Richard Strauss ‘blew with the wind’

A character assessment of the composer in Der Standard by the Klagenfurt musicologist Daniel Ender usefully cites most of the known sources about Strauss and the Nazis. Read here.

 

strauss nazis

foto: richard-strauss-institut, garmisch-partenkirchen

Now watch this interview with Strauss’s Nazi protector and my own reflections on the character of ‘the least interesting composer that ever lived.

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  • The article in Der Standard is really very good and balanced. But it does not fully expose the result of S’s psychological trajectory: being spoiled by success and hence willingly half-blind to what was going-on around him in a wider sense, this opportunistic superficiality led him into a mess which caused him – maybe for the first time – great suffering and anxiety. This liberated him from his stilted period, musically, of the twenties and thirties, the music of which is uninspired, bland and mediocre, and gave him his ‘Indian summer’ of the ‘Four Last Songs’ and ‘Metamorphosen’. The nazi period was obviously too dark and complex for him to see through, but in that he was not alone. He paid dearly for it.

    The interview with Von Schirach is really chilling: a refined and sophisticated man, and in the same time you see the flickering of something evil behind the carefully crafted mask.

    Interestingly, S’s music became the symbol of the ‘decadence’ of European musical culture in the circles of early modernism. When I studied with Alexander Goehr in Cambridge (in the eighties), the very word ‘Strauss’ – if not related to the Johanns and Oscars – was enough to spel doom over your credibility. Once, after having innocently discovered ‘Intermezzo’ and delved into this brilliant score, and mentioning its technical brilliance to Goehr, he pedantically relegated the entire Strauss oeuvre to the dustbin of history: ‘I don’t think there’s anything there to learn from’. The lack of understanding an obvious thing: that an entire musical tradition of the past has not created two world wars and the holocaust, has resulted in the impotence of postwar modernism which coupled musical incompetence with ideological arrogance, ironically thereby imitating the totalitarian mentality from which it was supposed to be a liberation.

    • What would have been Goehr’s reaction had you mentioned a score by Massenet or Puccini? (Both of whom were technically brilliant and superb orchestrators with rather less disproportion of means to ends than is found in Strauss)? I ask semi-rhetorically because the postwar era created its own brands of ‘Entartete Musik.’

      • I think taking a score of, say, Tosca with me on one of those supervisions would have created a medical emergency and my immediate dismissal from the university.

        • Goehr is a very particular case. Not all composers of a modernist persuasion detest the likes of Strauss,Puccini etc. One immediately thinks of Michael Finnissy.

          • That would be much to Finnissy’s credit. But where modernism has established itself as an ideology, ‘political’ lines are clearly drawn.

            I once organized a chamber music festival which began with a panel discussion about modernism, inviting people from music life pro and contra. But the latter category did not accept the invitation, one even sent me an angry fax that he did not, “of course”, accept such invitation from someone who “endorsed a right-wing fascistoid conservative composer like Strauss” (whose music, by the way, did not figure on the festival programmes and was not subject of the panel discussion).

  • This article clearly illustrates why it is incorrect to think Strauss’s collaboration was merely naive or solely out of necessity. Ender mentions many examples of how Strauss went well beyond what was necessary to maintain a safe relationship with the Nazis. And he outlines some of Strauss’s cultural and psychological attributes that led him to freely and actively collaborate.

    These facts are important for reasons well beyond historical accuracy. A critical view of Strauss’s actions without the usual nonfactual rationalizations helps us with our own social and moral understanding.

