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12 Jan 2021

R. STRAUSS: Metamorphosen, for 23 strings

by Michael Clive

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Is all art autobiographical? It’s easy to dismiss the question with a simple ‘yes’ and move on; after all, we humans can only create from what we know. But some art seems especially direct in its relation to life, and for its creators, that resemblance is purely intentional. Pablo Picasso, who hated giving interviews, told journalists that everything they could possibly want to know about him was right there on display in his paintings. And why not? When we listen to Willie Nelson sing about what it’s like to be “On the Road Again”, the vividness of his life as a touring singer-songwriter helps us see our own humanity more clearly.

No less than a pop balladeer or a great painter, Richard Strauss put the events of his life into his art time and again. He mined his experiences, personal relationships and intellectual preoccupations like ore for the smelting to create his tone poems, operas and songs. And with his uncanny gift for descriptive musical narrative, it seems that everything we could possibly want to know about him was right there to be heard. But toward the end of his life, when he composed Metamorphosen, the supremely comfortable position he had built for himself as a great man of music became problematic, even agonized, in a way that hides beneath the music’s surface brilliance. Metamorphosen is beautiful and virtuosic, but it is also a work that looks back on a lifetime of creativity with more questions than answers.

Richard Strauss

Strauss was born while the American Civil War was still under way, yet outlasted World War II by four years. To groom his prodigiously talented son for greatness, Strauss’ father, Franz—himself a renowned musician—ensured that Richard received a first-rate musical education, but embargoed the music of Richard Wagner. But as any good comedy writer could have told the elder Strauss, the one way to ensure Richard’s fascination with Wagner was to prohibit him from listening to his music. When Richard surreptitiously visited the Wagner Festspielhaus at Bayreuth and attended a performance of the revolutionary opera Tristan und Isolde, the experience overwhelmed him.

Did the teenage Richard Strauss’ encounter with Wagner’s music set him on a path toward vocal rather than symphonic composition? It’s difficult to say, though his early works gave no indication that he would eventually focus on opera and song. Earmarked from an early age as “promising”—the curse of many a young musician—he began his career as a pianist and composer of orchestral music that demonstrated his supreme mastery of orchestral color and post-Wagnerian harmonics. In his 20s, he established himself as a dazzling musical technician with superb keyboard technique.

In the modern era we have the stereotype of the late-Romantic Viennese composer as oblivious of everyone and everything outside his music. By contrast, many of the young Strauss’ contemporaries pegged him as a showy piano virtuoso and composer of colorful tone poems. Both his keyboard and his orchestral works were extravagantly complex and chromatic, extending late-Romantic harmonies beyond previous limits. In fact, one didn’t need to hear them to get an idea of their difficulty; his scores were always the most thickly inked in the music library, with every page blackened with dizzying configurations of notes and seemingly impossible arrays of multiple sharps and flats. One glimpse, and one knew: The man responsible for these nearly unplayable scores had to be a Lisztian talent, and probably a flamboyant egotist to boot.

Strauss’s mastery of complex, inventive harmonies gave hope to listeners in the post-Brahmsian, post-Wagnerian world that there were still musical frontiers to explore without abandoning tonality altogether, as the Second Viennese School was doing under the leadership of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Strauss established his early reputation as a composer with lushly entertaining, programmatic tone poems. It’s possible to trace the plot points that underlie various musical passages in each, and to hear the innate theatricality that would lead Strauss to write more than two dozen operas. But most impressive is the construction of Strauss’s densely chromatic chords and their dizzying changes. Musicologists sometimes analyze a symphony in terms of how a composer “gets out of” each movement; as Strauss leads us through exotic modulations, at least half the fun is marveling at how he gets where he’s going, leading us back to his tonic key.

