For a number of years Ive greatly admired and enjoyed the music of the German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). In his early years prior to the First World War, he was considered forward-looking, even musically avant-garde. Indeed, the aged defender of the German classical tradition and another favoriteMax Bruch (d. 1920), found Strauss compositions too advanced and straying from that tradition.
Yet Strauss was formed in the richly productive culture of southern Germany, Bavaria and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and, even if he experimented with harmony and vocal lines in his operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), he never really departed from that early musical formation and an inspiration that he drew from his love of his native Bavaria and of imperial Vienna and the brilliant society that accompanied and informed it. Son of noted musician and horn player in the Bavarian Court Opera Franz Strauss, from an early age, Richard received a thorough and complete musical education, demonstrating extraordinary talent in composition when only in his teens. By the late 1880s and 1890s, his symphonic tone poems, including Don Juan (1888), Death and Transfiguration (1889), and Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) had established his fame throughout Europe and the United States. But it was later, in opera, that his eventual and permanent renown and preeminence would be secured.
In many ways as I listen to Strauss, I hear a great champion of Western culture, standing athwart the onrushing decline of Western music and art during the first half of the twentieth century.
Recently, I went back to listen in detail to several of Strausss vocal works. Re-hearing them, I reflected on their significance and resonance as our society sinks deeper into cultural decay.
Undoubtedly, Strauss most famous operatic work is Der Rosenkavalier (Dresden, 1911)The Cavalier of the Rose. With a superb libretto by the great German dramatist and essayist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who shared Strauss conservative convictions,
Der Rosenkavalier is a gloriously sentimental story of love and nobility, set in Vienna in the mid-18th century. Like some of Mozarts stage works, it is essentially a comedy of manners, but one that pays deep and wistful honor to a bygone era and to a cultivated society that seemed to be disappearing even as Strauss was composing it. Indeed, through its comedic action runs, as well, a continuing, not so concealed sense of regret, a sense of loss of those customs, those standards and beliefs, those artistic traditions which made society worth fighting for.
The famous Act II waltz-sequence, with buffoonish character Baron Ochs dancing about, is justly famous. But even more so is the scintillating and wistful final scene, a trio, in which the Marschallin gives up her young lover Octavian to her rival Sophie, with both resignation and a special dignity that characterized the age.
The famous color film from the early 1960s with the legendary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf remains a remarkable work of art in itself.
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