THE BOLD bad man of music at the turn of the century, innovator in form, modern and audacious in concept, brilliant in execution, not immune to vulgarity, and a barometer of his native weather, was Richard Strauss. His every new work, usually conducted at its premiere by himself, crammed the concert halls with a public eager to be excited and music critics eager to whip their rapiers through the hot air of their profession. In the ten years from 1889 to 1899, when he was between twenty-five and thirty-five, Strauss produced six works, Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegel, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, which created a new form—or, as the critics said, “formlessness.” Called tone poems, the compositions were rather condensed operas without words. At the premiere of Don Juan the audience called the composer back five times in an effort to make him play the piece all over again. At the premiere of Heldenleben, the passage depicting battle enraged some listeners to the point of leaving the hall and caused others to “tremble as they listened while some stood up suddenly and made violent gestures quite unconsciously.” If to some Strauss was a sensationalist and corrupter of the pure art of music and to others the prophet of a new musical age, even the “inventor of a new art,” one thing was clear: he retained for Germany the supremacy of music which had culminated in Wagner. He was “Richard II.”
In one sense this made him the most important man in German cultural life, for music was the only sphere in which foreigners willingly acknowledged the superiority that Germans believed was self-evident. German Kultur in German eyes was the heir of Greece and Rome and they themselves the best educated and most cultivated of modern peoples, yet foreigners in their appreciation of this fact fell curiously short of perfect understanding. Apart from German professors and philosophers, only Wagner excited their homage, only Bayreuth, seat of the Wagner Festspielhaus, attracted their visits. Paris remained Europe’s center of the arts, pleasure and fashion, London of Society, Rome of antiquity and Italy the lure of travelers seeking sun and beauty. The new movements and impulses in literature—Naturalism, Symbolism, Social criticism; the towering figures—Tolstoy, Ibsen and Zola; the great novels from Dostoyevsky to Hardy: all originated outside Germany. England after its great Victorian age was again in the nineties pulsing with new talent—Stevenson, Wilde and Shaw, Conrad, Wells, Kipling and Yeats. Russia again produced in Chekhov a matchless interpreter of man. Painters bloomed in France. Germany in painting had little but Max Liebermann, leader of the Secessionists, whose secession, however, took him no further than the presidency of the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts. In literature her outstanding figures were the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, an offshoot of Ibsen, and the poet Stefan George, an offshoot of Baudelaire and Mallarmé.
In music, however, Germany had produced the world’s masters and seen the procession crowned by Wagner whose dogma of a fusion of the arts became a cult in which foreigners eagerly joined. Wagner Societies from St. Petersburg to Chicago contributed funds to provide the Master’s music dramas with a fitting home, and the “Bayreuth Idea” created intellectual ferment beyond Germany’s borders. Germans believed their sovereignty of music would continue forever without serious challenge from any other country. While many of them, like the Kaiser, detested Strauss’s modernity, his pre-eminence appeared to them happy proof that German musical supremacy was maintained.
Not only the major cities but every German city or town of substantial size had its opera house, concert hall, music academy, orchestral society and musical Verein of one kind or another. Hardly a German did not belong to a choral society or instrumental ensemble and spend his evenings practicing Bach cantatas over several steins of beer. Frankfurt-am-Main, a town of under 200,000 in the nineties, about the size of The Hague, Nottingham or Minneapolis, boasted two colleges of music, with distinguished teaching staffs and pupils from many countries, a new opera house, “one of the handsomest in Europe,” which gave performances six nights a week, a Museum Society Orchestra of 120 players which gave concerts of symphonic and chamber music, two large choral societies also prolific in concerts, and in addition was host to numerous recitals by visiting artists. Besides activity of comparable kind in Berlin, Munich, Cologne, Dresden, Leipzig, Stuttgart and other cities, music festivals lasting as much as a week in honor of some composer or special occasion were held widely and often.
The season at Bayreuth since Wagner’s death had acquired an oppressive atmosphere of obligatory reverence. The cab taking a visitor to the Festspielhaus displayed a card pinned over the seat labeled “Historical!” indicating that the Master had sat there. Performances opened with a blast of trumpets as if commanding the audience to prepare for devotions. At intermission sausages and beer were consumed, followed by another trumpet blast; after the second act more sausages and beer and more trumpets and the same procedure after the third act. The faithful absorbed the Master’s works “as if they were receiving Holy Communion,” reported the young Sibelius, who came in 1894 eager for a great experience and could not leave soon enough. By 1899 when Thomas Beecham, aged twenty, arrived, he found there was a rift in the cult. Malcontents were proclaiming the decadence of the Festival, criticizing the reign of the widow, Frau Cosima, and clamoring for the removal of the son, Siegfried, as director. They said his management was feeble and uninspired, singers were poor and performances shoddy, while the group loyal to “Wahnfried,” the Wagners’ house, countered with charges of intrigue and jealousy.
By now Strauss was the new Hero, so acknowledged in his self-portrait in music, A Hero’s Life. Reared in and accustomed to comfort, clad in the correct clothes of a diplomat, slender and six foot three inches tall, with broad shoulders and well-cared-for hands, a soft unlined face, a mouth shaped like a child’s under a flaxen moustache and a cap of curly flaxen hair already receding from a high forehead, Strauss looked neither Promethean like Beethoven, nor poetic like Schumann, but simply like what he was: a successful prosperous artist. His works had been performed since he was twelve; as a conductor he was engaged by all the leading orchestras. He was self-possessed, conscious of superiority and comfortably rather than offensively arrogant, a consequence of being Bavarian rather than Prussian.
Bavaria’s last King, Ludwig II, who adored Wagner and died mad, had sided with Austria against Prussia in 1866, and Munich’s culture was oriented more toward Vienna than Berlin. Munich fostered the arts and considered itself the modern Athens, as opposed to the Sparta of Prussia, whose Junkers, like their ancient prototypes, despised culture as well as comfort. Bavarians, as Germany’s southerners—and largely Catholic—enjoyed the pleasures of life, physical as well as aesthetic. In Munich, Stefan George was high priest of a cult of l’art pour l’art and beginning in 1892 edited for his worshipful disciples the literary review Blätter für die Kunst, which sought the German answer to questions of art, soul and style. Humor found a corner in Munich, where the satiric journalSimplicissimus, founded in 1896, and the comic journal Lustige Blätter were published. In Munich the Überbrettl, a form of satiric café entertainment, flourished and mocked Berlin.
As a native of Munich, Strauss belonged to a culture antipathetic to Prussia, but as a German aged seven in 1871, he grew up parallel with the new nationalism of the German Empire. Born in 1864, five years younger than the Kaiser, Dreyfus and Theodore Roosevelt, he came of a family which combined beer and music, his native city’s leading occupations, in that order. His grandfather was a wealthy brewer whose musically inclined daughter married Franz Strauss, first horn of the Munich Court Orchestra and professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He was said to be the only man of whom Wagner was afraid. Although he played Wagner’s music “lusciously,” he hated it and his emphatic objections to its demands on his instrument accomplished on one occasion the unique feat of rendering the Master speechless. Before a rehearsal of Die Meistersinger Wagner begged the conductor, Hans Richter, to play over the horn solo himself for fear Franz Strauss would declare it unplayable. Although Franz Strauss never became reconciled to his son’s dissonances and departures from classical form, Richard Strauss used no instrument to more marvelous capacity than the horn, as if in tribute to the man who, when asked how he could prove the boast that he was the best horn player in the world, replied, “I don’t prove it, I admit it.”
Strauss’s parents began his musical education at the piano when he was four and he began composing at six. He could read and write musical notation before he knew the alphabet. While at school he studied violin, piano, harmony and counterpoint with the conductor of the Court Orchestra. With the “superfluous vitality” that was to remain one of his most notable characteristics, he produced at the same time a flow of songs, instrumental solos and sonatas. When he was twelve his Festival March (Op. 1) was performed by his school and later published. Performance of his compositions at public concerts began with three of his songs when he was sixteen, a String Quartet in A (Op. 2) when he was seventeen and a Symphony in D minor (Op. 3) played by the Munich Music Academy to an enthusiastic audience in the same year. At eighteen, he wrote a suite for winds which received the accolade of a commission for another work of the kind from Hans von Bülow, leader of the ducal Orchestra of Meiningen and the outstanding conductor of the day. Trained by Bülow, the Meiningen was the jewel of German orchestras, whose members learned their parts by heart and played standing up like soloists. Strauss wrote a Serenade for Thirteen Winds which Bülow invited him to conduct at a matinee concert without a rehearsal. The twenty-year-old composer led the performance “in a state of slight coma,” having never conducted in public before. Becoming Bülow’s protégé, he appeared with him as solo pianist in a Mozart concerto and at the age of twenty-one was appointed music director of the Meiningen, where he studied conducting under its recognized master. In composition his adored model at the time was Mozart, and Strauss’s early quartets and orchestral pieces composed before he was twenty-one were works of great charm and style in the classical tradition.
The musical world of the eighties was immersed in the party politics of classical versus romantic. New works were heard less for themselves than as upholders of the one or followers of the other. Composers, critics and public revolved in a perpetual war dance around the rival totem poles of Brahms and Wagner. To his partisans Brahms, who died in 1897, was the last of the great classicists, Wagner was anti-Christ and Liszt a secondary Satan. Lisztisch was their last word of contempt. Wagnerians on the other hand considered Brahms stuffy and tradition-ridden and their own man a combined prophet, Messiah and Napoleon of music. Strauss, as his father’s son and a disciple of Mozart, was anti-Wagner, but under Bülow became converted. Even Wagner’s seduction of his wife could not dim Bülow’s admiration for the seducer’s operas. Strauss was affected also by the preaching of Alexander Ritter, first violinist of the Meiningen, who enjoyed extra prestige as husband of Wagner’s niece and convinced Strauss that Zukunftsmusik(Music of the Future) belonged to the successors of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. “We must study Brahms,” he asserted, “long enough to discover that there is nothing in him.”
Strauss felt Ritter’s influence “like a storm wind.” It combined with the experience of a trip to Italy, whose sun and warmth acted on him as it had on Ibsen and other northerners, to inspire Aus Italien, his first work in a new form. It was called a “Symphonic Fantasia” of four movements which bore descriptive titles: “In the Campagna”; “Among the Ruins of Rome”; “By Sorrento’s Strand”; “Scenes of Popular Life in Naples.” The second movement was subtitled “Fantastic pictures of vanished splendor; feelings of melancholy and splendor in the midst of the sunny present”: and was marked allegro molto con brio, an odd way to express melancholy but molto con brio was to be characteristic of Strauss.
Aus Italien picked up where Liszt and Berlioz left off. They also had experimented in narrative and descriptive music, though within traditional patterns of theme and development. These requirements sometimes stretched program music into strange shapes, as in the case of the German composer J. J. Raff, in whose Forest Symphony, according to one critic, the shades of evening in the finale fell three times. Strauss avoided this problem by discarding traditional patterns. He described without developing, tantalizing the listener with a series of dazzling glimpses but no resolution. The result, at the first performance of Aus Italien, conducted by the composer in Munich, was hisses and catcalls, “general amazement and wrath.”
Refusing to be diverted from the path he had chosen, Strauss next produced an orchestral work on the theme of Macbeth, as Berlioz had done on King Lear and Liszt on Hamlet. Not the drama’s events but the conflict within Macbeth’s soul was his subject, expressed in the rich polyphony and fertility of musical idea which were to create his renown. Meanwhile on Billow’s resignation he had succeeded as conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra and in 1889 moved to Weimar as conductor in the post Liszt had held thirty years before. Combining classics with “madly modern” works, including Liszt’s as yet unappreciated tone poems, he presented fresh and exciting programs which drew large audiences. In a discussion with a friend who declared his preference for Schumann and Brahms, Strauss replied, “Oh, they are only imitators and will not survive. Apart from Wagner there is really only one great master and that is Liszt.”
At Weimar on November 11, 1889, he conducted the premiere of his own Don Juan. Its theme, as stated by Nicholas Lenau, author of the poem on which it was based, was not that of a “hot-blooded man eternally pursuing women,” but of a man’s “longing to find a woman who is to him incarnate womanhood and to enjoy in one all the women on earth, whom he cannot, as individuals, possess. Because he does not find her, although he reels from one to another, disgust at last seizes hold of him and this disgust is the Devil that fetches him.”
In adopting this theme Strauss committed himself fully to the business of making music perform a non-musical function: making it describe characters, emotions, events and philosophies, which is essentially the function of literature. He was forcing instrumental music by itself, without singers or words, to do the work of opera or what Wagner called “music drama.” Given the task, no one was better equipped to accomplish it. With his knowledge, gained from conducting, of the capacities of every instrument, his bursting talent and overflow of ideas, his mastery of the techniques of composition, Strauss, like a circus trainer, could make music, like a trained seal, perform dazzling miracles against nature. Don Juan proved an enthralling seventeen minutes of music with its snatches of amorous melody, its headlong passion, its marvelous song of melancholy by the oboe, its frenzied climax and strange end on a dissonant trumpet note of disenchantment. Its undeveloped themes, however, were disconcerting and its episodic form sacrificed musical to narrative sequence. Bülow nevertheless pronounced it an “unheard of success.” Eduard Hanslick, the grand panjandrum of musical criticism who wrote for the Neue Freie Presse and other papers of Vienna and detested everything that was not Brahms or Schumann, denounced it as “ugly” with only shreds of melody and no development of musical idea.
The feuds of music were personified by Hanslick, who had worn out the world “ugly” on Wagner through a thousand repetitions until Wagner conferred immortality on him as the unpleasant Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. Hanslick pursued Bruckner, a symphonic follower of Wagner, with such virulence that when the Emperor Franz Joseph granted Bruckner an audience and asked if there was anything he could do for him, Bruckner could only mutter, “Stop Hanslick.” Strauss now emerged as another of the new breed to be scotched, and as each new work of his appeared, Hanslick and his school warmed to new degrees of invective.
But Strauss was on his way. Bülow dubbed him “Richard II” and the next year he produced a more ambitious work, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). In this a dying man in his final fever relives his life from the innocence of childhood through the struggles and frustrations of maturity to the death agony. At the end comes “the sound of heavenly spaces opening to greet him with what he had yearningly sought on earth.” Based on an idea rather than on a literary text (although his mentor, Alexander Ritter, wrote a poem to fit the music ex post facto), it escaped the traps of the too specific and soared on great sweeping melodies supported by orchestral splendors. Strauss was twenty-five and had made Liszt look like an amateur.
He continued to conduct, to encourage and perform the works of contemporaries and to compose his first opera, Guntram, which was rejected as imitation Wagner by a public already saturated with the real thing. No rigid partisan, Strauss conducted Hänsel und Gretel with as much enthusiasm as Tristan und Isolde. When Humperdinck, then an obscure teacher at the Frankfurt Academy, sent him the score, Strauss was delighted with it and wrote the composer, “My dear friend, you are a great master who has bestowed on our dear Germans a work which they can hardly deserve.” His introduction of the opera at Weimar made Humperdinck famous overnight and rich soon afterwards.
In 1894 Strauss moved on to Munich as conductor of the Court Opera and following the death of Bülow led the Berlin Philharmonic concerts for the winter season of 1894–95. In the same year he was guest conductor at Bayreuth. “So young, so modern, yet how well he conducts Tannhaüser,” sighed Cosima Wagner. The summers Strauss devoted to his own compositions, working best, as he said, when the sun shone. During the concert season he appeared as guest conductor in different German cities and toured with the Berlin Philharmonic throughout Europe. In the years 1895–99 he conducted in Madrid and Barcelona, Milan, Paris, Zurich, Budapest, Brussels and Liège, Amsterdam, London and Moscow. Limitless in energy, he once conducted thirty-one concerts in thirty-one days. On the podium, making no show of extravagant gesture or muscular contortions, he used a firm, decided simple beat, a few hard angular movements and signaled for crescendo with a hasty bend of the knee joints. “He conducts with his knees,” said Grieg. Tyrannical in his demands on the players, he was generous in praise of a well-performed solo no matter how short, and would step down from the podium to shake hands with the player when the piece was over. He was no longer the “shy young man with a large head of hair” whom Sibelius, then a young music student in Berlin, had seen rise from a seat in the audience to acknowledge the applause at one of the early performances of Don Juan. His hair was already receding and it is doubtful if he had ever been shy. Now in his early thirties and with Bülow gone he was the most renowned conductor and exciting composer in Germany.