  • To be fair to Strauss, I don’t think the situation of a man in Nazi Germany whose son was married to a Jewish woman and who grandchildren were half Jewish should be brushed off lightly. I think he was terrified of what might happen to them and didn’t want to jeopardize them. I’m not saying it was the wisest thing to have conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1933, replacing Toscanini. But Zweig himself understood Strauss’s position: “To be particularly cooperative with the National Socialists was furthermore of vital interest to him, because in the National Socialist sense he was very much in the red. His son had married a Jewess and thus he feared that his grandchildren whom he loved above everything else would be excluded as scum from the schools; his new opera [Schweigsame Frau] was tainted through me, his earlier operas through the half-Jew Hugo von Hofmannsthal, his publisher was a Jew. Therefore it seemed to him more and more imperative to create some support and security for himself and he did it most perseveringly.”

    As it was, the Nazis eventually forbade any government-sponsored public recognition of Strauss even on his 80th birthday. Pauline Strauss, bless her heart, wasn’t quite so restrained, at least once she openly referred to the Nazis as “rabble” in public.

    • It seems to me that this is, in very compact form, everything that can be said about Strauss’ political involvement with the Nazis.

      • That is very likely true, but how could one then judge what was necessary or sufficient. Lehar was in much the same position, and Hitler was a huge fan of The Merry Widow.

      • But that is, in fact, very hard to establish. Was Ender there, at the time, and could he experience what Strauss went through? Could he stand in S’s shoes at moments when decisions had to be made, without sufficient information available, or overseen? I think it is very hard to imagine to the full the real life circumstances of such a society in such circumstances at that time. It is like a nightmarish other world and we will always, at least to some extent, be at the other side of the divide between a more or less normal and free world and one where evil is being mobilized.

        And then, if you read the material from that time, biographical or otherwise, it appears that many Germans, including intellectuals, thought by every new step the regime took into the abyss, ‘it cannot be THAT bad, after all we are Germans’. There is this story of two German intellectuals (forgot who) discussing the political situation in the thirties, and the one said: ‘But surely, this situation is untenable’. Upon which the other took a book from the shelves about Chinese history, and quoted: ‘This untenable situation lasted for threehundred years’.

        But not all members of the German elite were so reluctant to see what was happening. I believe it was the painter Max Liebermann who, upon watching the passing SS troups marching under the window of his Berlin appartment, said to his guests: “I could never eat so much as to be fully able to vomit the quantity upon all this as I want”.

        • Strauss, as Ender notes, was often quite disrespectful of the Nazis which is not fully consistent with the appeasement argument. He certainly need to appease them, but the facts do not make it seem as urgent as some claim.

          Another reason I am suspicious is that I lived in Munich for 13 years. Munich was the birth city of National Socialism. After the war, Bavaria became a refuge for people ranging from collaborators to Nazis. It also became the home of post-war Nazi support organizations like Stille Hilfe. I thus saw how much denial and rationalizing there was about collaboration. Strauss’s behavior and his rationalizations after the war fit into a pattern that was common in Munich.

          As an interesting aside, the Munich Philharmonic was known as the “Orchestra of the Fascist Movement” (Orchester der Bewegung.) In 1991 I had to write two letters to have them remove the swastikas that were still stamped on a lot of the music, including a number of works by Strauss such as Ein Heldenleben.

          • There was often talk about Strauss among the musicians in Munich — especially since he was a local composer. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I was often told that Strauss’s publisher, with an eye to one of their major sources of income, initiated a campaign to cleanse his name after the war, and that they initiated many of the rationalizations that are common today.

            These difficulties with dealing with the past led to a word in German that does not exist in most languages, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which roughly means coming to terms with the past. On one hand, it meant a sort of moral examination, but in actual practice it often included inventing a past, or remaining silent about the past. In reference to people like Strauss, younger Germans often use the word Vergangenheitsbewältigung with an ironic humor.

            I should add that I don’t mention these things to point a finger, but that these are important questions of history and German culture. Both resentment and appeasement can lead to incorrectly understanding history, so its still very difficult to make objective judgments.

