WASHINGTON, May 10, 2014 — For a number of years I’ve greatly admired and enjoyed the music of the German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). In listening to Strauss, I hear a great champion of Western culture, standing athwart the onrushing decline and decay of Western music and art during the first half of the twentieth century. Recently, I went back to listen in detail to several of Strauss’s works. Re-hearing them, I think some reflections are suggested that may have resonance as our society sinks deeper into cultural decay.
Consider Strauss’s monumental mythical opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten [“The Wife without a Shadow”]: it could well be a musical metaphor for his view of marriage, and serve as an affirmation of life as a gift from the Creator, as it is a passionate defense in music of child birth and motherhood, and per extension, of the family. The story is a combination of fantasy and myth, with strongly symbolic elements that have much to say to our present-day society.
The main character, the Empress, is barren–symbolized by her lack of a shadow–and has every chance to seize a peasant woman’s shadow, thus enabling her to become fertile and have children. But coming to understand the sublime love that exists between the peasant woman and her husband Barak and the importance of children to them, she cannot bring herself to follow through with such an evil act, even when the life of her husband, the Emperor, depends on it. Fathoming this, she summons up moral courage and utters a refusal to take the peasant woman’s shadow: “Ich will nicht” — “I will not.” And because she now understands the importance of the marital bond between husband and wife, and the significance of the procreative act and child birth, miraculously, she too then is granted a shadow and the ability to bear children. The opera ends with a monumental chorus of children yet to be born. It is a moving story line.
Strauss, with his full understanding of modern tonality, was a reactionary when it came to composition and “tunefulness.” Like the Empress in Frau ohne Schatten, to the deconstructive tendencies of modernism in music, he too uttered: “Ich will nicht!” Strauss uses the full panoply of “modern” instrumentation and soaring melody to make a valiant stand for continuity and tradition in music. In a sense Strauss stood against the early 20th century “Vienna School” of dodecaphonic (“twelve tone”) music of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and others, which seemed to over-intellectualize and cut off the artist and separate him from traditional sources of inspiration, while making his creations inaccessible to a vast majority of listeners.
In 1945, after viewing the horrible ruins of his beloved Munich, its famous opera house and so much more bombed into smithereens, an aged Strauss composed his deeply moving “Metamorphosen” for string ensemble. A meditation on both the insanely destructive power of war and a concomitant musical commentary on Europe’s apparent cultural suicide, “Metamorphosen” also, by its very title, suggests something more, something yet hopeful amid the ruins. For a “metamorphosis” or re-birth for Strauss was still possible, despite his own innate longing for a more civilized and decent age apparently now gone.
Four years later, in 1949, Strauss composed his “Vier Letze Lieder” (“Four Last Songs”) only a few months before his death, and thirty years after the premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna. These four songs are a remarkable tribute not just to his late, autumn-like genius, but a final, glorious tribute to the incredibly vibrant and rich cultural milieu of late Imperial Habsburg Vienna and Wittelsbach Munich where his career flourished. To listen to these short songs is to hear a noble artist of great culture, achievement, and sophistication bidding good-bye to all that is grand and truly estimable in Western tradition.
In the fourth song, Im Abendrot –“In the Gloaming” — (a setting of a poem by Eichendorff), Strauss consciously says farewell, not only to his own well-lived life, but also to a civilization with which he has had a passionate love-affair, but now is in steep decline.
The words of the song bespeak what Strauss observes in post-war Europe:
Around us the valleys fold up,
already the air grows dark,
only two larks still soar
wistfully into the balmy sky.
O spacious, tranquil peace,
so profound in this gloaming.
How tired we are of traveling –
Is this perchance death?
Yet even here in what seems a wistful good-bye to a great and noble culture lost, Strauss injects a quotation from his much earlier tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, indicating that there is always a glimmer of hope for “transfiguration” and eventual renewal, if we strive for it.
As in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the “Four Last Songs,” and in his operas Der Rosenkavalier and Arabella set in the glory days of Habsburg Vienna, Strauss evoked marvelously a past time of civility, high culture, and grace, reminding our barren age of just what we have thrown away and discarded. And in so doing he joined the battle for our culture and our future, a battle that continues and encompasses our cultural institutions and traditions, our art, our architecture, our film, our music, and so much more—integral elements that help shape and form us, and without which our lives are made barren and susceptible to disintegration and dissipation.
Too many times our contemporary society does not know how to compare and contrast the real achievements of our civilization with the present cultural detritus that surrounds and threatens to inundate us. Recall the Hilaire Belloc statement about western civilization now surviving off the fumes of a once-great culture. Is this not where we are now? Our challenge today is to comprehend and then to preserve what is being lost or forgotten. The task is multi-faceted and must encompass our broader cultural milieu and those great artistic accomplishments that have been produced in and by our culture. Strauss, despite his wistful celebration of a golden past, never lost hope for the future. Nor can we.