Between 1895 and 1898 he brought out three more new works which carried the symphonic poem to more daring feats of description and more boldly original subject matter than had so far been attempted in music. The marvels of polyphonic complexity were more stunning, the unresolved discords more disturbing and the uses of music in some places seemed deliberately provocative.
Nothing so clever, so comic, so flashing and surprising as Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks had ever been heard. The brisk twinkling motif of the horn carries the medieval folk hero, Germany’s Peer Gynt, on his picaresque progress, with every kind of instrumental device portraying his adventures as he gallops through the marketplace scattering pots and pans, disguises himself as a priest, makes love, and comes to a bad end in court with a long drum roll announcing the death sentence. An impudent twitter of the clarinet voices his final defiance on the gallows and a faint trill carries off his last breath as his feet swing in air. Strauss’s program notes this time were more specific: “That was an awful hobgoblin,” he noted over one passage, or, “Hop! on horseback in the midst of the market women,” or, “Liebegluhend” (Burning with Love). The Till motif, becoming familiar as it came and went in different disguises, charmed the audience. It was music full of enchanting tricks, like the performance of a superlatively witty and nimble magician. It delighted if it did not move. It expressed a bubbling imagination and unsurpassed skill, though not of course to Hanslick, who, using the favorite censure of outraged orthodoxy, pronounced it “the product of decadence.”
For his next subject Strauss moved to the core of his time. By 1896, the world had discovered Friedrich Nietzsche. Living in solitude, disillusionment and chronic drug-blurred battle against insomnia, this other German had produced a body of work around the central idea of the Superman, which was to reverberate down the corridors of his country’s life. Responding early to its influence, Strauss determined to make Also Sprach Zarathustra the subject of a tone poem.
Nietzsche’s alluring concept of “rule by the best,” of a new aristocracy which would lead humanity to a higher plane, of man rising to superior fulfillment to become Übermensch, seduced the imagination of Europe. It stirred both the yearning hope of human progress as well as the beginning disillusionment with democracy. Nietzsche rejected the democratic idea of equal rights for all men as hampering natural leaders from realizing their full capacities. Where Lord Salisbury had feared democracy as leading to political, and Charles Eliot Norton to cultural, debasement, Nietzsche saw it as a ball and chain holding man back from his highest attainment. He saw the dominant weight of mass tastes, opinions and moral prejudices as a “slave morality.” Mankind’s leaders should live by a “master morality” above common concepts of good and evil. The goal of human evolution was the Übermensch, the higher man, the “artist-genius” who would be to ordinary man as ordinary man was to the monkey.
Through Also Sprach Zarathustra and its sequels, Beyond Good and Evil, The Will to Power and the final Ecce Homo, Nietzsche roamed wildly. His ideas rolled and billowed like storm clouds, beautifully and dangerously. He preached Yes to the promptings of energy as good per se, regardless of conflict with conventional morality. Law and religion which discouraged such promptings frustrated man’s progress. Christianity was a sop for the weak, the meek and the poor. The Superman had no need of God but was a law unto himself; his task was self-fulfillment not self-denial; he shook off the chains of tradition and history as the intolerable burden of the past. Nietzsche stated his credo, not in logical declarative language, but in a kind of prose poetry like the Psalms, meandering and obscure, full of mountain tops and sunrises, the singing of birds and dancing of girls, perorations to Will, Joy and Eternity and a thousand colored metaphors and symbols carrying Zarathustra on his soul’s quest toward the goals of humankind.
When he published in the eighties no one listened. Despising the Germans for their failure to appreciate his work, Nietzsche drifted to France, Italy and Switzerland, working himself up, as Georg Brandes said, “to a positive horror of his countrymen.” It was a foreigner, Brandes, a Dane and a Jew, who discovered him and whose articles on him, translated and published in the Deutsche Rundschau in 1890 introduced him to Germany and began the spread of his fame. By this time Nietzsche was mad and Max Nordau, the author of Degeneration, discovering this, naturally seized on him as a prime example of his case and lavished on him some of his most excoriating pages. Since Nordau’s book was translated and read all over Europe and in the United States, it helped to make Nietzsche known. He was lauded as a seer, denounced as an Anarchist, examined and discussed by the reviews, English and French as well as German. His aphorisms were quoted as verse titles and chapter headings, he became the subject of doctoral dissertations, the model of a train of imitators, the focus of a whole literature of adulation and attack. Because of his abuse of the Germans as vulgar, materialist and philistine, he was particularly welcomed in France, but this did not prevent his becoming a cult in his native land. The sap was rising in Germany and Germans responded eagerly to Nietzsche’s theory of the rights of the strong over the weak. In his writings these were hedged about with a vast body of poetic suggestion and exploration, but taken crudely as positive precepts they became to his countrymen both directive and justification. By 1897 the “Nietzsche Cult” was an accepted phrase. In a bedroom in Weimar a man leaning against a pillow, staring at an alien world out of sad lost eyes, had bewitched his age.
To the “artist-geniuses” of real life Zarathustra was irresistible. In Paris when a friend read passages of it to the peasant-born sculptor Rodin, one of the great movers of art forms of his time, he became so interested that he returned every evening until the whole book had been read aloud. At the end, after a long silence, he said, “What a subject to put into bronze!” Under the same thrall Strauss saw the subject in music and in fact Nietzsche himself had written that the whole of Zarathustra “might be considered as music.” It was not Strauss’s intention to set Nietzsche’s text to music but, modestly, “to convey musically an idea of the development of the human race from its origin through the various phases of evolution, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of theÜbermensch.” The whole was to be his “homage to the genius of Nietzsche.”
When it became known that Germany’s most advanced composer was at work on a tone poem inspired by Germany’s most advanced philosopher, admirers grew nervous and enemies sharpened their pens. The finished piece, composed over a period of seven months in 1896 and scored for thirty-one woodwinds and brasses, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, two harps and organ beside the usual strings, took thirty-three minutes’ playing time, almost twice as long as Till, and was performed under the composer’s baton within three months of its completion. Trumpets sounded the opening, swelling into an immense orchestral paean by the whole ensemble which seemed to depict less the sunrise stated in the program notes than the creation of the world. Its magnificence was breathtaking. The end came with twelve strokes of a low bell gradually dying away to a pianissimo trembling of strings and winds and ending in the famous “enigma” of a B major chord in the treble register against a dark mysterious C in the bass. In between there was again the Strauss wizardry of polyphonic effect and enough musical ideas for a dozen pieces: “Science” was expressed by a fugue containing the twelve tones of the chromatic scale and the Dance theme of girls in a meadow, introduced by high flutes in a halting waltz rhythm, seemed to catch all the joy and freshness of a green world. It was, however, more Viennese than Bacchic and somehow cheapened by bells and triangles. Three days after the premiere Zarathustra was performed again in Berlin and within the year in all the major German cities as well as in Paris, Chicago and New York, evoking from critics new excesses of both savagery and eulogy. To Hanslick it was “tortured and repulsive,” to the American James Huneker “dangerously sublime,” to the eminent musicologist Richard Batka “a milestone in modern musical history” and Strauss “pre-eminently the composer of our time.”
In Germany because of the plethora of performances, with a festival every week and continuing operas, concerts, choral societies and chamber music, success was almost too easy; orchestras were ready to grasp a composition the instant it was finished. “There istoo much music in Germany,” wrote Romain Rolland in italics. As an observer deeply interested both in music and in Germany, he explained: “This is not a paradox. There is no worse misfortune for art than a superabundance of it.” Germany, Rollańd thought (not without French bias), “has let loose a flood of music and is drowning in it,” a situation which did not leave Strauss unaffected. Early prominence and now pre-eminence in his field and confident mastery of his medium afflicted him with a desire to dazzle, and in his next composition, Don Quixote, he let his affinity for realism run unreined.
Realism was a German passion. Brünhilde at Bayreuth was always accompanied by a live horse which, affected by equine stage fright or the galloping music of the Valkyrie, invariably misbehaved in the middle of the stage to the relish of the German audience if not of visiting foreigners. The painter Philip Ernst, father of Max Ernst, when painting a picture of his garden omitted a tree which spoiled the composition and then, overcome with remorse at this offence against realism, cut down the tree. When Strauss used a wind machine in Don Quixote to represent the turning sails of the windmills, people could not be blamed for wondering if this were not carrying literalism to inartistic excess. His muted brasses representing the bleating of sheep aroused the critics’ scorn, although it could not be denied that he conveyed with extraordinary skill not only the sound of bleating but a sense, almost a view, of the crowded mass of animals moving and shoving against each other.
The critics’ blasts only added to Strauss’s notoriety and drew greater crowds to his concerts. At thirty-four, admitted the English critic Ernest Newman, he was “the most talked of musician in the world.” Although the Kaiser disapproved of his music, the German capital could not afford to do without him. Six months after the premiere of Don Quixote he was offered and accepted the conductorship of the Berlin Royal Opera.
Berlin meant Prussia, the natural enemy of Munich and Bavaria. The North German regarded the South German as easy-going and self-indulgent, a sentimentalist who tended to be deplorably democratic, even liberal. In his turn, the South German regarded the North German as an arrogant bully with bad manners and an insolent stare who was politically reactionary and aggressively preoccupied with business.
Architecturally, Berlin, Europe’s third largest city, was new and not beautiful. It belonged in style to what in America was called the Gilded Age. Its main public buildings, streets and squares, built or rebuilt since 1870 to house suitably the new national grandeur, were heavily pretentious and florid with gilding. Unter den Linden, a mile long with a double avenue of trees, was laid out with obvious intent to be the biggest and most beautiful boulevard in Europe. It ended naturally in an Arch of Triumph at the Brandenburg Gate. The gate led in turn to the famous Sieges Allee in the Tiergarten, with its glittering marble rows of helmeted Hohenzollerns in triumphant attitudes. When the statues were raised at the Kaiser’s direction, Max Liebermann, who had a studio overlooking the Tiergarten, lamented, “All I can do is to wear blue goggles but it is a life sentence.” The imposing Reichstag building was of maximum size to make up for its minimum powers. Along the Leipzigerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse, department stores and the head offices of banks and mercantile houses bulged with the rich excitement of business that was growing daily. The city was spotlessly clean and the population so orderly that a Berlin landlady’s bill included three pfennings for sewing on a trouser button and twenty for removing an inkstain. Police were efficient, though an English visitor found them “extremely rough and even brutal.” The lure of vice was aggressively flaunted, food was uninteresting, ladies unfashionable. Prussian thrift stifled elegance. Berlin women of the middle class wore homemade clothes with plaid blouses, muddy-brown skirts, sack coats like traveling rugs, square-toed boots and nondescript hats that went with everything and matched nothing. They had stout figures, raw complexions and wore their hair pulled back and pinned in a braided coil.
Society, owing to the lack of intercourse between its rigidly maintained categories, was stiff and dull. Unless ennobled by a von, businessmen, merchants, professional men, literary and artistic people were not hoffähig, that is, not received at court and did not mix socially with the nobility. Nor did they mix among each other. Every German belonged to a Kreis, or circle of his own kind whose edges were not allowed to overlap those of the next one. The wife of a Herr Geheimrat or Herr Doktor did not speak to the wife of a tradesman, nor she to the wife of an artisan. To congregate or entertain or marry outside of Kreis borders invited disorder, the thing Germans feared most. Perhaps to compensate for social monotony, some Germans, according to one report, ate seven meals a day.
Since the unification of Germany had been accomplished under the leadership of Prussia, the ruling caste was drawn from the landowning Junkers, or Prussian nobility, who were numerous, poor and backward. Looked down on by the Catholic nobility of Württemberg and Bavaria as coarse, tasteless and unfitted for social leadership, the Junkers made up in assertiveness what they lacked in education. They dominated the Army, which in Germany dominated the State, and in the wake of Bismarck, their greatest exponent, filled most of the government offices though not the business life of the capital, which was grasping and intense. Though an anti-commercial class, they were its willing agents and their Government was the most frankly commercial in Europe. The Kaiser, who admired money, included in his circle the wealthier and more cosmopolitan non-Prussian nobility. Court life was notable for minute rules of behavior and immense state dinners accompanied by very loud music. Jews, unless converted, were not received, with the occasional exception of a Court Jew, like the Kaiser’s friend Albert Ballin. Although the Jews numbered about one per cent of the population, anti-Semitism was fashionable, stimulated by their rapid progress in science and the arts, business and the professions after legal emancipation was confirmed for the Empire in 1871. Despite the emancipation, however, professing Jews were excluded from political, military and academic posts and from the ranks of the von, an exclusion which, fortunately for Germany, did not make them feel any less devotedly German. Bleichroder, the banker who gave Bismarck the necessary credit for the Franco-Prussian War; Ballin, the developer of maritime trade; Emil Rathenau, founder of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft, which electrified Germany; Fritz Haber, discoverer of the process for fixing nitrogen from the air, which made Germany independent of imported sources of nitrogen for explosives, were all born Jews and among them were responsible for a major proportion of Germany’s booming energies. The German ruling class was likewise supported by an intensely industrious middle and lower class who applied themselves earnestly and worked incessantly, taking few holidays. They were better educated on the whole than those of other countries. Prussia had enforced full-time school attendance for children from seven to fourteen since the 1820’s and by the nineties had two and a half times as many university students in proportion to the population as England.
The sovereign who ruled over this thriving people was busy and dynamic like them, but more restless than thorough. He was into everything and alert to everything, sometimes with useful results. When the Barnum and Bailey Circus played Germany in 1901, the Kaiser, hearing about the remarkable speed with which trains were loaded, sent officers to observe the method. They learned that instead of loading heavy equipment separately on each freight car from the side, the circus people laid connecting iron treads through the whole length of the train on which all equipment, loaded from one end, could be rolled straight through. By this means three trains, of twenty-two cars each, could be loaded in an hour. The circus technique promptly went to feed the insatiable appetite for speed of the German mobilization system. The Kaiser’s observers also noted the advantages of the great circus cooking wagons over stationary field kitchens, and adopted them for the Army so that meals could be cooked on the move.
The Kaiser took immense care always to wear appropriate uniform for every occasion. When the Moscow Art Theatre played Berlin, he attended the performance in Russian uniform. He liked to arrange military pageants and festivals, especially the annual spring and autumn parades of the Berlin garrison on the huge Tempelhof Field, where formations of 50,000 troops, equivalent to several divisions, could maneuver. He felt himself no less an authority on the arts, on which he held decided if not advanced views. When Gerhart Hauptmann, author of The Weavers, a gloomy working-class drama, was designated by the judges to receive the Schiller Prize in 1896, the Kaiser awarded it instead to Ernst von Wildenbruch, a favorite of his own who produced historical dramas in the style of William Tell. When the Rhodes scholarships were established, the Kaiser nominated Germany’s candidates, “vulgar rich people,” according to a member of Balliol, “who don’t have a good effect at all.” One shot a deer in Magdalen College park and had to be recalled by the embarrassed monarch’s order. The Kaiser liked to think of himself, as he explained in his speech dedicating the Sieges Allee in 1901, as an “art-loving prince … around whom artists could gather” and in whose reign the arts could flourish as in classical times “in the direct intercourse of the employer with the artist.” As the employer in this case, he had given to the sculptors of the statues “clear and intelligible tasks” and “ordered and defined” their work but thereafter left them free to carry out his ideas. He could now take pride in the results, which were “untainted by so-called modern tendencies.”
