Richard Strauss: A Chronicle of the Early Years 1864-1898 
by Willi Schuh, translated by Mary Whitall.
Cambridge, 555 pp., £35, July 1982, 0 521 24104 9
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The year Strauss was born, 1864, saw the publication of Robert Browning’s Dramatis Personae. The author of Andrea del Sarto would have found in Richard Strauss a subject ideally suited to his imaginative powers. He would have cast the composer, not, I think, in his early years, but towards the end of his life: in 1940, perhaps, in late summer. The scene: Strauss’s tastefully furnished study in his villa at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps; outside, the forest motionless in the heavy, pine-scented air of a hot afternoon. At his desk by the window, looking out on this untroubled world, the 76-year-old composer would pause from his work – on Capriccio perhaps – and begin to talk. It is hard to imagine a more satisfactory solution to the problems posed by Strauss as the subject of a biography than the monologue that might have followed. Moreover, the thought of this unborn soliloquy brings into focus the qualities of Schuh’s book.

It was certain to be an important book. It deserved to be a great one. When Strauss died in 1949, Schuh was already at work on it. He had met Strauss in 1936, and the idea that he should write the official biography received the composer’s blessing five years later. For the last 13 years of Strauss’s life Schuh was an intimate, if only intermittent friend. He is an eminent musicologist and an ardent devotee of Strauss’s work, familiar with it in its smallest detail. He might seem, then, to have been perfectly placed to write the definitive life. Strauss thought so. And on the evidence of this first fat volume, so long awaited, it would be ungrateful not to regret that the work may never be complete: Dr Willi Schuh is 82.

He calls his book a chronicle, and that is what it is: methodical, sequential, and evenly paced; in genre, the opposite of a poetic monologue. Yet Schuh has hoped in his own way to make Strauss talk: through unadorned facts and unglossed documents. The intention was laudable. It excused him from Freud’s stern indictment of all biographers as hypocrites and liars. But Freud also said biographies were doomed to concealment; and in failing wholly to animate his subject, Schuh has also failed to bring Strauss out of hiding.

For many he may not be hidden. He died recently enough to seem a contemporary, yet his music is as accessible as anything to come out of the late 19th century. Eye-witness accounts of him abound. Documents relating to his life and work make mountains. And English readers have Norman Del Mar’s massive trilogy to satisfy their doubts as to whether he has been thoroughly described. But Strauss was a deeply reserved man, good at deflecting attention from his inner life; and Del Mar, for one, was content to have his attention deflected. As top book on Strauss in English, Del Mar’s biography has had no challenger since it was finished, in 1972. Its worthiness and size seem to have acted as a soporific on other Strauss scholars. This is a pity, because Del Mar’s Strauss is unadventurous. His book did nothing to disturb and a lot to consolidate a consensus view. It is in relation to this view that English readers will judge Schuh’s book.

Two passages in Strauss’s life invariably attract attention: the transition, completed between 1908 and 1910, from the progressive harmonic idiom of Elektra to the conventional tonal language of Der Rosenkavalier; and his failure in later life to come out strongly against the Nazis. The absence of dissidence in Strauss’s behaviour as a citizen neatly mirrors his retreat from dissonance as a composer, and both suggest a radical timidity in his personality. Depending on whether or not you like his music, you will excuse or despise him for this. Del Mar offers excuses. He attributes Strauss’s ‘indifference to the world’, and the ‘lyricism and warm harmonic colouring’ which increasingly dominated his music after Elektra, to an ‘easy-going nature’, ‘equanimity’, a ‘basic love of comfort’. These, in turn, derive from ‘the smooth course of his life’, which, on Del Mar’s reckoning, from the cradle to the grave ‘had few ripples of suffering or of complicated emotional situations’.

This account has little explanatory power. It fails to confront the disturbing nature of Strauss’s last creative phase: the fact that between 1939 and 1949, and despite the condition of the surrounding world, he could deliver himself of such urbane and confident masterpieces as Capriccio, the Second Horn Concerto, the Oboe Concerto and The Four Last Songs. Nor does it tackle the central argument of Strauss’s critics that, in declining to ‘come out’ into atonality, Strauss lived a lie for half his creative life.