          • I agree with the last paragraph (who would not?). But let it also be considered that younger generations are not guilty of the crimes of the past. There is a kind of exaggerated breast beating, a way of feeling morally ‘superior’, in the repeated masochism of digging into the Brown Period which over time becomes more and more unhealthy and does not contribute to an objective assessment of the 20th century. In such cases, history is used as an instrument to keep cultural and national neurosis in place. In the cultural sphere this masochism had the most destructive effects. As Alex Ross formulated in his ‘The Rest id Noise’: “The great German tradition, with all its grandeurs and sorrows, is cordoned off, like a crime scene under investigation”. This prevents German contemporary composers from rooting into their rich traditions… and keeps them in the clichée-ridden prison of atonal expressionism at best and concept nonsense at worst.

            I like the word “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”. Also “Nachkriegsschuldbewältigungsmusik”, i.e. German postwar modernism.

          • That Munich information is utterly disgusting! And starkly contrasting with stories I got from some Berlin friends who told me that when they were young, just after the war, the school books for 6 year olds informed them about fatherland history with extensive illustrations of concentration camp corpses and photos of destroyed city centres, to stamp it in how bad the Germans had behaved. Bavarian denial looks like the Austrian type, where only very recently some skeletons have been taken from the cupboards and buried appropriately (among which the VPO opening the specific drawer of musical nazification).

            In general, according to what I have seen and heard, German postwar guilt Bewältigung has been done quite properly and thoroughly. Maybe there is a difference between north and south… In fact, the German states still have great varieties in terms of mentality and culture.

            And yet, I keep to my opinion that Strauss was not a nazi, and that he merely played a part to 1) get some improvements in music life on the rails (which were necessary in those times of grave recession and poverty) and 2) to make sure his (half-)Jewish family would be protected. All the rest is grey wishy-washy – neither denial nor excuse nor accusation.

          • There are two levels to German Vergangenheitsbewältigung. On an official level it has been exemplary, but on the private level less so. The schools have been very dedicated to teaching the history of the Reich and its criminality and there are to this day still countless official functions dealing very honestly with the history. And yet on individual levels the denial often remained. This is changing because the last of the old Nazis are mostly dead and there are fewer and fewer family descendants who remain under their influence.

            Recent research has shown the extensive participation of the Wehrmacht in acts of mass murder. This has been an especially difficult problem for Vergangenheitsbewältigung. A documentary by Michael Verhoeven entitled “The Unknown Soldier” has been made about this which allows anyone interested to see how intense the denial about certain aspects of German history are. It is quite astounding. I highly recommend it, though parts showing the mass murder and abuse during the Reich are almost unbearable to watch. Seeing these forms of denial contribute to this discussion about Strauss because they illustrate that a culture of denial exists of which Strauss was a part, and that it is only slowly dissolving.

            We are agreed that Strauss was not a Nazi (a contention not made,) but we’ll remain disagreed about the likelihood of denial on his part, perhaps because our backgrounds with German culture are different and we thus situate the issue differently.

  • It is helpful to place Strauss’s collaboration in the context of what was happening in Germany. The Kristallnacht was on November 9, 1938. Ninety-six Jews were murdered and hundreds more injured, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned (and possibly as many as 2,000), almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, cemeteries and schools were vandalized, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

    Within days, laws were passed to “Aryanize” the economy, and it wasn’t long before:

    + Jews were required to turn over all precious metals to the government.

    + Pensions for Jews dismissed from civil service jobs were arbitrarily reduced.

    + Jewish-owned bonds, stocks, jewelry and art works can be willed only to the German state.

    + Jews were physically segregated within German towns.

    + A ban on the Jewish ownership of carrier pigeons.

    + The suspension of Jewish drivers licenses.

    + The confiscation of Jewish-owned radios.

    + A curfew to keep Jews off the streets between 9:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. in the summer and 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in the winter.

    + Laws protecting tenants were made non-applicable to Jewish tenants.

