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Strauss and seduction

Adelheid Feilcke / tw
June 10, 2014

The composer, conductor, professional and maestro of self-promotion was born 150 years ago. But one shadow hangs over Richard Strauss: his ambivalent attitude to the Nazi regime.

Richard Strauss
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The trumpet melody with its slow build and increasing force that accompanies the opening of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" is a classic. Kubrik used the sensual and metaphysical power of the composition - originally scored by Richard Strauss as a sunrise in his rendition of Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra" - as a backdrop to the gradual rise of the sun in his extra-terrestrial world.

Walter Werbeck, who has written a Richard Strauss handbook to mark this anniversary year, talks in terms of the composer's "sensual effects" and "orchestral brilliance," which he combines with drive and energy. "Music that appears to evoke a new era of music, and which in terms of orchestral and aural technique outdid everything - even by Wagner - heard theretofore."

Richard Strauss was born on June 11, 1864, and to mark the passing of 150 years, his operas, orchestral works and lieder are gracing stages up and down the country. His richly instrumented symphonic poems, songs, chamber music, and operas such as "Arabella," "Salome," "Elektra" and "The Woman without a Shadow" are known and loved all over the world.

Public relations genius

Richard Strauss
The young composerImage: gemeinfrei

Strauss had an unerring sense of what would help him and his music to success, and according Daniel Ender, whose book "Meister der Inszenierungen" (Master of Staging) was published this year, he was a man of considerable marketing talent.

"He ensured that he made it into the public eye," Ender told DW. "And he did it by establishing a network of journalist friends who painted a positive picture of him as a modest man who continued to churn out new works. They then went on to depict the details of these works, which made the public curious." His planned use of exotic musical instruments such as the wind machine in his "Alpine Symphony" was announced in the press. "He always had his fingers in the mix," Ender said.

Playbill for the premiere of "Salome," 1905
ScandalousImage: gemeinfrei

The opera "Salome" was probably the most significant among his calculated scandals and successes. Its captivating, unsettling eroticism made it the stage event of 1905 and 1906. Although the seduction scene, the "Dance of the Seven Veils," led to its erstwhile prohibition, it remained a hit across Europe.

Werbeck says it was thoroughly in keeping for Strauss to combine "orchestral brilliance and a polished tone technique with a sensationalist plot." He describes the composer's decision to cast the biblical figure of Salome as a contemporary femme fatal "very modern and very attractive."

In other operas, such as "The Rosenkavalier," Strauss brought to the stage a world which Werbeck says "didn’t really exist any more by the time the piece premiered in 1911. Yet by looking at it through a nostalgic prism, he managed to make it seem intact."

A helping hand

In his capacity as a conductor, Strauss actively supported other composers. He was an energetic player on the cultural-political scene and an advocate of artists' rights. In order to improve the social status of composers, he pushed for the formulation of a new copyright law. As such, Werbeck told DW, the composer welcomed the 1933 political rise of Adolf Hitler - a Wagner lover and a self-professed artist. Strauss hoped the new leader would place greater importance on the arts, and on music in particular.

Richard Strauss as an old man at his home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
At home in Garmisch-PartenkirchenImage: AP

Strauss was made president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the official state music bureau for the promotion of what the regime deemed to be good German music. He did not last long in that office however, which Ender attributes in part to the fact that after his success with the overhaul of copyright law, he was unable to implement further reform plans.

What's more, Strauss clashed with the regime in matters of taste and on questions of culture. "Strauss placed massive importance on being a cultivated human being, and was disappointed by the Nazis," Ender said. Although no longer Reichsmusikkammer president, Strauss did come to an understanding with the regime in the years to follow - in part to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Table in a bookstore filled with books on Richard Strauss
No dearth of Strauss biographies this yearImage: DW/A. Feilcke

"From what we can tell, he was not a Nazi by conviction, and it is important to be clear on that point," Ender said, adding that what was important for him during the Hitler era was that his work be played. "His opportunistic approach worked well for the Nazis."

The here and now

Despite the ambivalence in his behavior, Strauss was always convinced that he was the last great composer of Western music tradition. His strong sense of ego bears hints of hubris, and his rigorous rejection of atonal and twelve-tone music brought him considerable criticism and contempt from 20th century composers and music theorists.

But he stuck to his own style, and continued in the late Romantic tradition decades after it had been declared history. His operas and instrumental pieces have survived the critics and the test of time, and they continue to touch and seduce music lovers a century later.

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