark-Daniel (2003).
Wikipedia: Richard Strauss

North Utsire

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