    Events like these make me wonder why Strauss clearly went beyond what was necessary to appease the Nazis. (I disagree with the view that we can’t judge what was necessary and what was not — at least in some of the more overt cases,.) It is also important to question, as Christoph von Dohnányi mentioned in a recent interview, why Strauss was so silent about the Nazis before they consolidated their power when his criticism would have been valuable and when it was still possible to say things.

    • But why pick on Strauss in particular, when even the jewish Stefan Zweig understood his difficult position, when Anton Webern was ardently pro-Nazi? Does he get a pass because he wrote the “right” kind of music? Seems to be a double standard going on here.

      • Because there’s been a century-long attempt, from certain quarters, to discredit romanticism, usually by attempting to associate it with unsavoury political positions. Hence why last year we heard hours of agonising (during the anniversary events) over Wagner’s womanising, manipulative nature and anti-semitism – and none over Stravinsky’s equally hateful behaviour and attitudes (during the Rite centenary celebrations). Same with Webern: he’s too important to the modernist project.

        • Ah, Stravinsky! Not only did he happily appear in Berlin and recorded with the BPO in 1938, his fawning letters and expressions of unstinting admiration to and for Mussolini (reprinted in Harvey Sachs’s ‘Music in Fascist Italy’) make for nauseating reading. Whereas Bartok protested that his works were NOT included in Nazi ‘Entartete Musik’ exhibitions and demanded that they be so, Stravinsky was hurt, insisted on his non-Jewish ancestry, and protested that they were so included ( “I loathe all communism, Marxism, the execrable Soviet monster, and also all liberalism, democratism, atheism, etc.”). Strauss is attacked, Stravinsky and Webern get a free pass in deference to their politically correct and approved modernism.

      • YES…. why not have a short look into that strange question?

        Schoenberg said of his twelve-tone-system: ‘Now I have developed a system which will garantee the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years’. His pupil Webern took already a mortgage upon that utopia and wholeheartedly applauded the Nazi regime, and was really VERY disappointed when the Nazis were deaf to his works, which he considered just the RIGHT type of music for the Third Reich. And that was entirely true.. the Nazis were just not ‘modern’ enough to understand that, an insight reserved for the postwar ‘avantgarde’ who took upon themselves to apply all the apparatusses of totalitarian thinking in their ‘progressive idealism’. ‘Gleichschaltung’ of the different notes of the scale to arrive at a ‘chromatic field’ where every note was the same, like an army of egalitarian workers, without any individuality, and without any interrelatedness – we don’t want fussy things going-on in an army do we? – fitted perfectly well the obsessive mentality of Schoenberg et al, attempting to turn serious music into a sort of quasi-science, of which serialism was the extreme non plus ultra. Well, we can hear the final result all around us… at Donaueschingen, Darmstadt, Wien Modern, Merz Musik and other crumbling bunkers from the sonic cold war.

        In comparison with all this, Strauss’ misconceived attempts to hold his own during the Brown Period are peanuts. The real Nazi sympathizers, and then: meant as a deep-down commitment to the above-described totalitarian, egalitarian ‘idealism’, are the ‘arch fathers’ of postwar modernism who tried to destroy the European musical tradition. Ironically, postwar modernism was presented as a symbol of liberation from totalitarian regimes…. History is full of crazy absurdities.

    • More likely than that Strauss secretly approved of all these horrors is the probability that he simply did not pay attention, and whatever came his way indirectly, he probably tried to ignore. After all, this was Germany, no? Such things could not possibly ‘mean’ something really dangerous.. Considering his rather superficial character in relation to the world, his rather contemptuous attitude to everything ‘outside’ his own range of experience and his concentration upon his score writing (he wrote millions of notes during his long life, must have been really busy all day long), plus the absence of TV, internet, facebook, twitter, it seems most likely he had built a thick mental wall between himself and ‘the world’. You can see this mental wall in many of the photo portraits. He hid his sensitive capacities.

      I go with Zweig’s assessment – he had the right to judge, given his awful life story.

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