Art, he announced, should represent the Ideal. “To us Germans great ideals, lost to other peoples, have become permanent possessions” which “only the German people” can preserve. He cited the educational effect of art upon the lower classes, who after a hard working day could be lifted out of themselves by contemplation of beauty and the Ideal. But, he sternly warned, “when art descends into the gutter as so often nowadays, choosing to represent misery as even more unlovely than it is already,” then art “sins against the German people.” As the country’s ruler he felt deeply hurt when the masters of art “do not with sufficient energy oppose such tendencies.”
The theatre too, he explained in 1898, should contribute to culture of the soul, elevate morals and “inculcate respect for the highest traditions of our German Fatherland.” So that the Royal Theatre, which he invariably referred to as “my theatre,” should perform this function, he arranged a series of his favorite historical dramas for working-class attendance at suitable prices. He was a stickler for accuracy of detail in scenery and costumes and, for a ballet-pantomime on Sardanapalus, ransacked the museums of the world for information on Assyrian chariots.
He liked to attend and even personally direct rehearsals at the Royal Opera and Royal Theatre. Driving up in his Imperial black and yellow motorcar, he would establish himself at a big business-like table in the auditorium, furnished with a pile of paper and array of pencils. An aide in uniform stood alongside and held up his hand whenever the Kaiser signed to him, whereupon the performance halted, the Kaiser with gestures explained what improvements he wanted, and the actors tried again. He referred to the actors as “meine Schauspieler,” and once when one of them, Max Pohl, was suddenly taken ill, he said to an acquaintance, “Fancy, my Pohl had a seizure yesterday.” The acquaintance, thinking he meant a pet dog who had had a fit, commiserated, “Ach, the poor brute.”
In music the Kaiser’s tastes were naturally conservative. He liked Bach, the greatest of all, and Handel. As regards opera, to which he was devoted if it was German, he would say, “Gluck is the man for me; Wagner is too noisy.” At performances he stayed to the end and frequently commanded concerts at the Palace, whose programs he arranged himself and whose rehearsals he attended, expecting them to have been rehearsed previously and everything to run smoothly. On a trip to Norway he summoned Grieg to an audience at the German Legation and having assembled an orchestra of forty players, placed two chairs in front for himself and the composer, who was requested to conduct the Peer Gynt Suite. During the music the Kaiser continually corrected the composer’s tempi and expression and swayed his body in “oriental movements” in time to Anitra’s dance which “quite electrified him.” Next day the whole performance was repeated by a full orchestra on board the Imperial yacht, Hohenzollern.
Admiration for the Kaiser during the early part of his reign was a national cult. After the prolonged rule of his grandfather, Wilhelm I, followed by the painful three months’ reign of a dying man, the advent of a young and vigorous monarch who obviously relished his role and played up to the glamour of a king was welcomed by the nation. His flashing eye and martial attitudes, his heroic poses enhanced by all that brilliant dress and stirring music could add, thrilled his subjects. Young men went to the court hairdresser to have their moustaches turned up in points by a special curling device; officers and bureaucrats practiced flashing their eyes; employers addressed their workers in the Kaiser’s most dynamic style, as did Diederich, title character of Heinrich Mann’s harsh satire of Wilhelmine Germany, Der Unterthan (The Loyal Subject): “I have taken the rudder into my own hands,” he says on inheriting the family factory. “My course is set straight and I am guiding you to glorious times. Those who wish to help me are heartily welcome; whoever opposes me I will smash. There is only one master here and I am he. I am responsible only to God and my own conscience. You can always count on my fatherly benevolence but revolutionary sentiments will be shattered against my unbending will.” The workers stare at him dumb with amazement and his assembled family with awe and respect.
The first half of the Kaiser’s reign which began in 1888 coincided with the first flush of the Nietzschean cult. The monarch’s ceaseless activity in every kind of endeavor made him seem to be the universal man, as if, rightfully in Germany, crowning the century of her greatest development, Übermensch had appeared, where else but at the head of the nation. Hero-worship was the natural consequence. Diederich in the novel sees the Kaiser for the first time at the head of a mounted squadron as he rides out with a face of “stony seriousness” to meet a workers’ demonstration at the Brandenburger Tor. Transported by loyalty, the workers, who have been shouting “Bread! Work!” now wave their hats and cry, “Follow him! Follow the Emperor!” Running alongside, Diederich stumbles and sits down violently in a puddle with his legs in the air, splashed with muddy water. The Kaiser, catching sight of him, slaps his thigh and says to his aide with a laugh, “There’s a royalist for you; there’s a loyal subject!” Diederich stares after him “from the depths of his puddle, open-mouthed.”
In Diederich, who is always brutalizing someone beneath him while sucking up to someone above him, Mann savagely portrayed one aspect of his countrymen—the servility which was the other side of the bully. The banker Edgar Speyer, returning to his birthplace in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1886 after twenty-seven years in England, found that three victorious wars and the establishment of Empire had created a changed atmosphere in Germany that was “intolerable” to him. German nationalism had replaced German liberalism. Great prosperity and self-satisfaction acted, it seemed to him, like a narcotic on the people, leaving them content to forego their liberty under a rampant militarism and a servility to Army and Kaiser that were “unbelievable.” University professors who in his youth had been leaders of liberalism “now kowtowed to the authorities in the most servile manner.” Oppressed, Speyer gave up after five years and returned to England.
What Speyer observed, Mommsen attempted to explain. “Bismarck has broken the nation’s backbone,” he wrote in 1886. “The injury done by the Bismarck era is infinitely greater than its benefits.… The subjugation of the German personality, of the German mind, was a misfortune that cannot be undone.” What Mommsen failed to say was that Bismarck could not have succeeded against the German grain.
In the nineties, as a convinced believer in Übermensch, Strauss shared the general admiration for the Kaiser. Personal experience as conductor of the Berlin Royal Opera modified it. After conducting a performance of Weber’s tuneful Der Freischütz, one of the Kaiser’s favorites, he was summoned to the Imperial presence. “So, you are another of these modern composers,” stated the Kaiser. Strauss bowed. Mentioning a contemporary, Schillings, whose work he had heard, the Kaiser said, “It was detestable; there isn’t an ounce of melody.” Strauss bowed and suggested there was melody but often hidden behind the polyphony. The Kaiser frowned and pronounced, “You are one of the worst.” Strauss this time merely bowed. “All modern music is worthless,” repeated the royal critic, “there isn’t an ounce of melody in it.” Strauss bowed. “I prefer Freischütz,” stated the Kaiser firmly. Strauss deferred. “Your Majesty, I also prefer Freischütz,” he replied.
If the Kaiser was not the hero he had supposed, Strauss was not long in finding a better one—himself. This seemed a natural subject for his next major work, unbashfully entitled Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Since Aus Italien his subjects had never been moods or pictures, sunken cathedrals or pastoral scenes, but always Man: Man in struggle and search, seeking the meaning of existence, contending against his enemies and against his own passions, engaged in the three great adventures: battle, love and death. Macbeth, Don Juan, the nameless hero of Tod und Verklärung. Till, Zarathustra, Don Quixote, were all voyagers on the soul’s journey. A portrait of the artist now joined their company.
Strauss’s personal experience of the two first of the three great adventures had been adequate if not epic. He had had battles with critics which left wounds, and in 1894 he had married. Pauline de Ahna, whom he met when he was twenty-three, was the daughter of a retired General and amateur baritone who gave local recitals of Wagnerian excerpts. Following his lead, the daughter had studied singing at the Munich Academy but had made little progress professionally until Strauss fell in love with her and combined instruction with courtship so effectively that in two years he introduced her to the Weimar Opera in leading soprano roles. She sang Elsa in Lohengrin, Pamina in The Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Fidelio and the heroine of Strauss’s own opera Guntram. Once, when rehearsing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, she fell into an argument with him over tempo, and shrieking “frightful insults,” threw the score at his head and rushed off to her dressing room. Strauss followed and members of the orchestra listened in awe to sounds of feminine rage audible through the closed door, followed by prolonged silence. Wondering which of the two, conductor or prima donna, might have killed the other, a delegation of trembling players knocked on the door and when Strauss opened it the spokesman stammered that he and his colleagues, shocked by the soprano’s behavior, felt they owed it to the honored Herr Kapellmeister to refuse in future to play in any opera in which she had a role. “That distresses me,” Strauss replied, smiling, “as I have just become engaged to Fräulein de Anna.”
The pattern of this occasion was retained in marriage. The wife shrieked, the husband smiled and evidently enjoyed being bullied. At parties Frau Strauss did not permit him to dance with other ladies. At home she practiced housewifery with “ruthless fanaticism,” requiring her husband to wipe his feet on three different doormats before entering his own house. Every guest of no matter what age or rank was greeted by the order, “Wipe your feet.” Floors were as clean as table tops and servants who failed to leave the contents of linen closets in mathematically perfect rows were pursued by the inevitable shrieks of wrath. Enthusiastically submitting to, as well as inflicting, punishment, Frau Strauss engaged the daily services of a masseuse of the violent school during whose visits Strauss was obliged to go for a walk to avoid hearing the tortured screams of his wife. She bore him one child, a son, Franz, born in 1897, who at once expressed the family tradition of molto con brio by “screaming like hell,” according to a proud report to the child’s grandparents.
When to her husband’s accompaniment Frau Strauss sang his songs, which usually ended with a long coda on the piano, she flourished a large chiffon handkerchief which she would fling down with a gesture at the end to keep the audience’s eyes on her instead of on the pianist. To guests she would explain in detail, while Strauss listened with an indulgent smile, how and why her marriage was a shocking mésalliance. She should have married that dashing young Hussar; now she was tied to a man whose music was not even comparable to Massenet’s. During a visit to London when Strauss conducted Heldenleben and a toast was proposed in his honor at a dinner at the Speyers’, his wife excitedly interrupted, “No, no!”—pointing to herself—“no, no! to Strauss de Ahna.” Strauss merely laughed and seemed to an observer to enjoy his wife’s claim of precedence.
She was responsible for his orderly habits. His worktable was a model of neatness, with sketches and notebooks arranged, filed and indexed as scrupulously as the records of a law firm. His handwriting was exquisitely clear and his scores “miracles of calligraphy,” with hardly an erasure or correction. His songs might be dashed off at odd moments, sometimes during the intervals of concerts or operas when he was conducting, but his longer pieces were composed only at his summer home, first at Marquardstein in Upper Bavaria, later at his second home near Garmisch. Here in his studio he worked regularly from breakfast to lunch and often, or so he told an interviewer, through the afternoon and evening until one or two o’clock in the morning. He enjoyed writing his incredibly intricate scores, often so complicated in their excessive subdivision of groups and interweaving of melodies that the theme was beyond the reach of the listener’s ear. Discernible to the eye of an expert score-reader who would marvel at the mathematical ingenuity of the scheme, such music was called Augenmusik (eye music) by the Germans. When complimented on his skill Strauss said it was nothing compared to that of a new young man in Vienna, Arnold Schönberg, who required sixty-five staves for his scores and had to have his music paper specially printed. Strauss’s own facility was such that he said to a visitor, “Go right on and talk for I can write this score and talk at the same time.” A symphonic poem took him three or four months, with scoring usually completed in Berlin between rehearsals and conducting engagements.
Visitors at the summer home were met by arrangements which exhibited a talent for organization on the part of Frau Strauss not inferior to that of the late Field Marshal von Moltke. A speaking tube was fixed to the gate under a sign telling the visitor to ring a bell and then put his ear to the tube. A voice over the tube demanded his name and if found acceptable, informed him the gate was now unlocked. Another sign instructed him how to open it and to be sure to close it behind him.
Frau Strauss did not permit dawdling. If her husband should be found on occasion wandering aimlessly around the house, she would command, “Richard, jetzt gehst componieren!” (Go ahead and compose!), and he would obey. If he worked too hard she would say, “Richard, put down that pencil!” and he would put it down. When he conducted the first performance in Vienna of his second opera, Feuersnot, Frau Strauss attended in the box of the Austrian conductor-composer Gustav Mahler and fumed throughout, as Frau Mahler recalled: “Nobody could like this trash; we were liars to pretend, knowing as well as she did that there wasn’t an original note in it. Everything was stolen from Wagner and a dozen others better than her husband.” The Mahlers sat in silent embarrassment not daring to agree, for “this shrew was quite capable of twisting the words in our mouths and suddenly screaming that we had made all those comments.” After enthusiastic applause and many curtain calls, Strauss, beaming, came to the box and asked, “Well, Pauksel, what do you think of my success?”
“You thief!” she screamed. “You have the nerve to show yourself? I’m not going with you. You’re rotten.” Hurriedly pushed into Mahler’s office, she continued her berating behind closed doors until Strauss stumbled out followed by his mate who announced in awful tones that she was returning to the hotel and “I sleep alone tonight.”
“Can’t I walk with you at least?” Strauss begged humbly.
“All right—ten steps behind me!” and she stalked off followed by the hero of the evening at a respectful distance. Later, looking subdued and exhausted, he rejoined the Mahlers for a late supper and spent the remainder of the evening with pencil and paper figuring out the royalties in the event of a major or minor success. Making money interested him as much as any aspect of his profession.
Strauss composed Ein Hėldenleben in the summer of 1898, describing it as “a largish tone poem … with lots of horns, always expressive of the heroic.” When finished it played for forty minutes, longer than any of his previous works. Artists had often portrayed themselves before, but Strauss, reflecting the national mood, was probably the first to name his self-portrait a Hero. He conducted the premiere himself on March 3, 1899, which, considering the provocative title, the nature of the music and the program notes, displayed considerable bravado. Heldenleben was divided into six sections, dealing with “The Hero,” his “Adversaries,” his “Consort,” his “Battle,” his “Works of Peace” and finally his “Escape from the World and Fulfillment of Life.” In form it was an expanded sonata on a vast scale with recognizable statements of theme, development and recapitulation. After the Hero is proclaimed by the horns in a proud theme rising to fortissimo, the woodwinds introduce the Adversaries in busy, sniggering music that as plainly says “critics” as the bleating brasses in Don Quixote said “sheep.” The Consort is played by solo violin in a series of cadenzas, alternately seductive and shrewish, with outspoken not to say painfully frank marks of expression on the score, among them, “Heuchlerisch schmachtend” (Hypocritically gushing), plus “frivolously,” “haughtily,” “affectionately,” and at the last, in a passionate and moving love duet, “tenderly and lovingly.” Meanwhile three trumpeters have tiptoed off stage and suddenly from a distance sound the call to arms. With fiercely scurrying strings, rattling kettledrums, fanfares of brasses and thunder of bass drums, the battle rages in a confused crescendo of noise that, not unlike real war, sounds as if all the generals had blundered. To the ears of 1899 it sounded “hideous.” Through the turmoil the Hero’s theme returns triumphantly. His Works of Peace, making the autobiographical point unmistakable, are themes from the composer’s earlier works. The Hero’s final apotheosis is accomplished to muted solemn music which in later program notes Strauss designated as “funeral rites with flags and laurel wreaths lowered on a hero’s grave.”
Listening to the second performance at Cologne a few weeks later, Romain Rolland, fresh from his own exhilarating battle at the opening of Les Loups, was transported with excitement. Although some auditors hissed and some members of the orchestra even laughed at the music, “I clenched my teeth and trembled and my heart saluted the young Siegfried resurrected.” In the “tremendous din and uproar” of the battle music, Rolland heard “the storming of towns, the terrible charge of cavalry which makes the earth tremble and our hearts beat.” He thought it “the most splendid battle that has ever been painted in music.” There were gulfs in which the musical idea disappeared for a time but emerged again, sometimes mediocre in melodic sentiment but grand in “harmonic and rhythmic invention and orchestral brilliance.” Strauss seemed to Rolland to express a will “heroic, dominating, eager and powerful to a sublime degree.” Touched too by the Nietzschean spirit, Rolland found this the reason why Strauss is noble and at the present quite unique. One feels in him the force that has dominion over men.” In the midst of admiration, however, Rolland also felt French and could not resist drawing political lessons. Now that Strauss, he decided, like Germany, had “proved his power by victory, his pride knows no limit.” In him as a man “of vital energy, morbidly overexcited, unbalanced but controlled by an effort of will power,” the Frenchman saw reflected the face of Germany. Nevertheless Rolland became his friend and celebrator.
