The anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, 150 years ago this June, is already being marked across the country. In Manchester, the major musical establishments – the Hallé, the BBC Philharmonic, the Camerata and the Royal Northern College of Music – are holding a joint festival of nine concerts spread across the first eight weeks of the year, concentrating on his songs with orchestra and his tone poems. This generous observance is a contrast with the rather cool celebration of his centenary in 1964. Still rumbling on 50 years ago were the prejudices of those who accused him of being a supporter of the Nazis.
Strauss was born in Munich on 11 June 1864. His father, Franz, was the principal horn in the Munich court opera orchestra and his mother was the daughter of the owner of the Pschorr brewery. He began to compose when he was five and news of his prowess soon spread; his second symphony, composed when he was 19, had its first performance in New York.
As an adult, music was his prime interest in life, followed by his devotion to his wife, Pauline (a tempestuous soprano), their son, Franz, and his wife, Alice, his two grandsons and the card game Skat. He was a fine pianist, particularly as an accompanist, and a great conductor whose recordings of his own works and of Mozart symphonies are classics. Strauss reached an international audience with the tone poems he wrote between 1888 and 1915, transforming into music the stories of Don Juan, Don Quixote, the German medieval rascal Till Eulenspiegel, Macbeth and – in Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”) – a hero, loosely based on himself, whose enemies were the music critics of Munich who had savaged his first opera.
His other subjects were Nietzsche’s “superman” (Also Sprach Zarathustra, whose opening fanfare appears in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey); climbing in the Alps (Eine Alpensinfonie); and a day in his family life (Symphonia Domestica). He once said, “I want to be able to depict in music a glass of beer so accurately that every listener can tell whether it is a Pilsner or a Kulmbacher.”
Strauss’s operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909) were sensations because of the lurid treatment of the melodies and the lyrical expressiveness with which he wrote for the female voice. When he was working as the conductor of the Berlin State Opera, his employer, Kaiser Wilhelm II, said to him: “This Salome will do you no good.” Strauss later wrote in his diary: “The ‘no good’ enabled me to build my house in Garmisch.”
His opera Der Rosenkavalier (1911), with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Harry Graf Kessler, enchanted the public with its 18th-century Viennese setting, waltzes, glamorous costumes and romantic plot. The operas that followed broke new ground: a chamber opera, Ariadne auf Naxos (1912); the mysterious and symbolic Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1917; and Intermezzo (1923), in which he used a personal marital glitch as the plot.
From 1942 until his death in 1949 – his “Indian summer” – Strauss wrote a series of orchestral pieces tempered by age and experience, of which the Metamorphosen (1945), a piece for 23 solo strings, might be his best. It was his elegy for the German culture that had been destroyed by the Nazis – “these barbarians”, as he called them. His final work, Four Last Songs (1948), crowned a lifetime of songwriting that ranks alongside Mahler, Schumann, Wolf and Schubert. His death at 85 evoked glowing tributes. But there was a cloud over the eulogies.
In 1933, Hitler became Germany’s chancellor at the head of the National Socialist Party. The non-political Strauss professed not to be worried, telling his family that this government would not last long. “I made music under the kaiser,” he told them. “I’ll survive under this lot, as well.” Strauss’s beloved daughter-in-law, Alice, was Jewish and she had two sons; his publisher, Adolf Fürstner, was Jewish and he was working on the libretto for his next opera with the Austrian-Jewish playwright Stefan Zweig, a comedy based on Ben Jonson’s The Epicene (Die Schweigsame Frau) and intended for a premiere in Dresden.
In 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda who was responsible for all aspects of cultural activity, set up departments to deal with each section of the arts; in November, he appointed Strauss president of the Reichsmusikkammer, overseeing music. Asked later why he accepted, Strauss said: “I hoped that I would be able to do some good and prevent worse misfortunes.”
