Richard Strauss was an easy-going fellow with a great sense of humor who liked playing cards. His music, the overripe fruit of Late Romanticism, is anything but easy-going. It can be eerie, noisy, and disgusting; erotic, tempestuous, and achingly beautiful; and also refined, humorous, even sublime. But the world changed during Strauss’s lifetime, and Germany in the time period between 1864 and 1949 embodied more contradictions than Strauss did himself. When his career began, he was an upstart, a radical, and a dangerous subversive; when he died, he was the grand old man of classical music, the last composer carrying the age-old torch of tonality.
Strauss, who was born in Munich in 1864, grew up in a respectable bourgeois family. His father played the French horn and his mother was insane. Papa Strauss had conservative musical tastes and disapproved of music that told a story, especially the operas of Richard Wagner. (He played the challenging horn parts in Wagner’s operas year after year anyway.) Needless to say, the elder Strauss was annoyed by his son, who adored Wagner and only wrote music that told a story. When Richard played his father the score of his opera Salome, the old man said, “It sounds like you have flies crawling around in your pants.”
Most of Richard Strauss’s works are tone poems and operas, genres which use music to tell a story. Before 1900, Strauss was an assistant conductor and rehearsal pianist with various German orchestras and opera houses. During this time, he composed a series of tone poems, pieces for symphony orchestra that use music to illustrate a story. Everyone knows the opening of Strauss’s tone poem Thus Spake Zarathustra, but he also wrote tone poems on Macbeth, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, and A Hero’s Life.
The hero in this last work is Strauss himself; the piece is a musical autobiography that quotes from his earlier works and portrays Strauss and his wife in music. Strauss explored his odd relationship with his wife later in his Domestic Symphony and in Intermezzo, an opera about marital bickering. While assistant conductor at the Munich Opera, he had offered voice lessons to an attractive soprano. She took him up on the offer and soon became his leading lady of choice. It is said that during a rehearsal of his opera Guntram, Strauss and Pauline became involved in a screaming brawl so loud they had to adjourn into her dressing room. They emerged shortly after, engaged. Pauline was a strong, determined woman, the daughter of an army general, and she took it upon herself to oversee every detail of her husband’s life.
After the turn of the century, Strauss put his efforts into writing operas, still using music to tell a story but now with text and visuals to help with the story-telling. Writing operas turned out to be more profitable than assistant conducting; in 1909, the year of Strauss’s opera Elektra, a magazine article said “Richard Strauss is making so much money with his operas that he is likely to become the richest composer who ever lived.” The Strauss operas Salome and Elektra, both in one act, shocked, disgusted, horrified, and electrified audiences when they were first performed. Strauss took up less depraved and grisly subjects for later operas.
Strauss’s next operas, collaborations with the great German writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were more Mozartean than Wagnerian. Together they wrote the drawing-room comedy Der Rosenkavalier, set in a nostalgic fantasy of eighteenth-century Vienna—almost an homage to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Next, they created the fascinating and unique Ariadne auf Naxos, which combines Strauss’s three favorite topics: ancient myth, a late Rococo aristocratic world that never really existed, and ruminations about the nature of art. In Ariadne Strauss also strictly limited his instrumental resources; instead of writing for an orchestra of 111 (as in Elektra) he wrote for 35—and demonstrated that he could do more with less. Strauss wrote a total of fifteen operas, six of which are regularly performed at opera houses around the world.
As the leading German composer during the 1930s, Strauss accepted a post with the Third Reich. His relationship with the Nazi party has confused (and embarrassed) his biographers, many of whom describe Strauss as politically apathetic. The great conductor Toscanini, a noted enemy of fascism, described him thus: “For Strauss the composer, I take my hat off. For Strauss the man, I put it on again.” Strauss may have thought that, as a musician, politics was beneath him. His beautiful Metamorphosen, an elegy for string orchestra composed in Switzerland in the late 1940s, is a tribute to the German soldiers killed in the war.
Which is more important in opera, the music or the words? Most Americans (who typically hear operas sung in languages they don’t understand) have no problem answering this age-old question; it’s the music, of course! Often we don’t even know the names of our favorite operas’ librettists. And with some operas, that makes sense, because some libretti really only exist to serve as the scaffolding supporting a magnificent musical structure.
Not so with the operas of Richard Strauss. His greatest operas are collaborations with the brilliant Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, one of the most talented writers ever to work in opera. Their partnership was first formed when Strauss attended a performance of Hofmannsthal’s translation/adaptation of Elektra, a Greek tragedy by Sophocles. The composer loved the translation and asked Hofmannsthal if he could set it to music. Their first original opera was Der Rosenkavalier, the libretto of which is one of the masterpieces of German literature. They also created Ariadne auf Naxos, the breathtaking fantasy Die Frau ohne Schatten, and the comedy Arabella. Hofmannsthal, a notoriously neurotic and fragile man, died as they were putting the finishing touches on Arabella. Strauss survived him by twenty years and continued to write operas with libretti by other writers. None of them have proven as successful or popular as his collaborations with Hofmannsthal.
