Friday, June 11, 2010

The Greatness of Strauss

ON June 11, 1949, his 85th birthday, Richard Strauss performed at his piano for the last time. A camera crew was filming a short documentary on him (''A Life for Music''), and the director asked him to play an excerpt from a long life's work. One's head spins at the possibilities -- more than 200 songs, many tone poems, 15 operas. Would he choose something from ''Don Juan'' or ''Der Rosenkavalier''?

Strauss's selection puzzled everyone in the room except his family. It was a portion of the transformation scene from the opera ''Daphne'' (1937), which he played repeatedly at home in the months before his death that September.

The transformation scene is a gem, as Daphne, in the moonlight, becomes a laurel tree. It was first brought to American attention on LP by Beverly Sills in the early 1970's, and it has since been recorded by Kiri Te Kanawa and Renée Fleming. With its phantasmagorical orchestral palette, soaring melodies, dizzying interplay of returning motifs and kaleidoscopic changes of harmonic color, Daphne's transformation is the most magical finale in all of Strauss's late operas. The ''Four Last Songs'' may rival its sonic luminescence but cannot surpass it.

Over the last decade, there has been a remarkable flowering of late-Strauss opera in performance and on CD beyond Germany and Austria. In the last few years alone, ''Die Schweigsame Frau'' (1935) was performed at the Zurich Opera and the Garsington Festival in England, ''Die Liebe der Danae'' (1940) at the Salzburg Festival; and recordings of ''Friedenstag'' (1936) and ''Die Liebe der Danae'' have recently appeared, two of each, at a time when opera recording is in serious decline.

In June, the Long Beach Opera in California presented ''Die Schweigsame Frau.'' And ''Daphne,'' recently performed at Covent Garden in London, makes its New York stage debut on Wednesday at the New York City Opera.

All this represents a major shift away from the notion of Strauss's irrelevancy during this later period. But why? The 50th anniversary of his death in 1999 played a significant role, but these and other events had actually been set in motion a decade earlier, when the 40th anniversary coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war.

While the political cold war was coming to an end, so was a musical one of sorts. To appreciate the musical cold war, one need only look back to the Strauss centennial celebration of 1964. True, there were concerts, operatic performances and special exhibitions, concentrated mostly in Europe, but there was a deafening silence worldwide in the academy.

Perspectives of New Music, then a major organ of postwar high modernism, was more than just silent. That year it published an English translation of Theodor Adorno's brilliant polemical essay commemorating the Strauss centennial. The journal's intent, though really not Adorno's, was to declare that 100 years after his birth, Strauss was irrelevant as a 20th-century composer. In 1964, style and ideology were hopelessly intertwined in a modernist dialogue that prized technical progress above all else.

It was a narrowly musical discourse, insulated from modernist discussions in the arts and literature, which drew upon criticism, aesthetics and other disciplines. More recently, a basic thrust of the so-called new musicology has been to penetrate such insulation. Conferences on music and modernism of every type have become routine, as if to compensate for the myopic discourse in the 1960's and 70's.

The old ideology was one of polarization, with walls between composer and audience, high art and popular art, atonality and tonality, the profound and the trivial. German though he was, Strauss had little appetite for such discrete dualities. He not only embraced these oppositions but always had the audience foremost in mind when composing.

In 1961, the pianist Glenn Gould stood nearly alone when he called these artificial boundaries into question. Writing to Leonard Bernstein, Gould praised Schoenberg and Strauss as the two greatest composers of the 20th century, adding that Strauss's greatness would be recognized once ''the time-style equation, which clutters most judgment'' of his later work, had dissolved. This was also the year of the Berlin Wall, and over the decades both the ''time-style equation'' and the wall have indeed dissolved and receded in memory.

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