Inadvertently, I suspect, Willi Schuh manages to subvert Del Mar’s line. Before suggesting how he does this, it’s worth dwelling a little on the reasons the purists hate Strauss – for Schuh has something to say to them too. Behind their attack lies the interesting assumption that, as in economic history, so in the history of music, there is an inexorable drive forward. Composers have a duty to recognise this. They must not attempt to divert or thwart it, to persist, as Donald Mitchell puts it, ‘in the use ... of a language which has lost the power of meaningful speech’. This ‘exhausted language’ argument is aptly put against Strauss because he himself used it against Brahms. Its force is not so much intellectual as moral, and its morality is a form of emotional defence. Strauss’s most Straussian music invites an old-fashioned abandon, which his critics would gladly resist. Salome and Elektra are OK, because their musical force can be conducted away into history. As examples of early 20th-century Expressionism, bedfellows of Wozzeck and Erwartung, they can be viewed at a seemly distance. But about the opening of Der Rosenkavalier or a song like ‘Das Rosenband’ nothing can be said to keep them at arm’s length. They celebrate what Browning called the ‘good minute’, they beckon us to ‘pluck the rose and love it more than tongue can speak’. The meaning they enfold cannot be taken ‘out of that minute’. And then the good minute goes. Put another way, much of Strauss’s greatest music is offensive to a modern sensibility for its lack of Verfremdungseffekt. It fails to make us suspicious of the good theatrical minute. It allows us to forget. To be co-opted. Like Strauss himself, it is not sufficiently political.

A biography of Strauss cannot long remain on the outside of these difficult issues: issues which bear on the relationship of music and morality, music and politics, music and personality. Of these, Schuh does not so much as glance at the first two, and his interest in the third does not reach further than such questions as ‘was Tod und Verklärung written in response to a severe illness?’ or ‘how far is it correct to see Ein Heldenleben as a confessional work?’ He deliberately refuses to interpret his material: ‘the narrative does not undertake psychological or other forms of interpretation.’ This would have pleased Strauss, who put tact and discretion high on his list of reasons for choosing Schuh as his biographer (see his letter to Schuh, dated 6 December 1941). He once told his gentle disciple that he had led two lives: one at his writing-desk, the other on the rostrum. His private life was not open to discussion. Perhaps he saw in Schuh a means to preserve this order of priorities after his death. At any rate, in this first part of his planned biography, Schuh concentrates on the public life, Strauss’s career as a conductor and composer. The private life forms a background to this, and the world beyond the writing-desk and rostrum might as well not exist.

The absence of any social or political scene-setting is sad. Munich in 1864, the court of Saxe-Meiningen in 1886, Weimar in 1889, are distant worlds for a modern reader. It was in these places that Strauss’s mind and character were formed, and it would be a help to be given a feel for them. Without it, the copious details of Strauss’s toings and froings between one court position and another, which form so much of the substance of the book, float free in the mind, rather like those innumerable contextless facts one had to learn in history classes as a child. It is typical of Schuh that he tells us exactly what Strauss earned in his various professional positions, without telling us what such a sum could buy, or, more important, what Strauss bought with it.

If there is a theme to this rambling book, it is the development of Strauss’s artistic allegiances: his growth away from his father’s staunch and intelligent classicism, out from under Bülow’s ample wing, towards the radical cause of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. The theme is developed through the history of relationships rather than through musical analysis: the course of Strauss’s affections for his father, Bülow, Cosima Wagner, Alexander Ritter. It is backed up with every appropriate document: drafts of early aborted operas (Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Der Reichstag zu Mainz, Das erhabene Leid der Könige), a long scrap-book tracing the gestation of Guntrum, letters, details of the concert programmes he conducted, notes on his reading of Schopenhauer, and so on.

