Let us begin with a theme, something familiar... Beethoven, perhaps? Yes, the “Eroica,” second movement, the funeral march. Let it thread through the other melodies and weave them together–subtle, haunting, almost imperceptible, yet always present. Let the music become a requiem, an atonement...
When did I know? Not in 1933, when Goebbels appointed me to the Reich Chamber of Culture. They gave me a grand-sounding, fatuous title: President of the Music Chamber. Yet even within the framework of that nonsensical bureaucracy, I believed I could do a good work, guarding German music from those who wanted to use it for populist propaganda.
Stefan Zweig wrote to me that year, “Politics pass, the arts live on.” And why should I not have believed it? I was already an old man; I had worked for both the boorish Kaiser and the ineffectual Weimar Republic. Neither had survived, but I had, and so had German music.
Yet even then, there were ominous undertones. A suggestion that Mendelssohn’s music should not be performed. An insinuation–a mere whisper, at first–that perhaps I should not have a Jewish librettist. Nonsense, it seemed to me; there had always been a vein of antisemitism in German life. Nothing had ever come of it.
Zweig understood long before I did, and he refused to collaborate with me on future operas. I thought his obstinacy absurd–surely he overestimated the seriousness of the situation? But by the time they compelled me to resign for the crime of including Zweig’s name in a programme book...
Then I began to understand.
Out of simple themes, something blossoms, rich with polyphony. Twenty-three separate string voices: violins, violas, cellos, basses. The melodies dance lightly, like echoes of old Viennese waltzes. Perhaps this sort of joy is only an echo of the past, a whisper of what was. But it is joy, nevertheless.
“The world looks very different, Dr. Strauss, from the way you imagine it in your study in Garmisch.” Goebbels himself once said that to me, and no doubt he was correct. Here at my curved desk, surrounded by the treasures of south German art, the world seems far away. Outside the window, the green foothills sweep upward to the Bavarian mountains, which do not change.
I occupied myself with composition, believing each new opera would be my last. I dealt with the ordinary problems of libretti, working first with Joseph Gregor, then Clemens Krauss. I accepted the knowledge that I was out of favor, knowing that it would not interfere with the performance of my work.
Did I make compromises to retain some slight influence with an increasingly brutish Reich? Of course I did. But with a Jewish daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, what other choice could I have made? I am a German, and will always be a German. I could not run away.
Capriccio premiered in Munich in 1942, during the air-raids. The theatergoers risked their lives to come out at night in the blacked-out city, walking through the dark by dim blue torch-light. Yet they came, anyway, to hear the witty, elegant music of a world almost lost to them.
C minor returns–first insinuating itself between the other melodies, then in a sudden, violent onslaught. And now the chords are harsh, relentless and merciless, and beauty is entwined with despair...
All is at an end. I am sorry to have lived this long, to know what I now know. Sometimes, after all, we cannot separate art from politics. The brutal Third Reich is dying, but with it also dies the best of European culture. The Munich Court Theatre, where Wagner premiered Tristan and I spent almost all my life; the Lindoper in Berlin; the Dresden State Opera, along with all the architectural treasures of that incomparable city; and now the Vienna Opera: all gone! How can one find consolation for such inconsolable loss?
Metamorphosis. Goethe once compared his works to seeds, springing to life, blossoming and dying, to become seeds once more. Perhaps that is true, even when there are no words–only music.
C minor has won the battle. Now the chords sink and fall, dying away. The fragment of “Eroica” returns in the bass, and I write below it: “In memoriam!” There. It is done. Perhaps this is the artist’s consolation, after all: that he can say, “Out of the fires of death and destruction–out of the funeral pyre of history–I HAVE CREATED.”
NOTE: The composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was a private man, not given to great display of emotion, and his complex relationship with the Third Reich has often been misunderstood. He composed his profoundly moving Metamorphosen: Study for 23 Solo Strings as an elegy for the cultural heritage of Europe that was lost in World War II. On the final page of the score, the bass line quotes the “Funeral March” theme from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica.”
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