A Report on ‘Richard Strauss at 150, with Saul Lilienstein’ at The Kennedy Center

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In his third and final Explore the Arts lecture at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Gallery on great composers serendipitously born in years lending themselves to anniversary celebrations in the last several months, musicologist Saul Lilienstein brought his familiar scholarship, analysis, warmth, and wit to an examination of three of Richard Strauss’ operas: Der Rosenkavalier, currently onstage at the Washington National Opera; Ariadne auf Naxos; and Elektra.

Saul Lillenstein.
Saul Lillenstein.

Beginning with the one that, by a show of hands, nearly half the audience would attend that evening, Lilienstein said that some time ago, he’d wanted to give a talk on “the three most beautiful moments of the 20th century.  And two of them were from Der Rosenkavalier.”  Today, Lilienstein continued, Strauss “is considered the composer of the 20th century,” adding that “More Richard Strauss is performed than anyone else.”

But popular success is not always concomitant with critical  approval, and Strauss was regarded by some with disdain as a 20th-century composer  writing in 19th-century style. But then, what are critics? (wrote the, ahem, critic). When Strauss, near the end of his life and the end of the Second World War in 1945, found himself holed up in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria awaiting the arrival of U.S. troops, he opened the door and greeted them in English with “Good evening, gentlemen.  I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Der Rosenkavalier.”  And knew that even soldiers would recognize and respect it.

Later, continued Lilienstein, Strauss would introduce himself before a concert here in the States as “not in the first rank of composers, but certainly in the highest tier of the second rank.” He also is said to have asserted that he could write a piece about a bunch of guys drinking in a Bierstube, “and you could tell if they were drinking a Lager or a Pils[ener].”

While opera fans cherish his operatic oeuvre, they may not realize that Strauss came late in the game to the form, said Lilienstein, having written some 160 vocal and orchestral works, including five “symphonic poems,” before his first opera, a new version of Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris, in 1890. His first original opera, Guntram, which would follow four years later, was derided as “too derivative.” His next, Feuersnot, premiered in Dresden a year into the new century, met with similar indifference. (And fared no better a year later in Vienna, with Gustav Mahler at the podium.)

But what music!  Lilienstein, whose presence at the lectern was regularly enlivened not only by his commentary (and occasional comments and compliments to the technical staff) but by examples both audio and DVD, played for us an emotionally and musically compelling excerpt from Feuersnot, his passionate narrative accompanying the soaring, swelling vocal and orchestral line.

Strauss adored his wife, soprano Pauline de Alma, said Lilienstein, but she was something of a terror. (The composer announced their engagement to the orchestra during a rehearsal for Tristan und Isolde, when their mutual vituperous recriminations had driven them to continue them backstage. The orchestra, hearing shouting and banging followed by a frightening silence, was relieved that both emerged in one piece, ready to resume rehearsing, the happy ending icing on the cake.)  He dedicated several songs to her.

But Strauss was not just an understanding husband; he was an understanding husband, who appreciated and seemed to know women with a sensitivity that enabled him to write music that expressed and embraced their most intimate thoughts and feelings. “That’s the most important factor in Strauss’s music,” declared Lilienstein. “The discovery of the woman.” And not just on the stage. “He discovered the voice of a woman within himself. All sopranos will tell you that no composer understands them for who they are, as Strauss does.”

His decision that a woman would play Octavian was no accident.  Ariadne and De Frau ohne Schatten also have large “trouser” roles. Playing an excerpt of the bedroom scene from Act I of Der Rosenkavalier, in which Princess Marie Therese and Octavian (Kiri te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos) sensuously explore each other with unrestrained fervor and longing, Lilienstein reminded us that Strauss saw this as a parody of Tristan und Isolde. And not just the lovemaking: the music itself is a take-off on Tristan’s return to Isolde from the hunt. (For Strauss, said Lilienstein, Tristan, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan Tutte were the greatest of all operas.)

