In Hiding

Nicholas Spice

  • Richard Strauss: A Chronicle of the Early Years 1864-1898 by Willi Schuh, translated by Mary Whitall
    Cambridge, 555 pp, £35.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 521 24104 9

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.

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