He had met Strauss for the first time eight years before in Bayreuth and again in January, 1899, when Strauss conducted Zarathustra in Paris. It was the Dionysus of Nietzsche let loose. “Aha!” Rolland wrote then, “Germany as the All-Powerful will not keep her balance for long. Nietzsche, Strauss, the Kaiser—giddiness blows through her brain. Neroism is in the air!” Rolland thought he could detect in the reiterated theme of Disgust in the tone poems and in the deaths that concluded them, a German “sickness hidden beneath the strength and military tautness.” He heard it again in Heldenleben.
When on this occasion he called on Strauss at his apartment in Charlottenburg, Berlin’s fashionable suburb, he found him more Bavarian than Nietzschean, with “a certain humorous buffoonery, paradoxical and satirical like that of Till Eulenspiegel.” Like Till he delighted to scandalize the philistines. He alternated between energy and bouts of “laziness, softness and ironic indifference.” Though cordial and well-behaved toward Rolland, he could be short with others, scarcely listening to what was said to him and occasionally muttering, “Was? Ach, so so.” He behaved badly at table, sitting with his legs crossed at the side, holding his plate under his chin to eat and stuffing himself with sweets. In the drawing room he might lie down on a sofa, punching the cushions with his fists, and “insolently indifferent to those around him,” fall asleep with his eyes open.
It was difficult to decide whether he was Till or Superman. In an article for the Revue de Paris Rolland presented him as “the artist-type of this new Germany, the reflection of a heroic pride close to delirium, of a Nietzschean egoism which preaches the cult of force and disdain for weakness.” But he had to admit the picture was overdrawn. Rolland suffered from the same difficulty as Matthew Arnold’s niece in Max Beerbohm’s cartoon who was forced to ask, “Why, Uncle Matthew, oh why, will you not be always wholly serious?” Strauss would not live up to his image either and was quite prepared to admit it. “You’re right,” he wrote to Rolland. “I’m no hero; I haven’t got the necessary strength; I’m not made for battle.… I don’t want to make the effort. At the moment all I want is to make sweet and happy music. No more heroics.” The fact was that in the surrounding Nietzschean ethos, Heldenleben had seemed like the thing to do; it reflected the national mood more than his own.
Strauss was a string plucked by the Zeitgeist. Although he had never known any but the most comfortable bourgeois circumstances, he sensed and expressed the revolutionary rumble of the working class in two of his finest songs so effectively that one, “DerArbeitsmann” (The Workingman) became an anthem of the Socialist party. Another, “Das Lied des Steinklopfers” (Song of the Stonecutter), was his own favorite among his songs. When these were sung by Germany’s leading concert baritone, Ludwig Wüllner, with the composer at the piano, they had such dramatic power that “hearing these grim defiant sounds,” wrote a critic, “was like hearing the Marseillaise of tomorrow.” Of another of his songs for the male voice, the “Nächtlicher Gesang” (Night Song), it was said that it could “make one shudder in broad daylight.”
In Heldenleben, however, convinced admirers began to detect evidence of a deep-seated flaw in the composer. Ernest Newman believed Strauss had enriched music with more new ideas than anyone since Wagner and had “put into music a greater energy, a greater stress of feeling and a greater weight of thinking than any other composer of the day.” Yet he did not seem able to restrain an unworthy desire to “stagger humanity.” His technical facility and command over ideas was such that he could do anything he wanted and there was no limit to his inventiveness, but he could not keep it within bounds. Newman would willingly have left the hall during the “sniggering, snarling and grunting” of the Adversaries in Heldenleben, which he considered “freak” music like the sheep in Don Quixote. He felt a failure of taste, a streak of vulgarity in a man willing to spoil “two of the finest scores of the Nineteenth Century” with such “monstrosities” as these. Such reactions merely stimulated Strauss to further freaks as a sign of his contempt for what were claimed to be the “eternal” laws of beauty in music. The fact that he insisted on making the critics pay for their seats, causing “screams of agony” all over the Continent, did not help matters.
To the younger critics Strauss’s discords and dissonances were not as distressing as his freaks. Lawrence Gilman, an American, thought the dissonance of the Battle music, like that depicting the mental confusion of Don Quixote, was “eloquent and meaningful” and quite different from that other kind achieved, as Whistler said, “by the simple expedient of sitting on the keyboard.” Apart from the freaks there were enough marvels of music in Strauss’s work to have put him above the sneers and carping; it was the non-musical aspect of his work—that is, the didactic realism of his program notes—which kept him in the center of critical furor. In the same spirit in which Philip Ernst, having omitted the tree from his picture, decided it must be cut down, Strauss insisted on painting the tree and then hanging a sign on it saying, “This is a tree.” As a result critics leaped to take issue, as when Newman said of a trombone passage in Zarathustra labeled “Disgust,” which followed “Delights and Passions,” that “it no more suggests disgust than it does the toothache.” It was no defence by his friends to insist that Strauss wanted his music to be listened to as music and that he added the program notes only under the urgent pressure of colleagues and publishers. An artist certain of his standards would not have made the concession and in any case the literary labels were in his mind and scribbled on his scores when he composed.
In France Claude Debussy, too, was writing descriptive music. Rather than literal and narrative, like that of Strauss, it was elusive and shimmering, after the manner of the Impressionists in painting and the Symbolists in poetry. The Symbolist credo was to suggest, not to name, an object. Where Strauss stated, Debussy suggested. “If people insist on wanting to understand what happens in a symphonic poem, we may as well give up writing them,” he said. Literal meaning was a matter of equal unconcern to Sibelius. When asked by a friend alter listening to a recording of his Fourth Symphony what it really meant, he said after a short pause, “Play the record again.”
Debussy, however, admired Strauss, who was two years his junior, and acknowledged that the Verklärung (Transfiguration) in Tod und Verklärung “takes place before our very eyes.” When he heard Till Eulenspiegel in 1903 he thought its flouting of musical laws amounted almost “to an hour of music in a lunatic asylum.… You do not know whether to roar with laughter or groan with pain and you are filled with wonder when you find anything in its customary place.” Nevertheless he thought it a work of “genius” and was awed by its “amazing orchestral assurance” and the “mad rhythm that sweeps us along from beginning to end and forces us to share in the hero’s pranks.” What impressed him most about Heldenleben, which he also heard in 1903, was its “cyclonic energy.” The listener is no longer master of his emotions: “I say again that it is impossible to withstand his irresistible domination.” Debussy’s own orchestral prelude, L’Après-midi d’un Faune, based on Mallarmé’s poem, and his Nocturnes for orchestra, which appeared in the nineties, led Strauss to return the compliment. Debussy was “a remarkable and altogether unique genius,” he said, “within his own limited domain.”
Strauss was always rather surprised when someone else produced work of high quality. “I had no idea that anyone except myself was capable of writing such good music as this,” he remarked “charmingly and characteristically” to Beecham on hearing a work of Delius. He never listened to Puccini and did not know Manon from Tosca, or Butterfly from Bohème, although Puccini’s works were exactly contemporary with his own. Italian opera was not highly regarded in Germany. He was generous, however, in performing the works of other contemporaries. Unable to conduct modern music at the Berlin Royal Opera while the Kaiser’s taste held sway, he founded an orchestra of his own, the Tonkünstler, to encourage “progressive principles” in music. Subsidized by private patrons, the Tonkünstler played all Liszt’s tone poems in chronological order as well as Strauss’s own works and introduced to Berlin performances of Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Hugo Wolf, Elgar and, if not Debussy, at least his predecessors, Charpentier and d’Indy. Once in London on a visit to the National Gallery in company with Edgar Speyer and Edward Elgar, the group stopped in front of Tintoretto’s “St. George and the Dragon” while Speyer remarked, “Here we have a revolutionary who broke ground at the very end of the glorious Venetian period. Shall we say that Tintoretto was to painting what our friend Richard Strauss is today to music?” Much struck by this remark, Strauss returned to the painting on their way back through the rooms, studied it again and exclaimed, “Speyer is right. I am the Tintoretto of music!”
From this height he could afford, and did not stint, encouragement of less renowned colleagues. On hearing a performance in Düsseldorf in 1902 of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, based on a poem by Cardinal Newman, Strauss proposed a toast “to the welfare and success of the first English Progressive, Meister Edward Elgar, and of the young progressive school of English composers.” Such tribute from Strauss startled the musical world and aroused the usual critics’ uproar which it amused him to provoke. Though disliking the terms of the compliment all England was impressed and flattered. Strauss was no less appreciative of the ultramodern Schönberg, whose experiments in atonality so impressed him that he arranged for the young composer to be given the Liszt Fellowship and appointment as Professor of Composition in the Stern Academy in Berlin. On the occasion of the premiere of Mahler’s Third Symphony in Cologne in 1902, Strauss decided its success by going up to the platform and applauding ostentatiously. From 1900 on, as president of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, founded by Liszt, he invited foreign composers to conduct their new works at the Society’s festivals. Sibelius, whom he invited to present his Swan of Tuonela in 1900, found him “extraordinarily amiable.” When Strauss himself took the podium at these concerts he was greeted by the orchestra with a threefold fanfare and by the audience rising to its feet.
In England and the United States his renown was large and his appearances lionized. A Strauss Festival lasting three days was held in London in 1903 at which all his works from Aus Italien to Heldenleben were played. Strauss liked the English “very much,” as he once told Rolland. For one thing they made traveling comfortable in places like Egypt, so that “you can always be sure of finding clean rooms and modern conveniences.” For Strauss this proved they were a superior people and, according to the Nietzschean formula, they and not the Boers should have had Germany’s sympathy during the South African War. “The Boers are a barbarian people, backward, still living in the Seventeenth Century. The English are very civilized and very strong. It’s a thoroughly good thing that the strong should triumph.”
In London he could enjoy the hospitality of Edgar Speyer, head of the syndicate which owned Queen’s Hall and manager of its orchestra, who with his wife, a professional violinist before her marriage, made their home at Grosvenor Square a center of musical and artistic society. Here he could meet Henry James or Debussy, listen to Mme Grieg sing her husband’s songs and enjoy a sumptuous dinner in company with John Sargent, to whom painting was a profession but music and food a matter of love. Noticing a gypsy band which had been wandering around London playing Spanish music, Strauss proposed that it be hidden in the garden to play during one of the Speyer parties, with results that tantalized Sargent, who was torn between his dinner and the need to run to the window to discover the source of the music.
In America, Strauss’s compositions had been known and played ever since Theodore Thomas, conductor of the Chicago Symphony, had performed his Symphony in F minor in 1884 and the German-born Emil Paur of the Boston Symphony had played Aus Italienin 1888. Thomas and Paur, who later moved to the New York Philharmonic, continued to play Strauss’s works as they came out, and in 1904 an American premiere was arranged for his newest work, Sinfonia Domestica, as the feature of a Strauss Festival to be held in New York. The composer was invited to conduct the new piece as well as a subsequent concert of his works in Chicago. Thomas, a fervent admirer over twenty years, considered him at this point in his career “the greatest musician now living and one of the greatest musical pioneers of all times.”
With the new wealth of American business tycoons overflowing their coffers, the United States was developing a whole new audience and source of support for music and the arts. It was a time of exuberant expenditure and large ideas. When the rector of Trinity Church in New York wanted a new pulpit, he asked the senior partner of the leading architectural firm, McKim, Mead and White, to design him something “big, broad, ample and simple but rich in the right places.” When the same McKim built the Boston Public Library a plaque was put up honoring the “splendid amplitude” of his genius. Splendid amplitude was in the air. Louis Tiffany designed for himself a house with a palatial flight of stairs leading up, between walls with complete Sudanese Negro huts built into them, to a hall so vast the ceiling was invisible in the dim light. In the center of the hall a black chimney soared to infinity, four immense fireplaces blazed, each with flames of a different color, mysterious light glowed through hanging Tiffany glass lamps and an invisible organist played the prelude from Parsifal.
The several major American orchestras subsidized by copper kings, railroad barons and their kind provided an important extra source of concert fees and royalties. Strauss was delighted to come and the concert-going American public breathlessly awaited the “most eminent of living composers,” who, they were told by Harper’s Weekly, uttered “imaginings of overpowering significance” and touched “the margin of the sublime.”
Sinfonia Domestica, it was apparent on first performance, touched the ridiculous. Although it was performed by the composer’s wish without program notes so that it could be listened to “purely as music,” Strauss had already told an interviewer that it illustrated “a day in my family life” in the form of a triple figure representing “Papa, Mama and Baby.” At the premiere it was presented only as Introduction and Scherzo, Adagio, Double Fugue and Finale, but, as usual, the composer soon obliged with an official analysis for subsequent performances which indicated the baby in its bath, the parents’ happiness, the quarrels of aunts and uncles over family resemblances—“Just like his Papa!” “Just like his Mama!”—and similar stuff. Although there was tender melody of Strauss’s finest in the cradle song and love duet, the dominant impression is of thumping and screaming and raucous confusion suggesting a maddened circus. If this is German home life, German history becomes understandable. Even longer than Heldenleben, the work astonished and offended most listeners. “If all the sacred elephants in India were driven into the Ganges at the same moment,” said a renowned but unnamed conductor to Beecham when the piece was played in London some months later, “they could not have made half as much noise as that one little Bavarian baby in its bath.” Gurgling bath water and ringing alarm clock were not what Wagner had meant by “the stuff of music.” The vulgarity of the new century seemed suddenly confirmed by its most eminent composer. Strauss missed the point. “I do not see why I should not compose a Symphony about myself,” he told Rolland. “I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.”
His choice of two world conquerors was indicative. In music the German assumption of superiority was by this time beginning to annoy other peoples. “German musicians always put a German arrival on a pedestal so that they can idolise it,” wrote Grieg to Delius in 1903. “Wagner is dead but they must have something to satisfy their patriotism and they would rather have ersatz than nothing at all.” In 1905 at a music festival in Strasbourg, capital of formerly French, now German, Alsace, the stated purpose was to bring French and Germans together through art. In a three-day program, however, only two French works were performed, while the first day of concerts began with Weber and ended with Wagner, the second day was devoted to Brahms, Mahler and Strauss and the last day entirely to Beethoven. The selection from Wagner of the last scene from Die Meistersinger, in which Hans Sachs denounces foreign insincerity and trivolity, suggested to one auditor a certain “lack of courtesy.”
The world’s increasing irritation with Germany appeared in the eagerness with which foreign critics seized upon evidence of a decline in Strauss’s inspiration. Everyone jumped on Sinfonia Domestica. Newman was astonished that “a composer of genius should have fallen so low” and Gilman revealed the degree to which Germany was getting on the nerves of other nations. Quoting Matthew Arnold to the effect that Teutonism tends insistently toward the “ugly and ignoble,” he wrote that “only a Teuton with a Teuton’s failure of tact” could have contrived Domestica.
The Zeitgeist did not call for Papa, Mama and Baby. A restlessness fermenting under the superabundant materialism was producing in artists a desire to shock; to rip and slash the thick quilt of bourgeois comfort. Attuned as always, Strauss responded. Sinfonia Domestica had shocked by banality, but now he felt a need to unnerve and appall and went straight from Bavarian family life to a theme of depraved and lascivious passion—Salome, in Oscar Wilde’s version.
A drama as lush and gruesome as Wilde trying hard could make it, Salome was a pursuit of sensation for its own sake, an effort to produce what Baudelaire called “the phosphorescence of putrescence.” The original play, written in French in 1891, went into rehearsal in London a year later with Sarah Bernhardt in the title role, but performance was banned by the Lord Chamberlain on the ground that its presentation of St. John the Baptist was sacrilege. Upon publication (with copies for the author’s friends bound in “Tyrian purple and tired silver”), the play was denounced by The Times as “an arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive and very offensive.” In 1894 an English translation by Lord Alfred Douglas appeared, illustrated with luscious evil by the truest decadent of them all, Aubrey Beardsley. Three of his drawings, considered indecent by the publishers, had to be withdrawn. In 1896, when Wilde was in Reading Gaol, Salome was produced in Paris by the actor-manager Lugné-Poë at his Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, with himself as Herod but without Bernhardt. The quintessence of decadence was overripe and it was not a success. In Germany, however, Salome matched a craving for the horrendous and found its place. First produced in Breslau in 1901, its real success came in 1902 with a production by Max Reinhardt at his Kleines Theater in Berlin, where Strauss saw it.