The next selection was from Ariadne auf Naxos.  It, too, was a seduction scene between an “older” woman (in Strauss’s day, mid-thirties was over the hill) and a young man, also played, as Octavian, by a mezzo soprano And it, too, was riveting: as Ariadne tells the boy that she may appear to be an empty pleasure seeker, but that she wants so much more, his face is filled with tragic longing and despair.

Comparing Strauss humorously with Verdi, the subject of his previous lecture, Lilienstein opined that unlike Strauss’s eminently feminine sensibility, “Verdi’s music is masculine.  It’s like Michelangelo—all his women look like men with breasts pasted on them.” (Well, it’s always good to have your assumptions challenged and your critical faculties recharged.) By way of illustration, Lilienstein played a tape of the Presentation of the Silver Rose scene from Der Rosenkavalier. While not making Violetta look (or sound) like a cross-dressing quarterback, it certainly cast a spell over the room as the soprano’s voice delicately touched the highest notes with hushed wonder.

Next up was Arabella, which Strauss wrote in 1933, and for which he was again criticized, this time for the music’s unaccountable sweetness, its seeming heedlessness of the situation in his native land.  Exacerbating the situation, said Lilienstein, was the fact that Strauss had a Jewish wife and Jewish grandchildren, yet accepted the position of minister of music under Hitler.

He was not completely without conscience, though—and it would cost him his position: When his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, died, he engaged another: Stefan Zweig, who was Jewish. And refused propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s insistence that he remove Zweig’s name from the program, saying that if Zweig’s name wasn’t on the program, there would be no performance.

There wasn’t. But that doesn’t put an end to the discomfiting ambiguities surrounding Strauss’s dealings with the Nazis, for he remained in Germany.  “I go back and forth on this,” said Lilienstein, shaking his head.

Richard Strauss.
Richard Strauss.

Regarded as a composer and musician, though, there is no ambiguity.  And that goes for the type of music he wrote. “He loves tonal music!” cried Lilienstein. “Schoenberg was writing polytonal music. Stravinsky was writing atonal music.” But Strauss was firmly in the tonal camp; he even conducted the world premiere of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.  And Hans von Bülow, a Wagner acolyte, revered him. (Even the gruesome Salome, which he wrote six years before Der Rosenkavalier, had music that one critic described as “so sweet, she could be kissing a head made of marzipan” rather than the severed one she embraces.)

Following on the heels of Salome there was the one-act Elektra, another apparent musical 180-degree turn. Lilienstein would disagree, however. It was, instead, music written “to fit the story; that the situation requires.” Chrysothemis’s music, in fact, “is as rich and romantic, and yearning for love, as Salome’s is.” Playing a DVD of the scene in which Salome wildly and ecstatically recognizes and embraces her brother Orestes, “This is woman’s music. Woman’s music!” he called out above the rapturously drama-infused strings and soprano (Hildegard Behrens).

Turning back to those “three most beautiful moments of the 20th century,” Lilienstein told us that the trio that ends Der Rosenkavalier would be his second, and played an excerpt from the matchless Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinak, Herbert von Karajan Salzburg Festival performance.

The third was not as obvious: Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep), one of  Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), sung magnificently by Jessye Norman. Written three decades after Der Rosenkavalier, it seems to return to its musical and emotional ethos.  And yet: “Music isn’t like science, that always has to progress.  Music stops time.”

As it did for Richard Strauss. As he lay dying, related Lilienstein, his family gathered around his bed, he comforted them: “Don’t be sad. Dying is just the way I wrote it was.” Strauss loved Goethe, continued Lilienstein, quoting Faust: “Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan”—roughly, The eternal feminine draws us upward. It certainly did Richard Strauss, through his music. And, through his music—and those who, like Saul Lilienstein, study, understand, appreciate and convey it—those who know, at least in part, where the composer is coming from, and are willing to accompany him along the way.

Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Richard Strauss at 150 with Saul Lilienstein took place on Saturday, March 8, 2014 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future Kennedy Center events, go to their calendar of events.