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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the January 16,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Enigmatic Richard Strauss

For Alex Ross, fan of Richard Strauss, and the New

Yorker magazine’s ready commentator on music, the calendar this


is studded with red-letter days. All the events are part of the New

Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s three-week Richard Strauss festival,


A Hero’s Life?," a program of 10 orchestral concerts and ancillary

events masterminded by artistic director Zdenek Macal, and coordinated

by festival consultant Joseph Horowitz.

A concert and symposium entitled "Who Was Richard Strauss?"

takes place on Saturday January 19, from 2 to 5 p.m., at the Robeson

Center of Rutgers University, Newark. Participants include Ross, and

Michael Kater. Ross will speak on "Strauss: Radical


Kater’s topic is "An Enigma of the Musical World: Richard Strauss

in the Third Reich." Selected Strauss songs will be performed

by Meagan Miller, accompanied by pianist J.J. Penna of Westminster

Choir College.

Ross’s "Strauss and the Female Voice" presentation can be

heard at New Brunswick’s State Theater on Sunday, January 20 at 2

p.m. preceding the 3 p.m. concert in which soprano Alessandra Marc

solos in the "Four Last Songs." In the pre-concert program,

Marc sings "Malven," Strauss’s last song. Ross helps provide

a context for "Malven" by talking about the art of singing

Strauss and by playing recordings of great Strauss singers of the


Strauss wrote "Malven" in 1948 and dedicated it to Maria


the first star in his operas "Ariadne auf Naxos" and "Die

Frau Ohne Schatten." Jeritza kept silent about the song. At her

death, in Newark in 1982, the song reappeared and its first public

performance took place in 1985. "Jeritza never showed the song

to anyone," Ross says in a telephone interview from his home in

New York. "She thought it was hers alone. When it was finally

performed in 1985, it was almost a message from the beyond."

Ross is a willing participant in the expanded concert

format exemplified by the NJSO festivals, but stops short of declaring

the genre the wave of future. "It’s a good way to diversify the

standard concert format," he says. "It tries to present a

deeper perspective on a single composer, and bring the audience deeper

into the composer’s world. The Strauss festival is a great opportunity

to explore a composer whose reputation is controversial, whose works

are still being debated. There’s a great deal to be said about Strauss

that goes beyond sitting back and listening passively.

"It’s always good to supply a context, especially for music of

the 20th century," he says. "Many new musical languages were

in circulation in the 20th century. For earlier times, listeners don’t

need to know so much about the context."

Ross sees providing the background of music as filling a present-day

void. "Music education is lacking so much in schools and


he says, "it is falling more and more to performing arts


themselves to give the audience an education. It’s unfortunate. But

someone has to do it."

Chiefly, however, Ross is happy to have a platform from which to talk

again about Strauss. He summarized his views in a long, probing


"The Last Emperor," in the New Yorker (December 20, 1999)

and revisits the subject this month with an article on the


Opera’s recent production of "Die Frau Ohne Schatten (January

7, 2002).

"I’ve been a devoted fan of Strauss," says Ross. "I’m

deeply fascinated by him as a human being and as a composer. He’s

crucial in the history of 20th century music. This view may be a


at variance with the conventional narrative in which Schoenberg and

Stravinsky are seen as pivotal figures at the beginning of the


It’s often forgotten how daring and revolutionary Strauss seemed at

the time.

"It’s a mistake to think of Strauss as a holdover from the 19th

century, and a late romantic figure. His brilliance, irony, wit, and

mockery are typically 20th century," he says. "So is his


imaginative use of tonality [standard musical scales]. Strauss never

became atonal, but he used the tonal system with tremendous freedom,

leaping unpredictably from one chord to another. That freedom has

influenced composers who didn’t follow Schoenberg and held on to


"Strauss made tonality a 20th century language. He found a


balance between radical and conservative schools of thought. A Strauss

score seems to consist of multiple streams of thought. At any one

point you can take it apart and see conventional chords. But the


that is, the way those chords are combined, is surprising. Strauss

uses sharp dissonance, then unravels the dissonance. You have a


that everything is up for grabs. It’s a wonderful feeling to be


around in a familiar landscape in a novel way."

"Strauss had an extraordinary sympathy for the female voice,"

says Ross, as he continues to chronicle the composer’s appeal. "He

was one of the few composers with an art of singing named after him.

Just as there’s a Mozart sound and a Verdi sound, there’s a Strauss

sound. He created it in the operas from Rosenkavalier (1911) onward.