As for Strauss’s personality, Schuh is as good as his word. No ungainly psychoanalytical engines are wheeled on to fillet Strauss’s psyche – just good, common-sense stuff: ‘Franz Strauss bequeathed to his son not only his musical gifts but also a sense of duty, strength of will and the ability to work hard ... From his mother he inherited the soft and ready emotional responses which are so often displayed in his melodic writing and harmonic turns and are so often at odds with his paternal characteristics of sternness of purpose and obdurateness.’ It’s a relief not to be regaled with fatuous disclosures about young Richard’s relationship with his father’s horn, or the like, but, if Strauss is to be rescued from his enemies and his friends, a more ambitious route must be found into his personality than Schuh’s path of least resistance. The one great virtue of the book is that it makes this tantalisingly clear. For, despite its stodginess, its longueurs, its scholarly clutter, it gives enough space to Strauss himself – in documents and letters – for us to come away with an image which aligns badly with the received picture.

At the core of the case against Strauss lies the suspicion that he was radically false: unsound, rather in the Conradian sense of the word. Weakness, evasion of bracing truths, failure of nerve at the moment of test are not, however, prefigured in the early years as they are described here. Instead, there is evidence of much decisiveness and strength. Likeability too. Grounds, moreover, to suppose a growing inner loneliness, and to interpret the behaviour of later years more in terms of silent stoicism than abject cowardice.

‘There can be few pupils in whom a sense of duty, talent and liveliness are united to the degree that they are in this boy.’ ‘His sunny nature and over-flowing high spirits ... won him the friendship of all who knew him.’ ‘Your son is fundamentally wholesome by nature.’ Remarks like these decorate Strauss’s childhood and youth. It isn’t hard to see why. His letters home (published by Schuh in 1954 under the title Briefe an die Eltern and quoted extensively in this volume) radiate a strong, positive and attractive nature. This is expressed in his forthright and open arguments with his father, in his touching closeness to his sister, and in his uncompromising boldness as a young professional musician. Above all, it shines out in his loyalties, in the way he stood by and stood up for the people he loved: his parents, his friends, his wife, himself.

One incident is particularly telling. In 1885, when Strauss was 20, his mother suffered what Schuh refers to as ‘a nervous illness requiring medical treatment’. Her collapse, which was the first of many, plunged her husband into a deep depression. Hanna, Richard’s sister, was away from home. He wrote to her:

My optimism and spirits seem to be slipping gradually, there’s a limit to everything, I’m afraid, and when I pull myself together as best I can and comfort Papa, it’s a waste of time trying to distract him – that’s the sad thing – he’s becoming more and more unsociable, I think he feels that he’s doing dear Mama a moral wrong of some kind if he allows himself to be distracted and doesn’t sit all day brooding on our misfortune. Even though I’m forever preaching to him that on the contrary it’s his duty to keep himself strong and fit by diverting and dispersing the dark thoughts for the sake of Mama and Hanna and me, it doesn’t have any effect and so I’m often at a complete loss to understand what has happened to the moral strength that a man should possess more of than a woman.

This letter exposes the Strauss family organism in clear cross-section, and it undermines at a stroke the common assumption that Strauss had a picture-book childhood. For it cannot plausibly be supposed that the sad event of the mother’s first committal and the responses it drew from Franz Strauss and his son came out of the blue. Everything that is known about the Strauss parents suggests they were unusually highly strung: his father was an embittered man, whose temper had been worn to a brittle thinness by his own harsh experience of life; his mother suffered from hyper-excitability, so that even a visit to the theatre or concert hall kept her awake all night. The father flew into rages, the mother’s nerves were constantly inflamed. And Richard was the mediator. The pattern must have repeated itself countless times in Strauss’s childhood and youth, and this letter to his sister shows how completely by the age of 20 he accepted the role of guardian of the status quo. It is especially revealing that he sees the dispersal of dark thoughts as a duty: his father’s, his own, a man’s no less, and in the light of this remark and the history of family relations which lies behind it, Strauss’s choices and behaviour in later life should be reviewed.

That Strauss was himself beset by dark thoughts is not easily backed with documentary proof. As Schuh says in the opening pages of Ein Paar Erinnerungen an Richard Strauss (a clutch of anecdotes published in 1964), Strauss deflected conversations about himself, and his published letters are overwhelmingly preoccupied with points of business. Yet the completeness of his reticence suggests a suppression, a powerful disinclination to look inwards for fear of what might be found there. The efforts to surround himself with security and comfort, his perpetual activity, his habit of filling even the vacant interspaces of his thought with card-playing or mediocre music-making, the fear and the tearfulness that hover in the eyes of so many of the portraits, his unease in the winter months, do not gainsay the suggestion. But it is the abnormal intensity of his need to preserve an equilibrium for his psyche (and what are Capriccio and the Second Horn Concerto if not profoundly abnormal reactions to the environment in which they were written?) that argues most strongly against the supposed equanimity of his temperament and the ease of his lot.