More a poem than a play, Wilde’s Salome was an exercise in purple, an orgy in words, which succeeded on paper but embarrassed on the stage. It offered the spectacle of Salome pouring out her hot erotic pleas to the eyes, the hair, the limbs, the body and the love of Iokanaan, of King Herod avid for his stepdaughter, of her voluptuous dance to excite his lust and win her ghastly desire, of the black Executioner’s huge arm rising from the pit holding the bearded bloody head of the Prophet who had scorned her, of her necrophilic raptures addressed to the head on the platter and her final conquest of its dead lips, of Herod’s climactic order of horror and remorse, “Kill that woman!” and of her death crushed beneath the shields of his soldiers. Performed in flesh and blood it delighted the Berlin audience. Wilde’s moonlit fantasia, in Germany, came into its own and enjoyed a phenomenal run of two hundred performances.
The undercurrent of morbidity in Germany, which Rolland had already noticed, grew more apparent in the first decade of the new century. It increased in proportion as Germany’s wealth and strength and arrogance increased, as if the pressure of so much industrial success and military power were creating an inner reaction in the form of a need to negate, to expose the worms and passions writhing within that masterful, prosperous, well-behaved, orderly people. It was as if Bismarck had perforce produced Krafft-Ebing. Indeed Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis which appeared in 1886 provided a well of lurid resource on which the German drama, then the most vigorous form of national literature, could draw.
The theatre ranked with music and opera as a German pleasure and, beginning in the nineties, broke out in a surge of problem plays stemming from Ibsen and in new styles of acting and experiments in stagecraft. Proclaiming the doctrine of Realism and Naturalism, the Freie Bühne (Independent Theatre) of Berlin, copied after the Théâtre Libre of Paris, opened in 1889 with Ibsen’s Ghosts followed by Hauptmann’s first play, Before Dawn. Theatres sprouted and multiplied. Society’s masks were torn off and the “beast in man,” Zola’s objective, was enthusiastically exposed. Besides Ibsen, Strindberg’s cruel Miss Julie, Tolstoy’s Powers of Darkness, Zola’s Therèse Raquin, the symbolist and neo-romantic dramas of Maeterlinck, D’Annunzio and von Hofmannsthal, the social plays of Ibsen’s disciple Shaw, the worldly satires of Arthur Schnitzler of Vienna and a proliferation of German tragedies were performed. Student stage societies revived Oedipus Rex and Euripides, the Modern Touring Company took the new drama to the provinces, and a people’s theatre, the Freie Volksbühne, followed by the Neue Freie Volksbühne, allied it to Socialism. In Munich, the Intimes Theater was founded in 1895 by Ernst von Wolzogen, librettist of Strauss’s opera Feuersnot. To achieve the same intimate atmosphere for experimental plays, Reinhardt founded the Kleines Theater in 1902, where, besides Salome, he produced Maxim Gorky’s awful look at society’s dregs, The Lower Depths.
Tragedy was the staple of the German theatre. Social comedies with happy endings were not a German genre. German fun was confined to buffoonery, either painful or coarse. Their tragedies were not so much curative, like Ibsen’s, nor compassionate, like Chekhov’s, but obsessively focused on mankind’s cruelty to man, on his bent toward self-destruction and on death. Death by murder, suicide or some more esoteric form resolved nearly all German drama of the nineties and early 1900’s. In Hauptmann’sHannelethe child heroine dies of neglect and abuse in an almshouse, in his Sunken Bell Heinrich’s wife drowns herself in a lake and he drinks a poisoned goblet, in Rose Bernd the title character, seduced and deserted, strangles her newborn child, in Henschel the title character hangs himself after betraying his dead wife by marrying a tart who lets his child die of neglect, in Michael Kramer a sensitive son is driven to suicide by an overbearing father, a popular theme in Germany rich in such fathers. In Sudermann’sMagda only the father’s fatal stroke prevents his shooting himself and his daughter, who needless to say is illegitimately pregnant, the invariable fate of the German heroine. An endless succession of them were driven in the grip of this circumstance to hysteria, insanity, crime, prison, infanticide and suicide. In Sudermann’s Sodoms Ende, which varies the pattern if not the end, a dissolute young artist, corrupted by the wife of a banker, drives his foster sister to suicide and dies himself of a hemorrhage. In Wedekind’sFrühlings Erwachen(Spring’s Awakening), first effort of a playwright who was to exceed all the rest, the discovery of sex by adolescents conflicting with the prurience of adults produces total catastrophe: the fourteen-year-old heroine, being with child, dies, apparently of a mismanaged abortion; the boy is expelled from school and sent to a reformatory by his parents; his friend, unable to bear life, commits suicide and reappears in a graveyard with his head under his arm in a closing scene of opaque symbolism. In the course of the action a third boy, in a scene of explicit auto-eroticism, addresses a passionate love declaration to the picture of a naked Venus which he then drops down the toilet. First produced in 1891, the play was a sensational success and in book form went into twenty-six editions.
Born in the same year as Strauss, Wedekind was a writer of satanic talent who had been an actor, journalist, circus publicity agent, singer of grisly ballads for Überbrettl and while on the staff of Simplicissimus served a term in prison for lèse majesté. “I have the imagination of disaster—and see life as ferocious and sinister” exactly described him, though it was Henry James who said it of himself. Frühlings Erwachen, if taken as a plea for sex education, at least had a social message and a quality of pity, but thereafter Wedekind saw nothing but the ferocious and sinister. In the same years in which Freud was carefully arriving at his discovery of the subconscious, Wedekind saw an awful vision of it and stripped off every covering to show it as purely malignant. From 1895 on, his plays plunged into a debauch of the vicious and perverse which seemed to have no argument but that humanity was vile. Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and its sequel, Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), take place in a world of pimps, crooks, harlots, blackmailers, murderers and hangmen surrounding the heroine, Lulu, who represents sensuality incarnate both heterosexual and lesbian. Her adventures proceed through brothels and dives, seduction, abortion, sadism, necrophilia and nymphomania in what a contemporary critic called “a torrent of sex foaming over jagged rocks of insanity and crime.” It was sex, not creative in its primal function, but destructive, producing not life but death. Lulu’s first husband dies of a stroke, her second, bedeviled by her perfidy, cuts his own throat, her third on discovering her infidelity committed with his son is killed by her. After prison, degradation and prostitution, she ends, logically, slashed to death by a Jack the Ripper in a final lethal explosion of that erotic power which Shaw, a very different playwright, was celebrating at the same time as the Life Force.
The all-pervasive influence of Nietzsche was at work. Shaw’s Man and Superman distilled from it a philosophic idea, but the Germans took Nietzsche literally. His rejection of conventional morality, which he meant as a steppingstone to a higher ground, they embraced as a command to roam the gutter. Sudermann quoted Nietzsche’s words, “Only in the savage forest of vice can new domains of knowledge be conquered.” As the domain of art if not knowledge, the same forest had lured the French decadents and the aesthetes of England in the movement that was abruptly terminated by Wilde’s trial. In Germany the movement, carrying over into the new century, was pushed to new limits by Wedekind with a kind of frustrated ferocity. It was a form of rebellion against the overwhelming material success of the country, a sense of something wrong beneath the twelve-course dinners, the pomp of military parades, the boasts of “blood and iron.” Wedekind and his kind were Schwarzseher, seers of black, of the black in man. They were a trend feeble in comparison with the dominant mood of self-confident power and pugnacity, yet who felt intimations of disaster, of a city ripe for burning, of Neroism in the air.
Strauss’s antennae picked up whatever was in the air and he fixed unerringly on Salome—as the subject of an opera, not a tone poem. Using more instruments than ever, he composed a score of tremendous difficulty and exaggerated dissonance with the orchestra at times divided against itself, playing in two violently antagonistic keys as if to express the horror of the subject by horrifying the ear. Instruments were twisted to new demands, cellos made to reach the realm of violins, trombones to cavort like flutes, kettledrums given figures of unprecedented complexity. The musical fabric was dazzling. Strauss could write for the voice with no less virtuosity than for orchestra and the singers’ parts seemed to grow more eloquent as the drama deepened in depravity. Salome’s final song to the severed head thrilled listeners with a sinister beauty that did justice to Wilde’s words:
“Ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me, Iokanaan! If thou hadst seen me thou hadst loved me. I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body and neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion.… Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth.”
When Berlin and Vienna refused performance, like London, on the ground of sacrilege, Strauss’s great admirer, Ernst von Schuch, conductor of the Dresden Royal Opera, presented it there on December 9, 1905. The production, in a single act lasting an hour and forty minutes without interruption, spared the audience’s sensibilities nothing. Iokanaan’s head, made up in realistic pallor of death with appropriate gore, was held in full view; Salome’s seven veils were ritually discarded one by one while Herod leered. Death under the soldiers’ shields supplied a punishing catharsis. The audience responded with unbounded enthusiasm extending to thirty-eight curtain calls for cast and composer. In subsequent performances in other German cities Salome went on to huge success and, for Strauss, large financial reward not adversely affected by bans and censorship troubles. In Vienna owing to the objections of the Archbishop the ban held, but in Berlin over the strenuous objections of the Kaiserin a compromise was reached of the kind applied by the Church to the Song of Solomon. Performance was allowed on condition that the star of Bethlehem should appear in the sky as Salome died, presumably indicating the posthumous triumph of the Baptist over unnatural passion.
Kaiser Wilhelm nevertheless remained unhappy. Despite an affinity for coarse physical jokes practiced upon his courtiers to their intense embarrassment, his moral views were more Victorian than Edwardian and he was married to a model of German bourgeois respectability. The Kaiserin Augusta, known as Dona, was a plain, amiable woman who provided her husband with six sons and a daughter, had no interests outside her family and wore large feathered hats on every occasion, even when yachting. They were her husband’s choice since his annual birthday present to her was invariably twelve hats selected by himself which she was obliged to wear. Her one mark on history was her insistence on a double bed in which she so often kept her husband awake with family discussions which made him irritable next day, that Chancellor Billow suggested separate bedrooms for the good of the State. But against her conviction that a good German husband and wife should sleep together, his proposal was in vain. Already offended by Strauss’s earlier opera Feuersnot, whose theme, bawdily expressed, was the necessity of a maiden yielding her virginity to restore fire to a village, the Kaiserin had caused its cancellation, at which the Intendant of the Royal Opera had resigned in protest. The Kaiser himself had removed the imperial coat of arms from the Deutsches Theater when it performed Hauptmann’s Die Weber to a cheering Socialist demonstration in the mid-nineties. A decade had passed since then and to suppress on moral grounds an opera by Germany’s leading composer would now have subjected the Kaiser to the sharp-tongued wit of Kladderadatsch and other irreverent journals. Accepting the compromise the Kaiser said, “I am sorry Strauss composed this Salome. It will do him a great deal of harm,” upon which Strauss said that it had enabled him to build his new villa at Garmisch.
Outside Germany where taste was more prudish, Salome became “the storm center of the musical world.” In New York a tense audience at the Metropolitan Opera on January 22, 1907, awaited the rise of the curtain with “foreboding,” soon amply fulfilled. The music, when critics could tear their attention from portrayal of “a psychopathic condition literally unspeakable in its horror and abnormality,” was acknowledged marvelous but perverted to means that “sicken the mind and wreck the nerves.” The opera’s theme, not humanly representative as the material of music should be, was considered variously “monstrous,” “pestilential,” “intolerable and abhorrent,” “mephitic, poisonous, sinister and obsessing in the extreme.” Its “erotic pathology” was unfit for “conversation betweenself-respecting men,” and the Dance alone “ought to make it impossible for an Occidental woman to look at it.” Rising in “righteous fury” the press agreed that popularity in Germany settled nothing for America and the Metropolitan bowing to the storm withdrew the production.
London did not even attempt it until three years later. A license was at first refused but this was overcome with the help of Mrs. Asquith, who invited Beecham, conductor at Covent Garden, for a visit in the country to enlist the help of the Prime Minister. By playing for him the march from Tannhäuser on the piano, the only piece of music Mr. Asquith knew, and assuring him that to like it was not a sign of philistinism, and by explaining that Strauss was “the most famous and in common opinion the greatest of living composers,” Beecham won his support. In consultation with the Lord Chamberlain, changes in the text were worked out transforming all Salome’s expressions of physical desire into pleas for spiritual guidance and, as extra precaution against sacrilege, requiring her final song to be sung to an empty platter.
In Salome Strauss had found his lode but where was there another Wilde? One appeared, and with a subject which promised to outdo Salome. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a young poet and prodigy of Vienna, was already famous at twenty-six when he first met Strauss, ten years his senior, in 1900. The grandson of an Italian lady and a converted Jew ennobled as a baron, he embodied Vienna’s cosmopolitan strains. When at sixteen and still a student in the gymnasium, he read his first verse play to Arthur Schnitzler, the listener felt he had “encountered a born genius for the first time in my life.” Two years later, in 1892, under the pseudonym “Loris,” he enraptured Jung Wien, the literary avant-garde of Vienna, with two verse plays, Gestern (Yesterday) and Der Tod des Tizian(Titian’s Death), whose worldly knowledge and sophisticated weariness led Hermann Bahr, leader of the young literati, to suppose the author must be a titled diplomat of fifty. He was incredulous to find him a boy of eighteen, “a strange youth … fired by the slightest stimulus, but only with his intellect, for his heart remained cold.” Self-indulgent, already a man of the world, “yet terribly sad in his precocious worldliness,” Hofmannsthal was a combination of Edwardian Werther and Viennese Dorian Gray. Like Wilde an artist in language, he played on German as on a harp and in 1893, his next drama, Tod und der Tor (Death and the Fool), confirmed in him a poet who could raise his native language to the harmony of Italian. When words are used for their own sake the result may be musical but the thought murky. In 1905 Hofmannsthal concluded an essay on Wilde, in perfect if unconscious emulation of his subject, “He who knows the power of the dance of life fears not death. For he knows that love kills.” To his contemporaries he seemed “absolute poetic perfection come into being.” As an acolyte, for a time, of the circle which genuflected to Stefan George in Munich, von Hofmannsthal was absorbed in problems of symbol and paradoxes of “the truth of masks.” As a Viennese he did not escape the pessimism that infused the capital of the oldest empire in Europe.
In Vienna, the Kaiserstadt, seat of the Congress that had pasted Europe together after Napoleon, the time was twilight. As the center of a centuries-old mixture of races and peoples and the unwilling allegiances of restless nationalities, the capital of Austria-Hungary had too many problems of political life too difficult to cope with—and so turned its attention to other matters: to culture and connoisseurship, dalliance if not love, refinement of manner above everything and seriousness in nothing but music. The tempo was easygoing, the temper flippant, the mood hedonism and a nonchalant fatalism. It was the land of the Lotus-Eaters, the “Capua of the Mind.” Its Emperor was seventy-five in 1905 and had been holding together his difficult domains through a reign of fifty-seven years. Its sad wandering Empress was dead by an Anarchist’s knife. Its court had retreated to the aristocratic purity of sixteen quarterings for every member. It was a place where something was visibly coming to an end; everyone knew it and no one spoke of it.
Vienna looked down on Berlin as parvenu and crude and expressed its feeling in a popular song:
Es gibt nur eine Kaiserstadt
Es gibt nur ein Wien,
Es gibt nur ein Räubernest
Und das heisst Berlin.*
In the city of Beethoven, music and opera were king and the man in the street discussed the rival merits of the bands who played in the Prater. Art and the artist were esteemed. In politics, in government, in morals, Vienna was “affably tolerant of all that was slovenly,… in artistic matters there was no pardon; here the honor of the city was at stake.” That honor was maintained by the bourgeoisie and the cultivated Jews, who were the new patrons of art. Franz Joseph had never read a book and nursed an antipathy to music. The nobility not only kept its distance from artistic and intellectual life but feared and contemned it. They had, however, the most accomplished social manners in Europe, and when Theodore Roosevelt was asked what type of person he had found most sympathetic on his European travels, he replied, “the Austrian gentleman.”
