By the time Richard Strauss died in 1949, many musicians and critics considered him an embarrassing fossil. Born in 1864 while Berlioz and Rossini still lived—and a dozen years before Johannes Brahms had written any of his own symphonies—Strauss composed steadily for some sixty-five years and passed away a few months after the premieres of Elliott Carter’s Cello Sonata and John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. But the path he took long overshadowed a clear assessment of his enormous accomplishments as a composer of opera and orchestral music.
After composing a series of daring and chromatic works in the early 1900s, Strauss affronted the tastes of the vanguard by moving steadily backward, aesthetically speaking, instead of reaffirming and strengthening his hold on the modernist avant-garde that he had helped bring to life. Nor did it help that as an old man he had elected to stay in Germany during the time of Adolf Hitler, and even made some early attempts to come to a professional understanding with a regime that he privately deplored. When Glenn Gould stated, in 1962, that Strauss was “the greatest musical figure who has lived in this century” it was widely dismissed as just another example of the pianist’s vaunted “eccentricity.”
Such an opinion, forever debatable, nevertheless seems much less eccentric today, when one hears echoes of Strauss in the scores of many young composers and even his less familiar operas are regularly revived. We remember artists for their best work, not for their inevitable misfires, and Strauss gave us significant and beautiful music over the course of some sixty years.
He won fame in the late nineteenth century with a set of brilliant tone poems—Don Juan (1889), Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) and Don Quixote (1897)—which combined Himalayan technical hurdles for post-Wagnerian orchestra with uncanny depictions of the sights and sounds of the world. Supremely confident, Strauss boasted that he could depict a knife and fork in music if he wanted to, and it does not take much imagination to hear a crazy old knight charging into battle against a flock of sheep in Don Quixote, with its flutter-tongued brass and winds combining forces to create a great bleating.
Strauss would go much further in Elektra (1909). Dark, chaotic, and crushingly dissonant, it may be the only work of early modernism that retains the power to shock an audience silly; after more than a century, it has lost none of its horrible fascination. If Richard Wagner had explored the interweaving of love and death, Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal went so far as to make the act of murder erotic. The score, which the composer and critic Virgil Thomson described as “an extended crescendo of horror,” combines graphic violence with a convulsive and wildly inappropriate sexual ecstasy. It exhorts the spectators, by means of large orchestra, chorus, and a cast of squalling soloists, to cheer on Elektra’s revenge—the brutal murder of her own mother.
But Elektra seems to have been a exorcism of sorts for Strauss: he would write much more in his remaining years but nothing at all in the style that he perfected here. Perhaps he had scared himself. His next opera, Der Rosenkavalier (1911), another partnership with von Hofmannsthal, is no less complicated than Elektra but is markedly retrospective in its tone. It might be likened to a sort of follow-up to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro— an extended gloss on the Viennese aristocracy with ecstatic duets and trios for women’s voices, prismatic orchestration, and intoxicating waltz tunes, all echoing through the eighteenth century ballrooms and bedrooms in which it is set.
Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), which followed Rosenkavalier, has a dazzlingly innovative libretto, one that might today be labeled “post-modernist.” This is literally an opera about the production of an opera called Ariadne auf Naxos, and the action calls to mind the Marx Brothers turned loose in a tragedy by Racine. In part one, called the Prologue, we learn that a rich patron has commissioned two events to entertain his guests—the premiere of a young composer’s tragic opera, and a zany performance by a commedia dell’arte troupe—and then, to cap off the evening, a display of fireworks. But at the last minute, the philistine patron orders that the opera and the comedy be performed simultaneously and that crazy hybrid, absurd, touching, and often very funny, is played out in part two. It is scored with deft, sparse clarity for small orchestra and chorus, while remaining fiercely challenging for the solo singers.
As he aged, Strauss the bold innovator became more and more an idiosyncratic conservative; the old line about someone “born a genius and dying a talent” was occasionally brought into play once again. And yet it seems more and more obvious that the composer’s critics were merely looking for the wrong things. In fact, Strauss had become as true and original a “neo-Classicist” as Igor Stravinsky, with the same passion for re-examining and revivifying antique form and ideals with a modern sensibility. When Strauss now turned to ancient Greek literature, he brought a new calm to these stories that would have been scarcely recognizable from the creator of Elektra.
Daphne, for example, dating from 1938, proved a radiant, autumnal setting of the familiar myth. The transformation scene, in which the wood nymph Daphne, having spurned Apollo’s advances, is turned into a tree, pleased Strauss so much that he played the music over and over again in the last weeks of his life, sitting at the piano for hours at a time, listening to the tender, profoundly peaceful beauty of what he had wrought.
The harmonies in much of Strauss’s late music might have been taken from Mendelssohn or Schumann or other mid-nineteenth-century masters: his days as a revolutionary were long past. And yet the music remains distinctly and recognizably Strauss’s own—whether the rapt, poised Oboe Concerto, the immeasurably sorrowful Metamorphosen for twenty-three solo strings, or the “Four Last Songs,” expressions of gratitude for his long life and a fulfilled, comfortable resignation about his impending death. They should be sung in the spirit of last leaves on a sun-splashed autumn day; I know of no more meticulously planned, ecstatically fashioned and mature farewell in the repertory.