He viewed his appointment as a chance to achieve some of the reforms he had long hoped for, chief among them that Germany should sign the Berne Convention on copyright law, raising the period of protection from 30 to 50 years. Thinking he had Goebbels’s support, Strauss in gratitude wrote a short song – it lasted about 95 seconds – called Das Bächlein (“The Little Brook”) and dedicated it to the minister. It was never performed in its original form. Its last line contained the word “Führer” repeated three times; for some time these words were attributed to Goethe but this has never been confirmed. When, during the war, a complete edition of his songs was proposed, he ordered Das Bächlein to be suppressed.
Strauss should have suspected something about Nazi rule when he was told he could not go to the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 1934 to conduct Fidelio. Eventually, the ban was lifted and meeting Zweig in the city, Strauss told him, “I have asked Goebbels if there are any ‘political objections’ against you, to which he answered, ‘No.’”
Over the Christmas period of 1934, Strauss composed Olympische Hymne for the 1936 Berlin Games, a commission from the German Olympic Committee, not the government. He implored Zweig to write another opera with him but the playwright was more realistic, knowing that the Nazis would not sanction a Jewish librettist. He offered to suggest subjects and supervise the completion of librettos written by acceptable authors. In a letter to Zweig, Strauss retorted: “You drive me to despair! This Jewish obstinacy! Enough to make a man anti-Semitic!” The letter, which mocked the idea of Aryan music, was taken by a member of the Gestapo from the mailbox in the Dresden hotel where Strauss was staying while attending rehearsals of Die Schweigsame Frau and was forwarded to Hitler.
At the dress rehearsal, Strauss suddenly called for a copy of the programme. He saw that Zweig’s name had been left out. He demanded its reinstatement or he would leave Dresden that day. The intendant, Paul Adolph, acquiesced – and was dismissed a few days later. The first performance went well. Hitler and Goebbels had promised to attend but did not do so; Hitler had now seen the letter Strauss had written and Goebbels demanded his resignation from the chamber “on the grounds of ill health”. Terrified for his family, Strauss wrote an obsequious letter to Hitler, asking to see him. There was no reply. In his private notebooks, Strauss wrote: “I consider the Jew-baiting by Goebbels a disgrace to German honour.”
Then followed ten years in which the Nazis played cat-and-mouse games with the ageing composer. They knew that the safety of his family was paramount in his life. They also needed his music. Goebbels wrote in his diary in February 1944: “Unfortunately, we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic.” Another official told him, “Other heads than yours have already rolled, Herr Doktor Strauss.”
In Garmisch, Strauss’s grandsons were stoned on their way to school and called “dirty Jews”. Their parents, Franz and Alice, were twice questioned by the Gestapo and 32 members of Alice’s family were incarcerated in Theresienstadt concentration camp, where they perished.
At the end of the war, Garmisch was in the US occupation zone and an official arrived at the villa to commandeer it. Strauss stood up to him and said, “I am the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome. Leave me alone.” Conditions were so bad in Garmisch that the old couple were permitted to go to Switzerland. There, Strauss was surprised to encounter a good deal of hostility. A newspaper stated that he was not welcome in the country and a Swiss opera singer protested because the leading role in a Strauss opera in Zürich was taken by an Austrian soprano who had sung in Germany during the war. In 1947, Strauss made his first flight to conduct concerts in England arranged by his old friend Thomas Beecham. He was deeply depressed by having to justify himself to the denazification board, which was investigating those thought to have collaborated with the regime. In June 1948, he was cleared on all counts.
He and Pauline returned to Germany before the celebrations of his 85th birthday in Garmisch and Munich. His health was beginning to fail and he died on 8 September 1949. He said to Alice: “Dying is just as I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.”
Despite Strauss being cleared of collaboration, for decades his music suffered the same fate as Wagner’s: the composer’s association with the Nazis sullied the work, which was banned, ignored or reviled as a result. While Wagner is still verboten, Israel lifted its embargo on Strauss in the 1990s. Most audiences can now sympathise with the position in which Strauss found himself: a well-connected, pragmatic musician, hopeful of using his influence for good, anxious to help his Jewish friends and colleagues and determined to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
Michael Kennedy is honorary patron of “Strauss’s Voice”, a series of concerts at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, running until 8 March. His book “Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma” is published by Cambridge University Press (£39.99)