Talented? Yes. Flamboyant? Not really. In Vienna, where classical music composition was the most revered of professions, Strauss husbanded his career with the discipline and strategic acumen of a Kanye West. He was intent upon achieving the stature of a great man of music even as the Viennese fretted that the era of greats such as Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert might be gone forever—indeed, that classical music might be headed for a dead end, its harmonies exhausted and atonality waiting in the wings. The Viennese took comfort in the facility and showmanship of Strauss’s great tone poems, produced when he was in his late twenties and early thirties. They demonstrate his supreme mastery of orchestral color and post-Wagnerian harmonics—for example, Ein Heldenleben, “A Hero’s Life”, in 1898, from when he was 34; the hero of this tone poem, of course, is Strauss himself. He composed Also Sprach Zarathustra in the same year (1898), making these the last in the series of tone poems and programmatic symphonies he had begun a decade earlier. Even in Zarathustra we sense his presence as the stentorian, satirical narrator.

But Strauss had something far beyond this kind of success in mind. He wanted to engage the great intellectual ideas of his time, and to do so in a more elevated art form that was ideal for his narrative gifts: opera. Even Strauss’ advocates were unprepared for the musical scandal that catapulted him to international fame when he was 42: his opera Salome, based on a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play. As if the play’s lurid treatment of sexual obsession and necrophilia (not to mention a hint of incest) wasn’t enough, the music was heard to be even more shocking: cacophonous and atonal. (Actually, it’s far from either.) Salome made Strauss notorious, rich, and internationally famous; he followed it in 1909 with his brilliant and even more shocking opera Elektra, a collaboration with the great German writer Hugo von Hoffmansthal that probes the psychology of Sophocles’ heroine in a daringly modern way. The shadow of Freud is present in both works, and it put Strauss in the thick of the intellectual ferment pervading Vienna at the turn of the century. To many listeners, Strauss had gone from traditional composer to modernist rebel. But for his own artistic reasons—and not by way of public “apology”—he had long been nurturing the idea of writing a lighter work in the manner of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The result, Strauss’s 1911 masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier, was like an irresistible valentine to the public that felt Strauss had abandoned them. All was forgiven, and Strauss was confirmed in his career as the greatest exponent of 20th-century vocal music in the German language.

Flash forward some four decades and we get to Strauss’ valedictory works, MetamorphosenCapriccio—his last opera—and the Four Last Songs, his final meditation on life and art. Imagine: Strauss, who was born while the American Civil War was still under way, composed this music after the horrors of World War II. The political and moral realities of post-Nazi Germany could not be more relevant to Metamorphosen. Though Strauss remained in Germany during the War and was criticized by some for accommodating the Reich, he had a Jewish daughter-in-law and acted to protect her as well as Jewish musical colleagues, probably using his dignified posture of the “great composer” as a pose. He was, by that time, thoroughly disillusioned.

Where is the metamorphosis in this lustrous tone poem for strings? Its title remains a mystery; in a sense, any piece of music guides us listeners through metamorphoses of themes as they are developed and recombined. Or is it the monstrous metamorphosis of Germany itself? Strauss himself never explained the title, but the most familiar instance of a “metamorphosis” in German art, as he well knew, was the novella by the Jewish author Franz Kafka, condemned by the Nazis as degenerate. This choice seems consistent with other expressions of Strauss’s disillusionment: After composing more than two dozen operas drenched in German culture, he set the 1944 Capriccio in Paris and gave it a French sensibility; he set three of the Four Last Songs to texts by the Nobel prizewinning writer Hermann Hesse, whom the Nazis reviled. “The most terrible period of human history is at an end,” Strauss wrote at the end of the War, “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.” His carefully constructed image as a German composer of greatness was a grotesque ruin, and after a lifetime of ignoring politics in favor of art, history caught up with him. As Phillip Huscher notes, writing for the Chicago Symphony: “Metamorphosen succeeds so brilliantly because Strauss at last found a way to address the present with the voice of the past…Two days after Strauss finished Metamorphosen, the Americans took Nürnberg, where Wagner’s meistersingers once triumphed; two weeks later Hitler killed himself.”