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richard strauss: a musical life

13 january 2020

Raymond Holden's Richard Strauss: A musical life is not a biography; as its subtitle suggests, it's a chronicle of Strauss' music. And even more specifically: of Strauss' professional activities in the music business. Nearly half the book consists of marvelous appendices that document Strauss' career, particular as a conductor. Holden includes a list of every program that Strauss conducted during his many tenures as a principal conductor with German and Austrian orchestras and opera companies. Richard Strauss: A musical life looks to me like an essential sourcebook for further research.

You'll get as much actual biography, even as much description of Strauss' compositions, from the articles in the Grove Dictionary, though, and you should not expect a narrative from Holden's book. Instead, Holden structures Richard Strauss: A musical life along a loose spine of basic chronological facts, and supplements that spine with substantial excurses into this or that technical issue in the Strauss archive. Holden is particularly interested in recordings, and the evidence that they offer about Strauss' use of tempi and implications for his interpretation of composers like Mozart, Wagner – and himself.

Strauss made his living as a conductor, and as Holden notes, was one of the last superstar conductor/composers in the Western tradition that stretches from Mozart to Bernstein. A keynote of the book is Strauss' deep connection to Mozart. Holden shows that among Strauss' own favorite performances were intimate productions of Mozart operas in the small court theater in Munich, where Strauss would lead the orchestra from a fortepiano and accompany the recitative himself. In so doing, he emulated Mozart's own practice, and may even have been playing Mozart's instrument; apparently he'd found the fortepiano crated up and disused since the 18th century.

Later, as the post-WWI lion of the Vienna musical world, Strauss came under criticism for specializing in operas by Richard Strauss. But as Holden notes, if you wanted to stay current in 1920s Vienna, you should have been conducting Richard Strauss. And one imagines that the carpers of the 1920s were telling their grandkids in the 1950s that they'd seen Strauss conduct Strauss.

Though the dates in that last paragraph are poignant, because so many people who heard Strauss in one era would not survive to hear his music later on. Strauss had the misfortune to live through, and to try to stay aloof from, the cataclysmic military and political tragedies of the 20th century. He curried favor with Nazis, was inevitably degraded by those same Nazis, and lived in fear of his Jewish family members being deported and killed.

Yet unlike, say, Martin Heidegger, Strauss sternly rejected Nazi racism. His disgrace came when he wrote to Stefan Zweig: "Do you believe that Mozart composed as an 'Aryan'?" (154). Mozart as Aryan was an article of faith to Nazi aestheticians, and in their eyes you could do no worse than put "Aryan" in scare quotes, particularly when writing to the Jewish librettist whose work you championed.

But of course Strauss' tragic flaw was in thinking that he could stay untouched by Nazism. He was just barely correct that his stature as the greatest living composer would keep him (and his family) from arrest, concentration camps, and murder. But in continuing to compose and conduct throughout the nightmares of the Third Reich, he gave stature and comfort to the regime. This was really a case where if you were not against them – if you were not Arnold Schönberg or Kurt Weill – you ended up being for them.

But I digress from Holden's themes; he actually says as little about Strauss' involvement with the Nazis as he does about Strauss' marriage – or, at times, about Strauss' compositions. The most famous passage that Strauss wrote, thanks to Stanley Kubrick and 2001, is the "Sunrise" from Also Sprach Zarathustra, but that tone poem gets scant mention in Richard Strauss: A musical life. Strauss' final works register only briefly; I don't think the "Four Last Songs" are mentioned at all. By contrast, Strauss' musicological work on Mozart's Idomeneo gets a whole separate essay and accompanying appendix.

Richard Strauss: A musical life is thus a hybrid kind of book. Specialists will appreciate its detailed essays on various technical problems; generalists like me will skim those parts and pick up the thread of the "musical life," which offers a fascinating look at the working conditions of the classical-music world in the decades before and after 1900. Holden makes a welcome contribution either way.

Holden, Raymond. Richard Strauss: A musical life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. ML 410 .S93H65