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Strauss and sensuality

Rick FulkerJune 9, 2014

To mark the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss' birth on June 11, Latvian star conductor Andris Nelsons reflected on the man and his music, saying both of which are essentially unexplainable.

Andris Nelsons
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: Maestro Nelsons, may I be correct in assuming that Strauss is a very important composer to you?

Andris Nelsons: Strauss is one of my favorites, along with Wagner, Brahms, Shostakovich… Coming from the Baltic region, my own background and education are a combination of Germanic and Slavonic influences, so I especially appreciate music where these come together. And Strauss is one composer who can really make your tears flow.

We know that Richard Strauss was very interested in money, self-promoting, politically opportunistic in the Nazi era, and had a very down-to-earth, bourgeois lifestyle. Somehow, with him, the music seems so much bigger than the man. Sort of like Wagner, a man of questionable character who created something very transcendental.

I don't know how it would be possible to be an insensitive, rude or only one-sided person and to compose something like "Lohengrin," "Tristan" or "Parsifal." And with Wagner, if you read his ideas about compassion, about love and the kind of experience that can only happen after death: it's about nirvana, eternal life, whatever - anything but black and white.

Getting back to Strauss: there is much emotion in his music, yet also a highly developed structure. Is there a paradox here?

All these masters - Wagner, Strauss - they are geniuses, very emotional and very intellectual at the same time. They know about dramaturgy, technique, instrumentation and form. But they are also great psychologists. It's not a spontaneous, uncontrolled improvisation in the music, but very thoughtful - even though it requires a lot of spontaneity when performing it. These composers know how to get to the heart.

Andris Nelsons
A conductor who is also fun to watchImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa

It's been said that you like to work using associative images, having once described, for example, the overture to "The Barber of Seville" as conveying the same emotional state as that of a man trapped inside a telephone booth and unable to get out. Do you use these kinds of vivid images when working with an orchestra, and do you like to share them with audiences?

To appreciate the atmosphere in any kind of music, it's important to have an unencumbered fantasy and sensitive nerves and to generate images during rehearsal and in concert. As a conductor I might come up with a certain metaphor when rehearsing to create the right atmosphere at the right moment. With "Thus Spake Zarathustra," for example, I might say that you should try to imagine having a hundred Einsteins in the orchestra. The piece is patterned after the work by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who tells a story. So yes, it's about nature, science and the Übermensch; you see the mountains and the sea. But I also believe that you shouldn't be too specific with verbal imagery. If I say it's this picture or that, I might unduly influence people who may prefer to have a different emotional reaction. Maybe it's because I'm getting older and more abstract, more emotionally oriented. Music is unexplainable. Strauss gives titles to sections in the work to satisfy some people's curiosity. But the music goes far beyond that. It's the closest thing to God or to a mystical or religious act.

Strauss is very down to earth in the "Sinfonia domestica," though: it’s all about himself and his wife and child…

Well, in my opinion, family is the most important thing in life, and I find it wonderful that somebody wrote a symphony about it. This piece is almost philosophical in telling what human relationships are about. Then there are things like the love scene, when he describes what happens between a man and his wife between seven o'clock in the evening and seven o'clock in the morning. Here we have some of the most erotic music ever written. Eroticism and sensuality are always an extremely important element in Strauss' music. The opening of "The Rosenkavalier" has a love scene lasting twenty minutes. So along with some fairly explicit love making we also have a philosophical glorification of the family and of the values that go along with it.

Richard Strauss
Egomaniac or eternal? Opinions on the composer are dividedImage: imago/United Archives International

What else interests you about Richard Strauss?

Along with all the emotionality, you also find a perfect dramaturgy. He really knows how to build the tension and where to go with it. He knows how to create an emotional state - sometimes with a touch of irony, extremely clever sarcasm or earthy humor. And that fits his personality. He had the ability to laugh at himself. When he conducted "Der Rosenkavalier" as an old man, for example, and was presented with some material he'd excerpted from the work, he said, 'Who wrote this awful music? Keep the cuts!' He definitely had a huge ego, but he could also be self-deprecating. With Strauss, it's always a combination of things.

At age 35, Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons is currently one of the world's most sought-after conductors. The recently designated music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra has had the same function with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 2008. Nelsons gave his debut at the Bayreuth Festival in 2010 with Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin." In coming seasons, he is slated to perform with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Lucerne Festival Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra London. Rick Fulker caught up with him in Cologne, where, just before the Strauss anniversary, he led the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra in two concerts of the composer's works.