On the evening of October 19th 1947 an elderly man stood just off stage at the Royal Albert Hall while the leader of the recently formed Philharmonia Orchestra, Tom Carter made his entrance. The elderly man, a slim white baton in his hand then slowly walked into the vast auditorium’s brightness, stopped to acknowledge the seven and a half thousand people’s applause and hoisted himself onto the conductor’s podium. This man, whose minimal flick of his baton marked the first silent semi-quaver of the Overture Don Juan was its composer, Richard Strauss.
A London Times review of Strauss’s appearance at the RAH commenting on his conducting ran:
‘Dr Strauss has never been of the demonstrative school his left hand rarely leaves his side and his right seems to do no more than beat time. But how exact that beat is! How infinite the gradation of expression conveyed by the variation in the movement of the stick. At 83 his command of the orchestra and his ability to obtain from it exactly what he wants remains undiminished. If his Don Juan was more phlegmatic than it is sometimes made by more excitable conductors that is how we remember it sounding under Dr Strauss twenty years ago. This was a remarkable and memorable evening’s work for a man who was famous before most of his enormous audience was born’.
The programme that evening included the Rondo Burleska for piano and orchestra soloist Alred Blumen and the Sinfonia Domestica.
Strauss lived for a further two years in which time he had composed several works including the charming, classically styled Oboe Concerto, and two of the most emotionally charged and valedictory works of late romantic music, Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, and the Four Last Songs.
Four Last Songs were premièred with the by then deceased composer’s choice of soloist - Kirsten Flagstad and with her first choice of conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler. The venue was not a hastily restored opera house or concert hall in a German city but again in the Royal Albert Hall and once more with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Cultural reconstruction following the nightmare years of Nazism, certainly in the case of Strauss, seems to have been speedier than other aspects of recovery in post-war life. Strauss’s London publisher, Boosey and Hawkes’ representative Ernst Roth with Sir Thomas Beecham, brokered Strauss’s visit to London for autumn 1947. Strauss was not cleared by the Denazification Board until June 1948.
Those of influence within the British musical establishment such as Thomas Beecham, Henry Wood, Walter Legge (founder and artistic director of the Philharmonia) and the BBC would all have acknowledged the commercial and artistic advantages of Strauss’s presence at the London festival in celebration of his music. At the same time Strauss was hopeful of regaining accrued royalties in London - the Strauss’s assets in Germany being still frozen, part of the reason of their residing in Swiss hotels at the time - as well as renewing contact with old colleagues. As Strauss looked out at the clouds from his return Swissair flight, he might well have reflected on the virtual suppression of any celebration to mark his 80th birthday three years before by the Nazis - following his falling out with Goebbels and subsequent difficulties, compared with his time in London. Even in Vienna a two week festival of his music had been barred from making him any awards.
At a concert on the 29 October at the end of his London visit (with the BBCSO) Strauss had been heard to mutter as he made his entrance ‘so the old horse ambles out of the stables once more’. So what stable had this old horse ambled out of and what musical pastures would he see out his days in?
Strauss in 1930s Germany had been seen to gain professionally under the regime. While some opinion, such as those expressed in Curt Reiss’s Furtwängler biography saw him as a Nazi supporter, others saw him as simply professionally opportunistic. Perhaps the fact of his daughter-in-law Alice’s and therefore his two grandson’s Jewish background led Strauss to a path of conformity. There were many instances before and after the taking of total power by the National Socialists where Strauss demonstrated his impatience with the irrationality of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, despite gestures such as attempting to terminate a contract with Dresden Opera when it had dismissed the conductor Fritz Busch(the opera’s dedicatee) from performing the première of Arabella because of his negative views on the regime, and his attempts to collaborate with the Jewish poet Stefan Zweig beyond grudging first performances of Die Schweigsamer Frau, Strauss the man, for many, remains tainted.
As the more sympathetic Strauss biographer Brian Gilliam comments, ‘the tactic of positioning oneself outside the political realm while simultaneously exploiting political structures for artistic gain would have serious consequences’.