How odd, particularly when you consider that Strauss and Hofmannsthal didn’t much like each other! Both understood they were masters of their respective crafts, and successful when they worked together; yet Strauss believed it was the magic of his music that made their operas great, whereas Hofmannsthal thought it was the power of his poetry. There was a fundamental aesthetic gulf between the two: Hofmannsthal felt Strauss was insensitive, unrefined, vulgar, and greedy; Strauss found Hofmannsthal unfriendly and hypersensitive, and his libretti baffling and incomprehensible. Because they rarely met, most of their collaboration took place through letters. Their correspondance has been published in many languages, and it’s fascinating to watch these two titans grapple with each other and reach truce after truce. Perhaps Ariadne, their most unusual creation, presents the two of them incarnate as those artistic enemies whose fates are bound together, the hypersensitive Composer and the earthy, practical Zerbinetta.
Ariadne auf Naxos began life as a favor. In 1911, the great German theater director Max Reinhardt was producing his own new translation of Molière’s seventeenth-century play The Bourgeois Gentleman and called in a favor from Strauss’s librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The Bourgeois Gentleman—which concerns the attempts of a nouveau riche wanna-be to convince everyone that he is a cultured sophisticate—calls for a lavish entertainment produced at the home of M. Jourdain, the wealthy boor. Reinhardt asked Hofmannsthal (and Strauss) to supply a short opera on the Ariadne myth that could be presented by M. Jourdain. The resulting show proved unsuccessful: not only was it hugely expensive (requiring a theater company, an opera company, and a ballet company for one evening’s entertainment), the audiences didn’t know what to make of it. The opera audiences were bored by the play, the theater audiences were bored with the opera, and everybody hated the ballet.
Richard Strauss, who had thought the whole idea was pretty half-baked, nevertheless salvaged some of the music he had written and made it into an orchestral suite. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, perhaps inspired by the difficulty of getting the three production companies to cooperate, came up with the idea for the Ariadne prologue. He convinced Strauss to revisit the idea, and they created the opera Ariadne auf Naxos that we have today. Since its 1916 premiere the opera, in its current shape, has challenged performers and delighted audiences worldwide.
Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, king of Crete, whose wife gave birth to a half-man half-bull known as the Minotaur. The father was Poseidon, which didn’t make Minos any fonder of his wife’s strange child. He had his cleverest inventor, Daedalus, build a maze known as the Labyrinth; the Minotaur was dropped into the Labyrinth, and could never find its way out. Every year Minos fed the creature seven young men and seven young women, sent to Crete as tribute from Athens.
One year Theseus, Prince of Athens, decided to go as one of the seven young men in the hopes that he could kill the monster and end this shameful tradition of sacrifice. His father Aegeus, king of Athens, asked him not to go, but Theseus couldn’t be dissuaded. He promised his father he would return in triumph, flying white sails to indicate his victory.
When Theseus arrived in Crete, he immediately seduced Princess Ariadne. The lovestruck princess, eager to save him from the monster, asked Daedalus for advice. The inventor told her the secret of the maze: Theseus must unwind a spool of thread as he entered the maze, and use it to find his way out after he had killed the creature. Theseus did so, and eloped with Ariadne, who feared her father’s anger. (Minos was indeed furious. When he figured out Daedalus’s role in Theseus’s escape, he imprisoned the inventor and his boy, Icarus, in the Labyrinth—this time without any spool of thread. Daedalus made wings out of feathers and wax for his son and himself, and the two attempted to fly toward freedom; but young Icarus, ecstatic with the ability to fly, flew too close to the sun. The heat melted his wax wings and he fell to his death in the ocean. But that’s another story.)
Theseus, sailing back to Athens, grew tired of Ariadne and marooned her on a desert island. He also forgot to change the color of his sails as he returned, so when his father Aegeus saw the ship returning with the black sails of death he assumed his son had been killed by the monster and hurled himself off a cliff into the sea that now bears his name (the Aegean). Thus Theseus lost his father and became king of Athens.
As for Ariadne, it wasn’t long before Bacchus (also known as Dionysus) came by her desert island. Bacchus was the son of Zeus by the mortal Semele, who agreed to have sex with Zeus if he promised to give her anything she asked of him. When the time came, she asked to behold Zeus seated on his throne atop Olympus, and the sight of the god in all his splendor killed her. Bacchus, her son, had just escaped from the island of the sorceress Circe (well-known from Homer’s Odyssey) when he found Ariadne’s island and whisked the princess off to more great mythic adventures.
Now, all this has very little to do with Strauss’s opera Ariadne; but isn’t it a great story?