It was a strong voice, but fundamentally lyrical, and with great


beauty, possessing a gleam exemplified by Lotte Lehmann, Maria


and Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Strauss adopted and encouraged them

and trained them to enter his specific world. He went through the

scores with them, bar by bar, never being pedantic, exploring with

the singer what could be done and how the music could be brought to

life. He knew the art of singing very well, from conducting a great

deal of opera in his youth. He grew up with Wagner operas and was

present at the world premiere of Parsifal in 1881."

"Strauss was not trained as a singer," Ross says, "but

he was married to a singer, Pauline de Ahna. No one is sure why he

married her. They fought a lot and Pauline bossed him, but that was

only an outward reality. In their private life there was deep love

and much respect. Their outward tensions may have been performed for


"The women in Strauss operas are strong. The men are weak and

dissolute. Women are the vehicle for Strauss’ expression of his


soul. It comes down to a certain detachment from the world, a search

for refuge, seeking a place of perfect beauty, and a certain cynicism

about the external affairs of the world. Opera for Strauss was


theater, an expression of the rich spectrum of emotion. In opera we

often find ourselves with sharply opposed emotions-joy followed by

a plunge into despair. But Strauss tends to be less melodramatic and

more subtle.

"With Strauss," says Ross, "it’s all in the


wistfulness, and daily oscillations of emotion."

"It was remarkable that a male composer used the female voice

as his primary mode of expression," he adds, "It was


considering Strauss’ gruff appearance, his Bavarian origin, and his

concern with the business end of music." He had a certain lack

of refinement. But all this was just exterior appearance and, as Ross

wrote in the New Yorker, characterizes "the basic Straussian


people have a devil of a time squaring the life with the work."

Ross was born in 1968, the son of two research mineralogists, and

grew up in Washington, D.C. His interest in playing piano and in


came to the fore when he was five. He grew up listening to his


extensive record collection and attending concerts with them. "I

was still interested in composing at 18," he says, "but I

realized that I was better off thinking about music than writing


He majored in music and literature at Harvard College, where he began

writing criticism. In 1992 he joined the New York Times, where he

wrote articles on film and television, as well as review of


and recordings. Since 1996 he has been a New Yorker staff writer.

Ross is currently at work on a book about 20th century music.


a collection of essays," he says. "It’s about the connections

between composers, about their cultural context, the fate of composers

in Nazi Germany, the tribulations of Soviet composers under Stalin,

and avant-garde Soviet composers after World War II."

In sketching those portraits we can count on Ross to

use solid scholarship as his touchstone. His caution shows itself

in his comments on Strauss’ "Metamorphosen," one of the pieces

on the cluster of programs this weekend. "Some fans of Strauss

were distressed by his association with the Nazi regime and tried

to interpret `Metamorphosen’ as a regret in which Strauss confesses

the tragedy of his involvement with the Nazis," he says. "Some

suggest that it was a memorial to Hitler. But that’s ridiculous since

Hitler was not yet dead. I respect the need of those listeners to

hear those things. But reading the documents, I can’t find expressions

of regret. So I think that there’s little reason to expect regret

to be expressed in the music."

"There’s sorrow, deep sorrow, expressed in `Metamorphosen,’"

Ross says. "Whatever the composer was intending, we can attach

it to whatever we hear. It’s the same way with Barber’s `Adagio for

Strings,’ which is a piece of universal mourning. `Metamorphosen’

troubles a lot of people. They’d like to know what Strauss was


for. We’ll never know and we don’t need to. It’s enough to know that

it was an upwelling of sorrow from a source that we don’t know."

Ross lets his ears be his guide, immune to the temptations


He agrees that the final impact of music is the music itself,


Beethoven’s reaction to a listener’s inquiry. When the curious auditor

asked him the meaning of the piece he had just played, Beethoven sat

down and played it again.

— Elaine Strauss

Strauss Festival Symposium, New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra ,

Robeson Center, Rutgers University, Newark, 800-ALLEGRO. Joseph


hosts a discussion and concert, "Who Was Richard Strauss?"

with Meagan Miller, soprano. Michael Kater speaks on "Strauss

and the Third Reich" and Alex Ross speaks on "Strauss and

the 20th Century." $5. Saturday, January 19, 2 p.m.

Strauss Festival, NJSO, State Theater, New


800-ALLEGRO. Alessandra Marc, soprano, is featured soloist. Prelude

Concert at 2 p.m. features music critic Alex Ross with Alessandra

Marc on "Strauss and the Soprano Voice." $17 to $65.


January 20, 3 p.m.

Strauss Festival, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,

War Memorial, Trenton, 800-ALLEGRO. French hornist Hermann Baumann

is featured soloist. Prelude Concert at 7 p.m., Hermann Baumann and

Joseph Horowitz on "Strauss and the Horn." $17 to $65.


January 26, 8 p.m.

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