In internal affairs the strongest political sentiment was anti-Semitism, which was outspoken but more routine than heated. Karl Luger, the handsome blond-bearded Mayor of Vienna and head of the Christian Socialist party, was the leading anti-Semite, though more officially than personally. “I myself decide who is a Jew,” he used to say. Known as der schöne Karl, he was the most popular man in the city and his funeral in 1910 was a major event. Despite their handicap the Jews, who represented 10 per cent of Vienna’s population, were fertilizers of its culture. They played a prominent part in press, theatre, music, literature, finance, medicine and the law. They supplied the conductor of the Vienna Court Opera and the country’s leading composer in Gustav Mahler as well as Vienna’s truest mirror in Arthur Schnitzler.
A doctor like Chekhov, Schnitzler was marked by the same melancholy underlying a tone of irony and mockery. Except in his tragedy of Professor Bernhardi, the Jewish doctor who was assimilated but never enough, Schnitzler’s heroes were philanderers, seekers for meaning in love and art and life, but always, as became Vienna, a little listlessly. They were charming, good-natured, clever and sophisticated; voices of the wit, inconstancy, politeness and unscrupulousness of the Viennese soul—and of its lassitude. The hero of Der Weg ins Freie (The Road to the Open), six months after returning from a “melancholy and rather boring” tour of Sicily with his mistress before a final parting, reminds himself that since then he has done no real work, not even written down “the plaintive adagio which he had heard in the waves breaking on the beach on a windy morning in Palermo.” He is obsessed by a feeling of the “dreamlike and purposeless character of existence.” Discussing a heated debate in the Landtag he replies to a question, “Heated? Well, yes, what we call heated in Austria. People were outwardly offensive and inwardly indifferent.”
Hofmannsthal after his first meeting with Strauss sent him a verse play for a ballet which he had written on discovering “Dionysian beauty” in the wordless gesture of the dance. Not so dedicated to pure art as not to value an association with Strauss, he hoped the Master would set his libretto to music. Strauss, however, was at the moment too busy with Feuersnot and other projects. Pursuing the Dionysian trail, Hofmannsthal began to make notes on Greek themes, on the relation of the supernatural to the bestial, on “phallic exuberance” and the “pathology and criminal psychology” of the tragedies then enjoying revival on the stage. Here he found, not the marble purity of the conventional classical Greece known to the Nineteenth Century, but Nietzsche’s vision of a demonic Greece in whose sins and hates and forbidden bloodstained passions was the birth of tragedy, the earliest statement of man’s compulsive drive toward ruin. The central tragedy, which Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides all had dramatized, was the chain of guilt in the house of Atreus from the sacrifice of Iphigenia to the murder of Agamemnon to the revenge of Electra and Orestes in their ultimate act of matricide. Hofmannsthal followed, but his Elektra turned out to be closer to Poe than Euripides, a nightmare of Gothic horror rather than a drama of man’s fate.
His stage directions describe a palace courtyard at sunset where “patches of red light glimmering through the fig tree fall like bloodstains on the ground and walls.” His characters surpass Salome in extravagant utterances of torment and desire, in ghastly longing for the double slaying of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, in recollections of Agamemnon’s gaping wounds, in sexual images of hatred appearing as a bridegroom, “hollow-eyed, breathing a viperous breath,” whom Electra takes into her bed that it might teach her “all that is done between man and wife.” Crazed with mutual hate, mother and daughter circle each other like mad dogs. Electra is a maniacal fury, feeding the vulture of revenge on her body, groveling in the dust of Agamemnon’s grave at sundown, the hour when she “howls for her father” and sniffs among the dogs for the buried corpse. Clytemnestra is almost putrescent, with “a sallow bloated face” and heavy eyelids which she can only keep open by a “terrible effort.” Dressed in purple, covered in jewels and talismans, she leans on an ivory cane, her train carried by “a yellow figure with the face of an Egyptian and the posture of a serpent.” Sick with terror, evil dreams and an old lust, she is obsessed by the need to spill blood and drives herds of animals to the sacrifice in the hope that if the right blood flows she will be relieved of the nameless horror of her nightmares. It is no word, no pain that chokes her; it is nothing, yet so terrifying that her soul “hungers to hang itself and every nerve cries for death.”
Can one decay alive like a rotten corpse?
Can one fall apart if one is not even ill?
Fall apart wide awake like a dress eaten by moths?
She seems an allegory of Europe and the play a climax of the Schwarzseher, an apocalyptic vision of disaster. When, desperate for surcease from her dreams, Clytemnestra demands to know from Electra who must bleed and die that she may sleep at last, Electra cries in exaltation, “What must bleed? Your own throat!… and the shadows and torches shall envelop you in their black and scarlet net.”
The play was produced by Max Reinhardt in Berlin in 1903, the year after Salome. Hofmannsthal was alert to its possibilities. To serve as a libretto for an opera by Strauss was then considered “to reach the summit of contemporary fame,” and he repeatedly urgedElektra on Strauss as his next project. Though attracted, Strauss hesitated because of its similarity to Salome and cast about for some other theme of human nature driven to dreadful extremes. “Something like a really wild Cesare Borgia or Savonarola would be just what I am yearning for,” he wrote to Hofmannsthal in March, 1906. Following a visit to The Hague, where he was haunted by Rembrandt’s “Saul and David,” he suggested a “raving Saul” as a possible subject. Ten days later he suddenly proposed, “How about a subject from the French Revolution for a change?” Hofmannsthal, with his drama already written, kept returning to Elektra and, although the marks of Wilde on it were obvious, he insisted that it was really very different. Eager for collaboration, he was persuasive and Strauss succumbed. Meanwhile, with one foot in the dominant camp, he composed five highly colored military marches for the Kaiser which won him the Order of the Crown, Third Class.
While Strauss was at work on Elektra a major scandal revealing rottenness in high places became public. The Eulenburg affair concerned homosexuals in the immediate circle of the Kaiser, but it was less their habits than the layers disclosed of malice, intrigue and private vendetta which shed a lurid glow on Germany. Three years earlier Fritz Krupp, head of the firm, on being accused by the Socialist paper Vorwärts of homosexual acts with waiters and valets, committed suicide. This time the central figure was Prince Philipp Eulenburg, former Ambassador to Vienna from 1894 to 1902, a suave and cultivated aristocrat who was the Kaiser’s oldest and closest friend, sang songs to him beautifully at the piano, and gave him intelligent advice. As the only courtier to exercise on the whole a beneficent influence on the sovereign, he was naturally the object of the jealousy of Bülow and Holstein, who suspected the Kaiser of intention to make him Chancellor. Initiator of the scandal was Maximilian Harden, the feared and fearless editor of the weekly Die Zukunft, of which it was said that everything rotten and everything good in Germany appeared in its pages. Cause and motive had to do with Germany’s diplomatic defeat at the Algeciras Conference which set off waves of recrimination among ministers, culminating in the removal of the spidery Holstein. He blamed Eulenburg, although in fact his removal had been secretly engineered by Bülow. Rabid for revenge, Holstein, who for years had kept secret police files on the private habits of his associates, now joined forces with Harden to ruin Eulenburg, whose influence on the Kaiser, Harden believed, was pacific and therefore malign. With Holstein’s files at his disposal, Harden opened a campaign of innuendo naming three elderly Counts, all A.D.C.’s of the Kaiser, as homosexuals and gradually closing in on the friendship of Eulenburg with Count Kuno Moltke, nicknamed Tutu, “the most delicate of generals,” commander of a cavalry brigade and City Commandant of Berlin. The Kaiser ditched his friends instantly and forced Moltke to sue Harden for libel, which was just what Harden wanted in order to ruin Eulenburg. Through four trials lasting over a period of two years, from October, 1907, to July, 1909, evidence of perversion, blackmail and personal venom was spread before a bewildered public. Witnesses including thieves, pimps and morons told of “disgusting orgies” in the Garde du Corps regiment and testified to abnormal acts of Eulenburg and Moltke twenty years in the past. A celebrated specialist in pathological conditions discoursed on medical details, Moltke’s divorced and vindictive wife was called to testify, charges of subornation and perjury were added, Chancellor Büllow was himself accused of perversion by a half-crazed crusader for the legal rights of homosexuals and forced to sue, the verdict of the first trial in favor of Harden was reversed by a second trial and re-reversed in a third at which Eulenburg, now ill, disgraced and under arrest, was brought to court in a hospital bed. The public felt uneasily that justice was being tampered with, readers of Die Zukunjt were given an impression of perversion everywhere and the prestige of Kaiser and court sank. At the same time in Vienna the Emperor’s brother, Archduke Ludwig-Viktor, known as Luzi-Wuzi, became involved in a scandal with a masseur.
In England the three trials of Oscar Wilde had blazed and been put out within two months; the establishment turned its back on him and destroyed him. In Germany the establishment itself was on trial. In the midst of it, in October, 1908, came the tremendous gaffe of Kaiser Wilhelm’s interview on foreign affairs in the Daily Telegraph, in which his more than usually indiscreet opinions, carelessly allowed to pass by Billow, aroused the fury and hilarity of nations and questions as to his sanity at home. Some even demanded his abdication. Billow, maneuvering neatly as he thought, virtually apologized in the Reichstag for his sovereign who never forgave him. Hurt and indignant, the Kaiser retired to the estate of his friend Prince Fürstenberg, where, in the course of an evening’s festivities, Count Hülsen-Haeseler, chief of the Military Cabinet, appeared in a pink ballet skirt and rose wreath and “danced beautifully,” affording everybody much entertainment. On finishing he dropped dead of heart failure. Rigor mortis having set in by the time the doctors came, the General’s body could only with the greatest difficulty be divested of its ballet costume and restored to the propriety of military uniform. It had not been a happy year for the Kaiser, although six months later he at least had the satisfaction of forcing the resignation of Bülow.
Damage to the image of the ruling caste caused its members to swagger more than ever. As the Kaiser’s prestige slipped, the trend of the extreme militants grew in favor of the Crown Prince, a strutting creature whose flatterers told him he resembled Frederick the Great, as indeed, facially, he did. In the eternal duel of reigning monarch and eldest son, Wilhelm II and “little Willy” felt required to outdo each other in bombast. “I stand in shining armor” and similar pronouncements of the Kaiser were of this period. The nation’s mood of conscious power could absorb unlimited bombast. Germans knew themselves to be the strongest military power on earth, the most efficient merchants, the busiest bankers, penetrating every continent, financing the Turks, flinging out a railroad from Berlin to Baghdad, gaining the trade of Latin America, challenging the sea power of Great Britain, and in the realm of intellect systematically organizing, under the concept Wissenschaft, every branch of human knowledge. They were deserving and capable of mastery of the world. Rule by the best must be fulfilled. By this time Nietzsche, as Brandes wrote in 1909, held “undisputed sway” over the minds of his countrymen. What they lacked and hungered for was the world’s acknowledgment of their mastery. So long as it was denied, frustration grew and with it the desire to compel acknowledgment by the sword. Talk of war became a commonplace. When the Kaiser’s troublesome Rhodes scholars got drunk they threatened Oxford colleagues “with invasion and castigation at the hands of the German Army.” In 1912 General Bernhardi, the leading military theorist of his day, proclaimed the coming necessity in a book of indisputable authority and conviction whose title was Germany and the Next War.
The other Germany, the Germany of intellect and sentiment, the liberal Germany which lost in 1848 and never tried again, had withdrawn from the arena, content to despise militarism and materialism and sulk in a tent of superior spiritual values. Its representatives were a caste of professors, clergy, doctors and lawyers who regarded themselves as the Geistaristokratie (aristocracy of the mind) superior to the vulgar rich, the vulgar nobility and the vulgar masses. Unconcerned with social problems, unengaged in politics, they were satisfied with an indoor liberalism which fought no battles and expressed itself in abstract opposition to the regime, in contempt for the Kaiser and in the anti-militarist cartoons of Simplicissimus. They were personified by a professor of philosophy, Georg Simmel, whose lectures in a room overlooking Unter den Linden coincided with the hour of the changing of the guard. At the first sound of the military band Professor Simmel would abruptly stop talking and stand motionless in “an attitude of arrogant disgust and stoical suffering until the barbaric noise had faded away.” Only then would he resume his lecture.
At the centenary celebration of the University of Berlin in 1910, the two Germanys met when the academic community found itself invaded by their fierce-moustachioed monarch in the golden cuirass and golden-eagled helmet of the Garde du Corps, with retinue in gorgeous uniform, heralded by the terrific blasts of a trombone choir. Satisfied that the Kaiser “looked even worse than his caricatures,” the audience consoled itself with the thought that such an intrusion could not trouble their halls again for another hundred years.
Strauss completed the score of Elektra in September, 1908, with his publishers taking it from him page by page. Anticipating the prospect of another succès de scandale, they paid $27,000 for it, almost double the $15,000 paid for Salome, making Strauss’s income from music in 1908 $60,000. The German public’s appetite for sensation had become a habit and four cities competed for the honor of the premiere. Grateful to Schuch, Strauss gave it to Dresden, which in honor of the occasion scheduled a Strauss festival to include Salome, Feuersnot, Sinfonia Domestica and two performances of Elektra—five evenings of Strauss in succession.
Rehearsals of the new opera took place in an atmosphere of uproar; everything was larger, noisier, more violent than life. The score called for the biggest orchestra yet, sixty-two strings including eight bass cellos, forty-five winds including six bass trumpets and a contra-bass tuba, six to eight kettledrums as well as a bass drum, in all a total of about one hundred and twenty. The opera was performed in a single act lasting two hours without intermission with Electra on stage the entire time. Her part was longer than Brünhilde’s in all of The Ring put together and her vocal intervals were considered “unsingable.” The role of Clytemnestra was created by Mme Schumann-Heink, who, finding it “such a desperate one that it nearly killed me,” never sang it again. In places where she was required to sing over the orchestra at fortissimo, Strauss, listening from the stalls, would scream over the din and crash, “Louder, louder, I say! I can still hear the Heink’s voice!”
For a legendary drama set in 1500 B.C. he wanted everything to be “exact and realistic,” insisting on real sheep and bulls for Clytemnestra’s sacrifice. “Gott in Himmel! Strauss, are you mad?” howled the stage director in terror. “Imagine the cost! And the danger! What will they do when your violent music begins?” They would stampede, crash into the orchestra, kill the musicians, even wreck valuable instruments. Strauss was adamant. Von Schuch was called in to add his protest. Only after terrific arguments was Strauss persuaded to yield on the bulls and be content with sheep. Equally realistic in his music, he virtually took the role of words away from von Hofmannsthal. The tinkling of Clytemnestra’s bracelets is heard in the percussion; when Chrysothemis speaks of a stormy night the storm rages in the orchestra; when the beasts are driven to sacrifice the noise of their hoofs makes the listener want to get out of the way; when the slippery pool of blood is described the orchestra gives a picture of it. The composer’s mastery of his technical resources seemed superhuman and his breaking of musical laws more reckless than ever. As he put it, “I went to the uttermost limits of harmony and psychic polyphony and of the receptive capacity of present day ears.”
When the evening came for the premiere on January 25, 1909, an international audience was assembled including opera directors from every country on the continent and, according to a possibly overwhelmed reporter, “200 distinguished critics.” “All Europe is here,” the hotel porter said proudly to Hermann Bahr, who came from Vienna.