Zerbinetta and her friends are performers of the centuries-old Italian form of improvised comedy known as commedia dell’arte. Commedia shows were like live Warner Brothers cartoons. You know how all those cartoons have the same characters and the same basic gags, even if the plots vary slightly from cartoon to cartoon? How the Road Runner is always leading the coyote to fall off a cliff, and Bugs Bunny is forever dressing up in drag and fooling Elmer Fudd? That’s how commedia dell’arte works, too. Famous commedia characters include Harlequin, the zany yet loveable servant; Brighella, the sinister, lazy servant; Scaramuccio, the boastful coward; Truffaldino, who is always hungry; and of course the sassy, sexy female servant, usually known as Columbine but here called Zerbinetta. Commedia plays were by and large improvised. The actors used their stock jokes and bits of slapstick to flesh out a simple plot, usually about young love outwitting aged tyranny, then toured their shows from town to town. The roots of commedia dell’arte reach back to the comedy of ancient Rome, and the form itself reached its heyday during the Italian Renaissance. It profoundly influenced not only comic opera but also the plays of Shakespeare and Molière.
The first act of Ariadne auf Naxos, known as the Prologue, depicts all the intrigue happening backstage one evening at the private theater of the richest man in Vienna. It’s a unique piece of music drama, and can be hilarious—especially if you’re familiar with the behind-the-scenes world that it’s satirizing. We witness a battle between a ludicrous tenor and a self-important wigmaker, watch the tenor and the soprano each scheme to have the other’s role cut, smirk as an obnoxious lackey torments the neurotic Composer, and (hopefully) take the struggle between Zerbinetta and the Composer more seriously. The heart of the opera lies in their debate, and the difference between the tragic and comic approaches to life.
For much of the eighteenth century, when Ariadne is set, all operas were either entirely serious or entirely comic, and no one performing company produced both kinds of show. The Composer—who seems kind of a cross between Mozart and Wagner—has written an opera seria on a theme dear to his heart, eternal love. The Italian comedians were ready to present a simple opera buffa about Fickle Zerbinetta, with room for improvised comedy. When the shows are combined, in the second half of Ariadne auf Naxos, you’ll notice the various comic and tragic characters don’t really interact literally, although they do metaphorically. In fact, both plots are about a girl finding a new lover: Harlekin for Zerbinetta, and Bacchus for Ariadne.
The music of Ariadne auf Naxos is miraculous. Richard Strauss, known before World War One for his vast, overstuffed orchestral scores with too many instruments and too much going on, wrote Ariadne for a small orchestra, like one you might find in an eighteenth-century opera by Mozart—and proved the old adage, “Less is more.” After the chatty Prologue, which introduces all the principal musical motifs and successfully depicts several fascinating characters, Strauss gives us an opera featuring simple folk tunes, lullabies, quirky comic numbers, heartbreaking laments, a magnificent love duet, one of the most fiendishly challenging coloratura arias ever written, and a rapturous climax of orgasmic ecstasy.
Listen, in the Prologue, for the wild emotional ups-and-downs of the Composer, one of Strauss’s most memorable characters. After years of working in opera houses, Strauss had come to hate tenors and baritones. So he wrote many of the greatest male characters in his operas for mezzo-sopranos. The Composer is a young man, passionate about his art but also at the mercy of his hormones, and the pretty Zerbinetta finds it easy to bend him to her will. He closes the Prologue with a glorious and memorable hymn to the power of music.
Although the Composer is clearly not a projection of Richard Strauss (in fact the character has more in common with Hugo von Homfansthal), the opera he has written is Strauss through and through. Strauss’s penchant for Late Romantic emotionalism comes through in the music for the mythic heroine Ariadne, the idealized woman who can love only once. She opens the opera with a lament of great beauty, prays for the arrival of Hermes, god of death, in a monologue of Wagnerian power, and finally unites with Bacchus in a long love duet that builds to an astonishing climax. But while the mythic characters are singing all this serious music, the comedians are happily chirping lots of silly comic music. First, Harlekin makes Zerbinetta jealous by singing a pretty love song to Ariadne (who ignores him); then Strauss gives us two charming quintets for the comedians, framing Zerbinetta’s famous aria “Grossmächtige Prinzessin.” In this vast recitative and aria, which demands every vocal acrobatic the coloratura soprano can perform, Zerbinetta tries to convince Ariadne she will love again. True, men are fiends, she sings; but each time a new man appears before her, she is struck dumb, as if in the presence of a god.
Deutsche Gramophon / Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli
Prima Donna/Ariadne: Deborah Voigt
Composer: Anne Sofie von Otter
Zerbinetta: Natalie Dessay
EMI / Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
Prima Donna/Ariadne: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Composer: Irmgard Seefried
Zerbinetta: Rita Streich