Richard Strauss’s love songs had words by a gay Scotsman

Richard Strauss’s love songs had words by a gay Scotsman


norman lebrecht

March 20, 2014

In March 1892, the young Strauss met a radical socialist writer in Berlin. John Henry Mackay, Greenock born, was taken as a child back to her family Germany by his widowed mother. He grew into a best-selling literary agitator for social equality and gay rights.

The Anarchists (1991), his semi-memoirist novella caught Strauss’s immediate attention. The composer set two of his poems – Morgen and Heimliche Aufförderung – in the opus 27 songs that Strauss wrote for his future bride, Pauline. Further poems by Mackay were adopted by Strauss as Verführung (Op. 33 No. 1) and In der Campagna (Op. 41 No. 2).


john henry mackay

Mackay, under the pseudonym Sagitta, wrote a series of gay novels titled Die Bücher der namenlosen Liebe (Books of the Nameless Love). He was well known for his involvement with Berlin’s gay scene. He died in May 1933, soon after Hitler’s rise to power.

None of the Strauss biographies pay any attention to his collaborator’s political and sexual activism. Strauss was, so far as we know, conservative and straight. Was he aware that his love songs were written by a gay man? Would it have made any difference to him?

The 150th anniversary of Strauss’s birth is being marked worldwide. Mackay’s has passed unnoticed, except in a Greenock newspaper.


  • steve says:

    ‘Strauss was conservative ….’ in some ways, yes.

    As ever though I don’t think the situation is quite as black and white. For example, the subject matter for Salome or Frau ohne Schatten ( strongly urge readers to catch the current production at the ROH) suggest a different dimension.

  • Harry says:

    Salome, described by Mahler as “a live volcano, a subterranean fire”, by a conservative? The thematic atheism of Zarathustra and the Alpine Symphony: conservative? Also some see a gay subtext in Josephslegende.

  • I think Strauss would have been sympathetic, and more than likely knew this about his poet. An opera composer with genius of the magnitude of Strauss understands the ‘human condition’ pretty well, and this can be comfortably conflated with his attitude to the “Jewish question”.

    Despite accepting the post as president of the Reichsmusikkammer (to which he was appointed by Goebbels, backed by the threat of force, without even having been consulted), Strauss was no lover of the Nazi regime, saying in 1933 “I consider the Streicher-Goebbels Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honour, as evidence of incompetence – the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.”

    His publisher, Adolf Fürstner, was Jewish and he composed his comic opera, Die schweigsame Frau, with his Jewish friend and librettist Stefan Zweig. When in 1935, he wrote to Zweig,”Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German’? Do you suppose Mozart was consciously ‘Aryan’ when he composed? I recognise only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none,” the letter was intercepted by the Gestapo, sent to Hitler and Strauss was subsequently fired as Reichsmusikkammer president.

    Moreover, Strauss’s only son, Franz had married Alice von Grab, a Jewish woman, in a Catholic ceremony in 1924, so Strauss’s own daughter-in-law was Jewish, and there was evidence quickly smothered by Nazi officialdom of his having Jewish ancestry himself. The couple gave Strauss two grandsons, Richard and Christian, both doted on by their grandfather. Strauss used his influence to prevent the boys or their mother being sent off to concentration camps, and when during a brief absence in 1938, Alice was placed under house arrest in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, he secured her release. Alice and Franz were at one point abducted by the Gestapo and ultimately placed under house arrest until the end of the war.

    Given these travails, it’s a great pity that Strauss was subsequently maligned as Nazi sympathiser. He was nothing of the kind. As a surviving Austrian friend told me recently in blunt tones, “Well Derek it was like this: If you disagreed with the regime, you were shot.” Strauss managed to stay alive until after the war, and saved the lives at least of the Jewish members of his family. That surely counts for something.