Without overture or prelude the curtain rose as the orchestra thundered out Agamemnon’s theme like the hammer of doom pounding on the great lion gate of Mycenae. No opera had ever opened so stunningly before. When the curtain fell after two hours of demonic intensity the audience sat for some seconds in stupefied silence until the “Straussianer” recovered and began to applaud. An opposition group hissed but most of the audience was too cowed to do anything until the claque won the upper hand and wrung curtain calls and ultimately cheers for the composer. The brutality of the libretto and the outrages upon musical form provoked the usual controversy. To some the music of Elektra seemed no longer music. “Indeed, many serious minded people consider Richard Strauss insane,” wrote one benumbed listener. But on second hearing and at further performances which followed in Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt within four weeks of the premiere, the mastery of Strauss’s score in conveying dread and impending horror leading up to the final murder was undeniable.
Listening to the music Hermann Bahr felt it expressed something sinister about the present time, a pride born of limitless power, a defiance of order “lured back toward chaos,” and a yearning in Chrysothemis for some simple tranquil feeling. Though deeply disturbed he felt it had been a “marvelous evening” and returned to Vienna excited and uplifted. This was what Nietzsche had prescribed.
When it reached London a year later, in February, 1910, notoriety preceded it and musical warfare raged before a note had been heard. Strauss came himself to conduct two performances at a fee of £200 for each. The Daily Mail critic was struck by the sobriety of his gestures. “A tall pale man with smooth brow” whose steel-blue eyes flashed from time to time at singers or musicians, he conducted with head immobile and elbows as if riveted to his body. “He seemed a mathematician writing a formula on a blackboard neatly with supreme knowledge.” After the performance The Times found the opera “unsurpassed for sheer hideousness in the whole of operatic literature,” while the Daily Telegraph reported that “Covent Garden had never previously witnessed a scene of such unfettered enthusiasm.” The rising controversy created a public demand that required Beecham to extend his season. From his point of view it was, excepting the death of King Edward VII some months later, “the most discussed event of the year.” The truth was that by this time it could no longer be heard outside Germany without political overtones. George Bernard Shaw, believing that anti-German hysteria was responsible for the attacks on Elektra, leaned backward to the opposite extreme: In an article in the Nationhe wrote that if once he could have said that “the case against the fools and the money changers who are trying to drive us into war with Germany consists in the single word, Beethoven, today I should say with equal confidence, Strauss.” He called Elektra “the highest achievement of the highest art” and its performance “a historic moment in the history of art in England such as may not occur again in our lifetime.”
Strauss recognized that in the style of Salome and Elektra he had gone as far as he could go. Suddenly, as after Heldenleben, having enough of the grand manner, he decided to give the public a comic opera for a change, in the style of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, to prove that Strauss could do anything. As librettist Hofmannsthal approved and early in 1909 was at work drafting an “entirely original” scenario set in Eighteenth-Century Vienna, “full of burlesque situations and characters” with opportunity for lyrical melody and humor. On receiving the opening scene, Strauss found it delightful and replied, “It will set itself to music like oil and melted butter.” Collaborating by correspondence through 1909 and the first half of 1910, librettist and composer constructed a new opera to be called Der Rosenkavalier.
The juvenile lead was to be sung by a woman dressed as a man. Hosenrolle (trouser parts) for women were a convention which Mozart himself had used for Cherubino but the Hofmannsthal-Strauss concept of Octavian was a rather different matter, not devoid of a desire to titillate. When Strauss’s prelude to the opera describes with characteristic realism the pleasures of the sex act and the curtain rises on the Marschallin and her young lover still in bed, the discovery that both are women was likely to produce in the audience a peculiar sensation of which the authors were certainly aware. The idea was originally Hofmannsthal’s. Strauss later claimed that the device was necessary because no man young enough to sing Octavian would have had the experience necessary to be an accomplished actor. “Besides,” he added more frankly, “writing for three sopranos was a challenge.” He met it, especially when the three sing together in the last act, with exquisite song, In Elektra the men’s parts had been of small account and inRosenkavalier the only male part was that of a coarse lecher who appears either as unpleasant or ridiculous. Baron Ochs represented the German idea of the comic. As Strauss wrote to Hofmannsthal during the composition, he missed “a genuinely comic situation—everything is merely amusing but not comic.” He wanted the audience to laugh; “Laugh! not just smile or grin.”
The inevitable animals made their appearance in the form of a dog, a monkey and a parrot. When Strauss demanded from Hofmannsthal a love scene between Sophie and Octavian to which he could write a duet “much more passionate,… as it reads now it is too tame, too mannered and timid,” Hofmannsthal replied pettishly that these two young creatures “have nothing of the Valkyrie or Tristan and Isolde about them” and he wished to avoid at all costs having them “burst into a kind of Wagnerian erotic screaming.” This was hardly tactful and incompatibilities of temperament between composer and librettist were becoming evident. A touch of Tristan in fact appeared, not to mention some borrowing from Mozart and even from Johann Strauss. With bland anachronism a Viennese waltz, unknown in the Eighteenth Century, was a main theme.
By April, 1910, the full score of Act II was already at the printer before Strauss had received the libretto for Act III. Its situations contrived for the Baron’s embarrassment turned out to have been adapted by von Hofmannsthal from The Merry Wives of Windsor, with the difference that, unlike Falstaff, Ochs remained unrelievedly unlikable. By the end of summer the opera was finished and on January 26, 1911, two years after Elektra, Rosenkavalier had its premier at Dresden. It was rarely to be off the opera stage thereafter. Composer and librettist endowed it with all the shimmer of super-civilized Vienna. It glistened like the silver rose that was its symbol. All Strauss’s skill, resourcefulness and audacity—and his duality—were in the score. His highest gift of musical expressiveness could convey the bustle of an Eighteenth-Century levee, the delicious discovery of young love, the comic terror of the duel, the sweet sadness of the Marschallin’s renunciation, and at the same time be used for coarse jokes and bottom-pinching humor. He gave the world a silver rose, beautiful, glittering and tarnished.
In 1911 Strauss was at the peak of the musical world, the most famous composer alive, “one of those,” wrote a biographer of musicians, Richard Specht, “without whom we can no longer imagine our spiritual life.” Although he and Hofmannsthal set to work at once on another opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, Strauss had reached his own peak and the palm was already passing.
In 1908 in Paris the Russian Ballet company of Sergei Diaghilev burst like a gorgeous tropical bird upon the Western world. Its season was a triumph of wild throbbing exotic splendor, another “flash of lightning out of the North.” Instead of the tired routines of classical ballet it brought fresh excellence of music by contemporary Russian composers, new librettos, imaginative choreography and brilliant modern stage design, all assembled like a bed of jewels to set off a blaze of dancing that was virile and superb. The male dancer was the star, no longer a mere porteur to lift the ballerina, but a wind who brought vitality and zest sweeping onto the stage. Above all the rest was one, Vaslav Nijinsky. When he appeared with an astonishing leap into the air and seemed almost to pause there, people felt the excitement of perfection and knew they were seeing the greatest ballon dancer who ever lived. He was an angel, a genius, an Apollo of motion. He took possession of all hearts. The whole ensemble took Paris by storm. Devotees predicted the downfall of opera. “It was as if,” wrote the Comtesse de Noailles, “something new had been added to the creation of the world on its seventh day.”
New movements in the arts were erupting everywhere. At the Salon d’Automne in 1905 and 1906 the Fauves (Wild Beasts) led by Matisse exhibited in riotous color and distorted line their credo of painting independent of nature. In 1907–8 Picasso and Braque, discovering essential reality in geometrical forms, created Cubism. In its terms Léger celebrated the machine and a train of other artists followed. In Germany the new idea broke out in a school of Expressionists who searched for emotional impact through exaggeration or distortion of nature. Two Americans broke old molds: Frank Lloyd Wright at home and Isadora Duncan, who, touring Europe in the years 1904–8, introduced emotion into the dance. Rodin, speaking for his own métier but voicing a new goal for all the arts, had already said, “Classical sculpture sought the logic of the human body; I seek its psychology.” Seeking it too, Marcel Proust in 1906 shut himself up in a cork-lined room to embark upon Remembrance of Things Past. Thomas Mann took up the search inDeath in Venice. In Bloomsbury, Lytton Strachey prepared a new kind of biography. The Moscow Art Theatre demonstrated a new kind of acting. The Irish Renaissance flowered in Yeats and in J. M. Synge, who in Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World proved himself the only writer since Shakespeare to produce an equally fine tragedy and comedy. The time vibrated with a search for new forms and new realms. When on July 25, 1909, Blériot flew the Channel, confirming what the Wrights had begun, he seemed to mark a wiping out of frontiers, and everyone in Europe felt in his triumph “a soaring of feelings no less wonderful than that of the planes.”
All the fever and fecundity of the hour seemed captured by the Russian Ballet. That it should come out of Imperial Russia, considered at once barbaric and decrepit, was as surprising as had been the summons to disarmament by the Czar. A great interest in things Russian aroused by the Franco-Russian Alliance and the Exposition of 1900 had inspired the enterprising Diaghilev to bring an exhibition of Russian art to Paris in 1906. Paintings and sculpture, ikons, priestly brocades and the jeweled marvels of Fabergé lent by the Imperial and private collections and by museums filled twelve rooms under the patronage of the Grand Duke Vladimir, Ambassador Izvolsky of Russia and Mme Greffulhe. The next year Diaghilev brought Russian music in a series of dazzling concerts with Rimsky-Korsakov conducting his own work, Rachmaninoff playing his own piano concerto, Josef Hofmann playing a concerto by Scriabine, and the magnificent basso Chaliapin singing excerpts from Borodin’s Prince Igor and Moussorgsky’sBoris Godunov.Building on the enthusiastic welcome, Diaghilev planned a greater triumph in a season of ballet and Russian opera. The Imperial Russian Ballet lent its leading artists, Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky, Adolph Bolm and Tamara Karsavina, with Michel Fokine as choreographer. For stage design and costumes, Diaghilev obtained the gorgeous and barbaric talent of Léon Bakst, supplermented by outstanding painters, Soudeikine, Roerich, Alexandre Benois and others. The sensation of the first season wasCleopatra, whose music was a melange from at least five Russian composers. Russian themes mingled with Egyptian and Persian and even the original sorceress of the Nile could not have matched the ravishing beauty and figure of Ida Rubinstein borne on a palanquin surrounded by a whirling bacchanal of veils and rose leaves arranged to conceal the fact that as a dancer she was as yet barely trained. Paris found her almost “too beautiful, like strong perfume.”
Every year for the next six years the Ballet returned with new and exuberant productions which revolutionized choreography and stage design. Music was dignified by a full orchestra, with Pierre Monteux engaged as conductor. Additional operas—Moussorgsky’s Khovantschina, Rimsky’s Sadko and Ivan the Terrible—besides Prince Igor and Boris Godunov, were added to the repertoire. Pavlova later left the company, but in 1909 in Les Sylphides she seemed to dancing “what Racine is to poetry,” while Karsavina was “the exquisite union of classic tradition and revolutionary artistry.” For the music of this ballet two of Chopin’s piano compositions, Nocturne and Valse Brillante, were orchestrated by a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, Igor Stravinsky, then twenty-six, whom Diaghilev had commissioned after hearing his first performed orchestral work in St. Petersburg in 1908. In contrast to the classical delicacy of Sylphides, Fokine staged the savage Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor with Tartar-Mongol themes echoing in the music and a wild Asiatic horde of dancers against a scene in dull grays and reds, of low round-topped tents and rising columns of smoke stretching toward the infinite horizon of the steppe.
Emotion long absent from the ballet was infused by the voluptuous physical spectacles and intoxicating colors of Bakst. Houris of the Sultan’s harem from the Arabian Nights, bacchantes from a Greek vase, Russian boyars in boots, harlequins and colombines of the Commedia dell’Arte, forest creatures in maroon, green and gold suggesting “the sparkling beauty of spotted pythons,” tennis-players in modern dress took over the stage. Bakst inspired Paul Poiret and five years of women’s fashions. When planning Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schéhérazade with his associates, the red-haired Bakst in his elegant and scented clothes jumped on a chair and explained, in his guttural accent with explicit gestures, how the Sultan’s bodyguard should cut everyone to pieces: “everyone, his wives and all their Negro lovers!” For Schéhérazade he designed a setting to suggest “dreadful deeds of lust and cruelty” which Fokine interpreted enthusiastically in a dance of Negro slaves whom the Sultan’s wives persuade the eunuchs to liberate from their golden cages and who fling themselves upon the willing harem in an orgiastic dance of “spasms of desire.” The sexual theme was a favorite of the Ballet. For Thamar, the Caucasian queen, a Cleopatra à la russe, Bakst designed a medieval castle above a river into whose waters rejected lovers fell to their doom. In her various roles as temptress the delicate and flower-like Karsavina conveyed vice, as the critics said, “with a great deal of verisimilitude.”
When Rimsky died in 1908 Stravinsky composed a Chant Funèbre for a memorial concert in St. Petersburg. More than ever impressed, Diaghilev asked him to write the music for a ballet based on the Russian fairy tale of Prince Ivan and the Firebird. Set in a wood with a wicked wizard and twelve princesses under a spell, it evoked from the composer an imaginative score of mixed rhythms, graceful melody and a weird electric dance of demons. With Bolm as the Prince and Karsavina as the Firebird, it was performed in June, 1910, the first work of Stravinsky in his own right to be heard outside of Russia. Debussy rushed backstage to embrace him. The audience was delighted to appreciate music that was contemporary without being uncomfortable and Diaghilev was congratulated on every hand. He at once commissioned another ballet for the following season. When Stravinsky played for him a piece for piano and orchestra which he had already written on the adventures of Petrouchka, “the immortal and unhappy puppet, hero of every fair in every country,” Diaghilev was enchanted. Together they worked out the scenes of the ballet, the carnival in the public square, the crowds and booths, the magician with his tricks, the gypsies and trained bear, the puppet show whose dolls come to life, the vain love of Petrouchka for the Dancer and his death at the hands of his rival, the Moor.
Petrouchka was music of power and vitality, close to the Russian people, with folk tunes and echoes of the hurdy-gurdy, humor and satire and poignant grief. Like Strauss, Stravinsky scorned development of themes but in a tradition he had inherited from the Russian “Five” rather than from Germany. Almost contrary to the nature of music, which traditionally depended on development and repetition, Stravinsky was terse and direct, aiming, as he said, “at straightforward expression in its simplest form. I have no use for ‘working-out’ in dramatic music. The one essential thing is to feel and convey one’s feelings.”
In this Petrouchka succeeded and Paris acknowledged what Debussy’s embrace had already recognized: the appearance of an original and major composer. Nijinsky as the puppet broke the audience’s heart. Thrown by his master into a black box, rushing about waving his stiff arms in the air, pathetic in love and frantic in jealousy, his performance was a triumph just in time for the London season.
England greeted the Russian Ballet with a fervor equal to France. In the brilliant Coronation summer of 1911 “it was exciting to be alive.” The heat broke records, festivities were at a peak, airplanes landed on country lawns, everybody was stimulated by the thrill of flight but the Russian Ballet “crowned all.” It restored the dance to its “primal nobility,” wrote Ellen Terry. It was a revelation in the harmony of the arts. Society, intellectuals, everyone with any pretensions to taste, flocked to Covent Garden “night after night, entranced.” Nijinsky enraptured all who came: as the uncouth puppet, as the Negro slave in silver trousers of Schéhérazade, as Pierrot in a candle-lit garden chasing dancers dressed as butterflies to music by Schumann, as the Blue God rising from a lotus in a Chinese pool to music by Proust’s friend Reynaldo Hahn, as the ghost of a rose in a costume of petals, flying out of a window in a famous leap that made people say his element was the air. Speaking no English and hardly any French, he became the darling of the dinner parties, speechless but smiling.