In today’s musical world artists who at short notice replace the indisposed or indiscreet are typically nothing worthy of comment, but with hindsight Strauss replacing Toscanini for Bayreuth performances (at which he was presented to Hitler) when the Italian Maestro had withdrawn in an anti-Fascist gesture is an indelible image.
In the view of the Nazi party the high-point of their relationship with Strauss was the nomination (with Furtwängler) to the ReichsMusikammer in November 1933 by Goebbels. Strauss had not sought the position but took it in the hope of maintaining quality in the music profession, reform of composer copyright conditions and the first performances of contempory (including Jewish) composer’s works.
From that point the relationship declined; Strauss’s view of the propaganda minister as a “pip-squeak” , opposed to Goebbel’s manipulating of his eminence, were revealed by the letter opening skills of the censors and stormy exchanges between the two men. In an attempt to recover equilibrium Strauss composed and conducted the Olympic Hymn for the stadium ceremonies in 1936 - to little avail.
Later, preoccupied with the security of Alice and her sons Strauss relocated his extended family from Garmisch (Bavaria) to Vienna where anti-Semitism was perceived as less strident and he had undertaken to support the Austrian capital’s musical life. By the end of the war Alice had lost twenty-six relatives and she narrowly missed internment by intentional local bureaucratic delay.
As the war in Europe drew to a close the Strausses in the Garmicsh Villa were buffeted by news of Alice and their son Franz being detained briefly by the authorities in Vienna ,the destruction of Munich’s Opera House by allied bombing and moves to requisition parts of their home for the dispossessed.
Then the Americans arrived.
Strauss answered the door with words to the effect of: “I am Richard Strauss, composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome, leave me alone…” Major Kramer, who headed the detachment, was a music lover and placed the villa “off bounds” to further military disturbance. Not that this prevented further visits from the young men of the American forces including the peacetime oboist from the Pittsburg Symphony – John de Lancie. Their common language was French and during one of his visits de Lancie, referring to the many sumptuous oboe melodies in the Strauss oeuvre, asked if an oboe concerto had ever been considered. The response was short and negative. The longer term result is well known.
John de Lancie did not perform the piece which was premièred in Zurich in February 1946, until eleven years later following a distinguished post-war period in the Philedelphia Orchestra.
The time spent in Switzerland by the Strausses (October 1945-May 1949), living in hotels largely on credit, also saw the première of the Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings. This was the result of a commission by the music-benefactor industrialist Paul Sacher, though elements of it came from earlier sketches. It is arguably the most personal, and for the lifelong agnostic Strauss, his most spiritual piece. Seen as a memorial to the destruction of German cultural life, typified by the bleak images of the bombed opera halls of Munich, Dresden and Vienna; at the foot of the original score where the basses refer to the Funeral March of the Eroica Symphony, Strauss writes “In Memoriam”.
It seems that this piece was so heartfelt by it’s creator that Strauss arrived during the final rehearsal to conduct it through to a practically empty hall, but chose not to appear at the performance. Whereas the completion of the Four Last Songs was marked by the professionally laconic remark to his daughter-in-law: “Here are the songs your husband ordered” referring to his son Franz encouraging him to write songs as an antidote to his low mood during 1948. During the previous year Strauss had already made sketches based on the poem ‘Im Abendrot’ by Joseph Eichendorff and went on to complete it and the three further settings of poems by Herman Hesse by September 1948.
Strauss and Pauline finally returned from Switzerland to their home in Garmisch on May 10th 1949 following his recuperation from an operation. From there he wrote to Kirsten Flagstad, having heard her in Zurich recently, ‘I gladly place at your disposal, with a view to an eventual concert première with a first class conductor and ensemble, my four last songs with orchestra – at present being published in London’.
Following Richard Strauss’s death on September 8th 1949, the première took place with Flagstad, Furtwängler and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall on the 22nd May 1950.
The Times wrote, ‘they are in effect songs of farewell and if, as is also the case with Mahler, there seems some disproportion between the magnitude of the medium and the essential intimacy of lyrical utterance, it nevertheless seems right that his valediction should be to the orchestra ,of which his mastery remained to the end’.
© Justin Jones (March 2012)