Strauss directed people curious about his inner life to his music, which he said (not altogether reassuringly) was as autobiographical as Beethoven’s. I suspect he meant something relatively uncomplicated, in line with his habitual tendency to find superficial equivalences between musical and non-musical experience. Certainly we must look elsewhere than to his overt psychological portraiture (the Tone Poems, the Sinfonia Domestica, Intermezzo) if we want to hear his soul speak. The Marschallin’s soliloquy at the end of Act One of Der Rosenkavalier, the night terrors of Klytemnestra, the darkling mood of The Four Last Songs? Perhaps, but in each case there is a rhetorical feel to the evocation of loneliness, terror or death. And it is exactly my point that music was Strauss’s chief refuge from the unspeakable within him.

I only know one instance in his work when the mechanism failed to work (there may be others). It is the Emperor’s long aria in Act Two, Scene Two of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Strauss called this opera a ‘child of sorrow’ and it caused him unwonted trouble. For once, his creative facility left him and he had to wrench the music out. The scene in question is a nightmare, an unmediated vision of the hell of total personal isolation. The music rocks queasily between terror and a false relief: a cold sweat breaks out across the score. Nowhere in Strauss’s music is the Effekt less verfremdet, and nowhere is Entfremdung so shockingly portrayed. If this is Strauss unaccommodated, then it is scarcely any wonder he pursued accommodation with such single-minded and blinkered tenacity. When in later years he made an orchestral suite out of the music from Die Frau, he left out the Emperor’s music altogether.

Entfremdung and fear of inner isolation is the burden of one of Willi Schuh’s lesser-known anecdotes about Richard Strauss. It comes near the end of Ein Paar Erinnerungen an Richard Strauss, and it confirms the tendency of that slim volume to highlight Strauss’s inarticulate loneliness and vulnerability. The scene is London in 1947, in November. The Strauss entourage has packed up and gone home, all except for Dr Schuh who remains behind to shepherd the old man through his last engagements. It is the afternoon before Strauss is to appear at the Albert Half to conduct a concert of his work:

In the afternoon he retired to bed, and when it began to get dark, I had to go and sit with him. The lamp was dazzling, so I asked him if I should turn it out. But he said no: ‘I do not like to be in semi-darkness, I like light.’ The casual nature of the occasion cannot obscure the deeper meaning of these words. It was easy to sense that the approaching concert weighed on him – he hadn’t conducted for years and was how in his 84th year. When he had lain still for a while, he said with a soft sigh: ‘These afternoons before a concert away from home! – Ah well, it won’t last much longer now.’ How many hundred such afternoons must he have spent during his long life, alone, waiting!

In German Strauss’s last remark is especially expressive: it has a cadence which English cannot catch: ‘Diese Nachmittage vor dem Konzert in der Fremde! – Na, es dauert ja nicht mehr lange.’ In der Fremde: it means ‘away from home’, ‘in a foreign land’, but in a definitive sense which neither phrase in English carries. It is a state of being. It was where Strauss most feared to be. By contrast, approaching death offered relief.

The Emperor, far away from the familiar, shut out from the comforts of the pavilion, alienated from his loved one, alone, waiting for something to happen, in der Fremde, cries out with a voice from deep within Richard Strauss. His soliloquy is perhaps part of the dramatic monologue we seek. Yet its rawness needs integrating into a subtler whole. Browning could have done it. Without blame or excuse, and dispassionately, he could have shown us where the fault lay, ‘what the core o’ the wound, since wound must be’. Schuh, I believe, has inklings of all this. Better than many he knows what Strauss might have said on that warm afternoon in Garmisch. But his reach has nowhere exceeded his grasp and he has lacked the imagination and perhaps the unkindness to exploit what he knows.

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