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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
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
"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
"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
"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
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.
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.
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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