Impelled by triumph, like Strauss, to try for new sensation, Diaghilev in the season of 1912 succeeded in shocking Paris. He produced two new ballets by French composers. Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, written for the occasion, was acknowledged by Stravinsky “one of the finest things by a French composer.” Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune, whose music was already known, was a scandal for non-musical reasons. Nijinsky was the Faun in skin-fitting tights painted in animal spots, with a tiny tail, a wig of tight curls made of gold cord, and two little curling horns. In a ballet lasting twelve minutes he chased nymphs in Greek gowns and, as the last escaped him, leaving behind her veil, fell upon it in a movement of sexual consummation. The choreography in this case was Nijinsky’s own. The curtain fell upon hoots, whistles, and insults mixed with cries of “épatant!” and “Bis, bis!” Obliging, the company danced the ballet over again to “indescribable chaos.” Next morning Gaston Calmette, the editor of Figaro, published a signed editorial on his front page under the title “Un Faux Pas” denouncing “the extraordinary exhibition of erotic bestiality and shameless gesture” and demanding its suppression in subsequent performances. Agreeing, if less excitedly, Le Gauloisfound the final gesture “de trop,” while Le Temps with customary dignity expressed the “justified discontent” of the French people at this “regrettable adventure.” A report quickly circulated that the Prefect of Police at Calmette’s request had issued an injunction against further performance. In clubs, salons, cafés and lobbies of the Chamber no one talked of anything else; Paris momentarily was again in two camps. The excitable Russian Ambassador, M. Izvolsky, wanted to know if Figaro was attacking the Franco-Russian Alliance. Next day Le Matin published a letter from Rodin defending Nijinsky for restoring “freedom of instinct and human emotion” to the dance. The controversy transferred itself to Rodin, whose supporters issued a manifesto in which Jules Lemaître and Maurice Barrès were now on the same side as Anatole France and Octave Mirbeau along with ex-President Loubet, former premiers Clemenceau, Léon Bourgeois and Briand, Ambassador Izvolsky and Baron d’Estournelles. Forain, unreconstructed, published in Figaro an anti-Rodin cartoon. With every ticket for the second performance sold at a premium, the offending gesture was suppressed, leaving the Faun merely gazing on the veil with doleful regret.
In Vienna that season, where owing to a current Balkan War the mood was anti-Slav, a fiasco was barely averted. At rehearsals the orchestra of the Viennese Royal Opera, which could play anything put before it with accomplished ease, played the Russian music with ostentatious disapproval and deliberate mistakes. Monteux was helpless and when the enraged Diaghilev commented out loud on the behavior of these “pigs,” the musicians downed their instruments and left the stage. Only by extracting an apology from Diaghilev next day was the crisis resolved. In Berlin the Kaiser attended a performance of Cleopatra and Firebird. Preferring the former, he summoned Diaghilev and told him he would send his Egyptologists to see it, apparently under the impression that Bakst’s fantastic decor was authentic and the Russian potpourri a revelation of the real music of Ptolemaic Egypt.
Strauss too came to the performance and afterward complimented Stravinsky, adding a characteristic piece of advice. Referring to the muted mysterious opening of Firebird, where the Prince rides into the enchanted wood, he said, “You make a mistake in beginning your piece pianissimo; the public will not listen. You should astonish them by a sudden crash at the start. After that they will follow you and you can do what you like.”
To capture Strauss for the Ballet was an obvious next task, and the Ballet’s prestige in turn had already interested von Hofmannsthal, who opened negotiations. After obtaining Diaghilev’s financial terms, he suggested to Strauss a ballet on Orestes and the Furies with Nijinsky portraying the hero’s “terrible deed and terrible suffering” and the Furies “bursting forth horribly and triumphantly” in a dance of destruction at the end. It was hardly a fresh idea but Hofmannsthal wrote temptingly that it would provide the occasion for “wonderful, somber, grandiose music.… Think it over and please don’t refuse.” He enclosed a note of the terms which Diaghilev “takes the liberty of submitting to you.” When Strauss promptly rejected the idea, Hofmannsthal hurriedly offered instead a libretto for a ballet based on Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife which he had already written in collaboration with Count Harry Kessler, a German litterateur, amateur in politics and patron of the arts who like other Germans of liberal ideas had no place in official life. Applying pressure to Strauss, Hofmannsthal wrote that if he refused, Diaghilev—who liked the libretto—would commission a Russian or French composer. This worked. “Joseph is excellent,” Strauss replied. “I’ll bite. Have already started sketching it out.”
Trouble soon developed. The libretto as conceived by its two sophisticated authors was a metaphysical version of the story of the Baptist and Salome, with Joseph as a God-seeker “whose secret is that of growth and transmutation, whose holiness is that of creating and begetting, whose perfection is that of things which have not yet been.” He is confronted by a sensual woman who is ruined “by perception of the divine which she cannot conquer.” These were not the most suitable ideas to express in music, much less the dance. Squirming, Strauss complained, “The chaste Joseph isn’t at all up my street and if a thing bores me I find it difficult to set to music.” He complained that Joseph in the ballet did nothing but resist the Queen’s advances; “this God-seeker is going to be a hell of an effort.” Hofmannsthal explained carefully that Joseph’s resistance was “the struggle of man’s intensified intellectuality” against woman’s urge to drag him down, a clarification which did little to relieve Strauss’s boredom with his task. His first sketches, which he played for Hofmannsthal in December, 1912, left his collaborator “disturbed” and conscious that “there is something wrong between the two of us which in the end will have to be brought into the open.” For the time being he implored Strauss not to feel constrained by the demands of the dance but to write “unrestrained pure Strauss” expressing his own personality “with every conceivable freedom in polyphony and modernism in a manner as bold and bizarre as you may wish.” Joseph remained chaste, however, and Strauss uninspired. In the meantime Diaghilev had another premiere ready for the season of 1913.
It was Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) by Stravinsky. Its theme was elemental, the rejuvenation of earth in spring. The form was a celebration of pagan rites in which a sacrificial maiden dances herself to death to renew the life of the soil. In contrast to the tired sophistry of Joseph, Stravinsky’s scenario was simply a framework for dancers and music. He opened not with a bang, as Strauss had advised, but with a slow trembling of woodwinds as if to suggest the physical mystery of budding. As the curtain rose on tribal games and dances, the music became vibrant and frenetic with primeval rhythms, the chant of trumpets, the driving beat of machinery, jazz metres and pitiless drums never before used with such power and abandon. It rose in intensity and excitement to a blazing climax and all the promise of a new age. It was the Twentieth Century incarnate. It reached at one stride a peak of modern music that was to dominate later generations. It was to the Twentieth Century what Beethoven’s Eroica was to the Nineteenth, and like it, never surpassed.
The premiere conducted by Monteux on May 28, 1913, created almost a riot in the theatre. The abandonment of understood harmony, melody and structure seemed musical anarchy. People felt they were hearing a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art and responded with howls and catcalls and derisive laughter. Counter-demonstrators bellowed defiance. One young man became so excited he began to beat rhythmically with his fists on the head of an American in the audience whose own emotion was so great that “I did not feel the blows for some time.” A beautifully gowned lady in a box stood up and slapped the face of a man hissing in an adjoining box. Saint-Saëns indignantly rose and left the hall; Ravel shouted, “Genius!” The dancers could not hear the music above the uproar and Nijinsky, who had choreographed the ballet, stood in the wings pounding out the rhythm with his fists and shouting in despair, “Ras, Dwa, Tri!” Monteux threw desperate glances to Diaghilev who signed to him to keep on playing and shouted to the audience to let the piece be heard. “Listen first, hiss afterwards!” screamed Gabriel Astruc, the French manager, in a rage. When it was over the audience streamed out to continue their battle in the cafés and the critics to carry it to the press, but as the music had hardly been heard, opinion was largely emotion. Not until a year later when the music was played again in Paris as a concert in April, 1914, was it recognized for what it was. With the performance of the Sacre, filling out a decade of innovation in the arts, all the major tendencies of the next half-century had been stated.
That summer Strauss completed Joseph. Meeting with Diaghilev and Bakst in Venice, Hofmannsthal planned a production that was to be “the most lavish and beautiful imaginable.” It was to be set not in Egypt but in the Venice of Tintoretto and Veronese because as Count Kessler explained, “Too scrupulous an accuracy can but impede the freedom of imagination.”
Already busy with several new works, Strauss was news. When in July he finished Ein Deutsches Motette for chorus and orchestra it was considered worth a cable dispatch to the New York Times. For the opening of a new concert hall in Vienna in November he composed a Festival Prelude scored for a bigger orchestra than ever: one hundred and fifty musicians including eight horns, eight drums, six extra trumpets and an organ. It was suitable to a year of national chest-thumping in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig and the simultaneous twenty-fifth anniversary of the Kaiser’s reign.
For the Centenary a book called Germany in Arms was published with an introduction by the Crown Prince, who wrote: “It is the holy duty of Germany above all other peoples to maintain an army and a fleet ever at the highest point of readiness. Only then, supported by our own good sword, can we preserve the place in the sun which is our due but which is not willingly granted to us.” Although the “gigantic conflagration” of nations, once started, would not be easily extinguished, this should not deter the German hand from the sword, “for the sword will remain the decisive factor till the end of the world.”
More factually Karl Helfferich, director of the Deutsche Bank, published a survey of Germany’s Economic Progress and National Wealth, 1888–1913 which supplied overwhelming figures of the “impetuous and triumphant upward movement” of the last twenty-five years. Helfferich showed that the population had increased by more than a third, that Germany’s excess of births over deaths was greater than any other country’s except Russia, that economic opportunity and demand for labour had expanded faster than the population, that productivity of German workers and percentage of population gainfully employed had increased, that upward was the word for statistics on production, transportation, consumption, capital aggregation, investments, savings-bank deposits and every other factor of economic life. Helfferich’s pages groaned under such phrases as “enormous development,” “vast progress,” “prodigious expansion,” “gigantic increase.”
That year an Englishman traveling in Alsace-Lorraine asked a waiter in Metz what nationality he considered himself. “Muss-Preussen” (Obligatory Prussian) the man replied, and for the rest of the journey the Englishman was heard by his traveling companion to mutter at intervals, “Muss-Preussen—we’re all going to be Muss-Preussen before long.”
Fear of the same ancient sin of pride that had prompted Kipling to write “Recessional” in the year of Britain’s Jubilee now afflicted an occasional thoughtful German. Walther Rathenau, introspective and literary heir of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft, published a long poem called “Festal Song” in Die Zukunft whose tone was a protest against the organized enthusiasm worked up for the Centenary. He too saw an apocalyptic vision and headed his poem with a text from Ezekiel, “Also thou son of man, thus saith the Lord God unto the land of Israel, ‘An end, the end is come upon the four corners of the land. Now is the end come upon thee; it watcheth for thee; behold it is come.’ ” Rathenau quoted no more but readers who turned to Ezekiel would have found the judgment upon Tyre: “With thy wisdom and thy understanding thou hast gotten thee riches and hast gotten gold and silver into thy treasure and by thy traffick hast thou increased thy riches and thine heart is lifted up because of thy riches and thou hast said I am a God.… Therefore I will bring strangers upon thee, the terrible of nations and they shall draw their swords against the beauty of thy wisdom … and bring thee down into the pit and thou shalt die the deaths of them that are slain in the midst of the seas.”
Voices like that of Rathenau, who did not have quite the courage to sign his own important name but used a pseudonym, were not heard. Such was German national sentiment that when Hauptmann’s Festspiel in honor of the Centenary was produced by Max Reinhardt it was attacked by the Nationalists and closed on demand of the Crown Prince because it stressed liberation rather than the sword which had accomplished it. The mood culminated at Zabern, a small Alsatian town where ill-feeling between the German garrison and the natives provoked German officers to assault and arrest civilians. Becoming a cause célèbre the incident increased foreign hostility to Germany. When Colonel Reuter, the commanding officer of Zabern, was court-martialed and acquitted, the power of the Army over the rights of the citizen became a major political issue in Germany. If Army officers were put beyond the law, said a member of the Center party in the Reichstag, “then finis Germaniae.” He was cheered by the majority, but Colonel Reuter received the Order of the Red Eagle, Third Class, and a congratulatory telegram from the Crown Prince saying, “Keep it up!”
The combination of Richard Strauss and Russian Ballet, awaited as a major event, was scheduled for May, 1914, with the composer conducting. Attempting to sum up his career so far, Lawrence Gilman in January found the same baffling duality in Strauss which had so often troubled historians of his country. His best work, Gilman wrote, as in the opening of Zarathustra, the finale of Don Quixote, the love passage in Heldenleben, the recognition of Orestes and Electra, was music of “terrifying cosmic sublimity” andElektra, his masterpiece, would someday be recognized as “among the supreme things of music.” Yet he could achieve “a degree of bad taste that passes credibility, be commonplace with a blatancy that sets teeth on edge” and irritate by his “staggeringly complacent habit” of writing music without point or coherence, reason or logic. He always stirred the waters, coming up now with something precious, now with mud, but the activity was indisputable. Gilman, who had not yet heard the Sacre, concluded that Strauss was “unequalled in music as an awakener,… the most dynamic, the most reckless, the most preposterous of all composers,… the most commanding music maker since Wagner.”
Strauss arrived in Paris for rehearsals in April. Nijinsky, for whom the part had been created, was not to play it, having been banished from the company by Diaghilev in a jealous fury because of his marriage. A new young dancer from the Imperial Ballet, Léonide Massine, slim, barely seventeen, with great brown eyes, replaced him. Ida Rubinstein was the Queen and the Spanish painter José Maria Sert supplemented the designs of Bakst. In a Palladian hall with fountains, pillars of gold, marble floors, and ewers of crystal piled with fruit, Potiphar’s wife in scarlet brocade was surrounded by slaves in pink and gold and a bodyguard of gigantic mulattoes in black plumes holding golden whips. Animal life was present in a brace of Russian wolfhounds. A variety of exotic dancers endeavor to relieve the Queen’s “almost passionate weariness of life” in vain, until a shepherd boy, Joseph, is carried in asleep wrapped in yellow silk and who, on waking, dances his search for the divine, instantly arousing the Queen from passionate weariness to passionate desire. Her most strenuous efforts at seduction are repulsed, she denounces Joseph, guards prepare his torture and death and he is saved by an Archangel who carries him off to the sound of heavenly music while Potiphar’s wife strangles herself with her rope of pearls.
Although the libretto was widely ridiculed and the music was considered second-rate Strauss, the production was so sumptuous and lascivious that everyone enjoyed it and the evening ended happily in a gala supper at Larue’s given by the composer for his friends who had come from Germany, Austria and Italy for the premiere. After feasting on early strawberries and exquisite wines, each guest was presented by the waiter with his share of the bill.
The company went to London at the end of May for a two-month season of “extraordinary success.” Chaliapin was declared “supreme” as Ivan the Terrible, Rimsky’s last opera, Coq d’Or, and Stravinsky’s new one, The Nightingale, were acclaimed and the “ultra-modern” Joseph to be given on June 23 with the composer again conducting, aroused eager expectations. At rehearsals with Karsavina, who had replaced Ida Rubinstein, Strauss demonstrated how he wanted her to perform her dance of seduction. Starting from the far corner of her dressing room and singing the music “he would run, trampling heavily across the room, to the sofa representing the couch of Joseph.”
On the night of the performance Drury Lane was crowded to the last seat by a bejewelled and brilliant audience “keyed up to concert pitch for a memorable event.” To a young man among them, jostled by bare shoulders and gay laughter, everyone seemed to know one another as if at “an enormous but exclusive party.” In the presence of the Prime Minister and Mrs. Asquith, the Russian company and the renowned composer, it seemed “an occasion of almost international importance.” As applause filled the house the young man, leaning forward from his seat in the dress circle, could see the tall “world-weary” German composer take up his stand before the orchestra, “pink and imperturbable.”
If the music won no new laurels, Strauss’s visit was personally satisfying. He conducted the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in a program of his own and Mozart’s music, which was considered one of the finest concerts of the season. On June 24 wearing the “most beautiful of all the Doctors’ robes,” the crimson silk and cream-colored brocade of a Doctor of Music, he received an honorary degree from Oxford.
A month later on July 25 the Russian Ballet closed its season with a joint performance of Strauss’s Joseph and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. At the same hour that evening in Belgrade the Serbian reply to an Austrian ultimatum was rejected by the Austrian Ambassador, who announced the severance of relations and left for home.
*There’s only one King’s City,
Vienna’s its name;
There’s only one Robber’s Nest,
Berlin is the name.