Tim Page takes up the cudgels for Richard Strauss

Tim Page takes up the cudgels for Richard Strauss


norman lebrecht

February 02, 2015

I used to argue with Michael Kennedy, who loved both, that you cannot split your loyalties between Mahler and Strauss. When push comes to shove, you either take the high mind (Mahler) or the low (Strauss). Michael confessed that, at the crossroads, he’d go with Strauss.

Since his recent death, I had begun to fear that there was no-one left to fight with vigour for the man of seven veils.

Happily, into the ring springs my friend Tim Page with a robust pro-Strauss diatribe in NYRB. Read here, enjoy, dispute.

Tim and I will slug this out somewhere public, some time.

Richard-Strauss mercedes



  • mr oakmount says:

    And why precisely should one not like both Mahler’s and Strauss’ music?
    What have I done wrong for all those decades?
    Obviously I am in a different mood when I listen to Mahler 4 or Salome.

    I also don’t like the idea that Strauss’ music is low mind, unless one thinks that music should not embrace the erotic.

    I sense a similar problem when people feel they have to choose between (high) Britten and (masculine and flamboyant = low) Walton. (The “masculine”, by the way, is Sir L Olivier’s description. I don’t know if he wanted to make a specific point or not.)
    Again, I happen to like both and would loath to give one up at the expense of the other (though I might choose Britten if forced at gun point).

    But then, I also like both Wagner and Brahms …
    Does it say anything about us if we have a tendency to like composers at the expense of others? Is it like rooting for a favourite team?

    Somehow this has Beetles vs Stones written all over it. (I’d know who to choose here, though 😉

  • Halldor says:

    I’d argue that the greater of the two composers was the one who wore his genius most lightly – and concealed his depths with greater art.

    But why choose? Didn’t Mahler himself say that “we are both digging from different sides of the same mountain. One day we shall meet”?

  • Marc-Antoine Hamet says:

    Oh well… Des goûts et des couleurs…, as we say in French (roughly translates as: it is difficult to discuss tastes and colors).

    Does it depend on one’s “emotional availability” to be willing to hear a composer’s music?

    For example, these days I have been excited upon hearing Herbert von Karajan’s 1975 take on Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. It would not have been possible for me to hear on the same day, the same conductor in his poignant 1982 live Berlin Festival take on Mahler’s 9th Symphony (which I treasure).

  • MacroV says:

    I”l read the article, but why would one need to choose? They both wrote extraordinary, groundbreaking music, and conducted each others’ works. Can only wonder what was lost by Mahler not living as long as Strauss.

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    This is absolute nonsense. Strauss and Mahler were completely different people, who wrote music representing completely different views of the world. Strauss was a happy person. Mahler wasn’t. They were both geniuses. A musical person can love the work of both without any effort at all.

    One of the most gratifying features of all the arts is the fact that great works live for indefinitely many generations, but the half-life of writing ABOUT great works is measured in days….

  • David says:

    Gould, idiosyncratic and calculated as his opinions could be, was right about how underrated was Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (to quote Gould approximately from memory, “There are great long swaths of music here which put even the best of the early tone poems to shame.”). Gould was, however, wrong on Mahler. I love both but, not being much of an opera fan, Mahler (in particular Symphonies 6, 7, 9, 10) must win out for me. He grapples with emotions that Strauss did not.

  • DLowe says:

    I agree though with the comments above. It’s a smaller and more fringe of the great clash of Wagner v Verdi. You can have both.

  • Beckmesser says:

    For me, a better dichotomy might be Strauss vs. Schoenberg. The latter played a central role in music history texts for his “emancipation of dissonance” and 12-tone method, while the former was relegated to the margins for holding onto tonality. Only in recent decades has Strauss, particularly in his later works, begun to receive the attention he deserves, while Schoenberg is (with considerable justification, I believe) being demoted. Works such as Capriccio, Daphne, and Metamorphosen are indispensable now.

    There is no Mahler / Strauss dichotomy; both are essential. Can’t we just leave it at that?

    • David says:

      I think Norman is just stimulating some enjoyable (and unresolvable) discussion here, not starting a feud in the manner of the Hanslick crowd vs Wagner supporters …

      • Shalom Rackovsky says:

        There is a classic [true] story about Brahms and Hanslick out for a walk in Vienna. They pass a house with a plaque on it, noting that Franz Schubert lived there while composing some of his masterpieces. Brahms says to Hanslick “I can just imagine the sign which will be placed on your house after you die.” Hanslick is flattered. He asks Brahms what the sign will say. Brahms says “For Rent”.

        Brahms knew the worth of music criticism.

      • John says:

        I too hope Norman is just stoking a discussion. Anyone doing an all-or-nothing-at-all comparison of two obvious 20th century giants makes me think of what I used to call ‘record store nerds’, a couple of regulars one might typically find in the classical music section arguing vociferously over an obscure point about some conductor, singer, composer or composition or whatever. We’d all be poorer without either composer.

  • James of Thames says:

    Why must there be a contest? We are talking of two people with different experiences of life. I like them both for what they are, and I don’t criticize one for not being more like the other.

  • baron z says:

    Sacherverell Sitwell, in his engrossing (and anti-Semitic) biography of Franz Liszt, makes a very comparison between Liszt and Strauss, to Strauss’s detriment; he identifies and clearly verbalizes what essential qualities are so lacking in Strauss’s music. It is forever sad to see fine musicians taken in by technical abilities, especially among composers.

  • Galen Johnson says:

    Halldor: exactly so.

  • mr oakmount says:

    This blog has had an effect on me that Mr Lebrecht probably did not intend: Realising I always had at least three Mahler symphonies on my i-pod, whereas most of my R Strauss CDs never made it to mp3, I immediately rectified this imbalance. I had almost forgotton what perfect operas Salome and Electra were! Thanks for the reminder 😉

  • Callisto says:

    Mahler and Strauss were obviously contemporaries which makes an interesting comparison but otherwise I agree with the bulk of opinions voiced here that one needn’t choose between one or the other. Strauss obviously produced a lot more than Mahler who primarily was a conductor. On balance, both composers are probably equally as popular, one more in the concert hall and the other more in the opera house (although Strauss’ concert hall output is also substantial and probably played more often than Mahler’s).

    Strauss really carried the opera into the 20th century and whilst never really leaving tonality gave it a new musical language. I can’t think of anyone having produced as many significant operatic works since Strauss. The symphony has developed further since Mahler, there have been a few important symphonic composers since.

    More interesting to the musicologists is obviously the question of who had more of an influence in the history/development of music.

  • James says:

    Mr Page does ten paragraphs on Strauss without mentioning Mahler once.
    In the USA that requires true continence. I give him high marks for that.

    On the other hand, John Culshaw, the Decca record producer of legend,
    (the Solti Ring, etc.) had more to say. Here he is;

    It (Mahler’s music) makes me sick, not
    metaphorically but physically sick. I find his strivings and heavings,
    juxtaposed with what sounds to me like faux naif music of the most
    calculated type downright repulsive.

    Like Mr Lebrecht, Culshaw liked to set the geese to honking.

  • Brian says:

    Truth be told, one thing both Mahler and Strauss had in common was lapsing into vulgarity, banality and notespinning cheek by jowl with sublime musical thought. But of the two, Mahler’s lapses were probably worse.