The Languid Flowing of Time
Works by Richard Strauss
After the end: Sonatina No. 1 for 16 Wind Instruments
In Jean Renoir’s film Grand Illusion (1937) there is a remarkable scene in which the wounded German officer and his French counterpart Boeldieu, caught in the thick of the Great War, muse over the downfall of the ancien régime. The two military aristocrats feel out of step with the times – the spirit of the Pour le Mérite is past, the erstwhile European splendour remains visible only in the rear-view mirror. Renoir set this quiet elegy – a cultural elite mourning the vanishing of the old Europe – during World War I, but it unquestionably also represented the mood of dark foreboding that was plaguing French intellectuals in 1937.
We know relatively little about how Richard Strauss felt at the time, but he may have sensed that something was coming to an end: both in his immediate surroundings and in his career as a musician. When one speaks of Strauss’s late works, one is complying with the architecture that he himself drafted for his biography. The subtitle of the Sonatina No. 1 in F major for 16 Wind Instruments (1943) is thus intended metaphorically: from a medical standpoint, there wasn’t much to report “from the workshop of an invalid”. Although his wife was facing some physical problems in 1943, Strauss himself was quite a healthy “invalid”. The self-stylization rather had to do with a mood. All his late compositions were simply “workshop efforts to prevent the right wrist, now freed from the baton, from falling asleep prematurely”. At the same time, he ventured a probing, perhaps even marvelling backward glance at his own creative origins: initially he had intended to call the Sonatina his second suite for wind, thereby referring directly to the Suite op. 4 written nearly 60 years earlier.
In the opening Allegro moderato, the motifs have only been introduced before they are caught up in an undertow. Countless harmonically glistening cantilenas grow into one another. As the movement modulates into the remotest spheres, it becomes impossible to discern a destination in the musical flow. The middle movements, Romance and Minuet, establish a connection to the classical symphony, their formal simplicity and equilibrium creating an oasis of tranquillity after the constantly rushing stream of new impulses with which the Sonatina begins. The Finale again teems with ideas, the wind writing lit up with the most diverse motivic and thematic inventions. The fugato also breaks off quickly, making room for an espressivo melody. A mighty presto passage closes the work.
Love and exposed rhythms: Three Hymns, op. 71
They certainly were not mere finger exercises, but the Three Hymns, op. 71 (1921) on texts by Hölderlin also belong to a time of artistic reorientation. Strauss had long since given up writing the piano and orchestral songs that had occupied him around the turn of the century, often in order to produce new material he could perform in chamber-music concerts with his wife, the singer Pauline de Ahna, and later orchestrate. After 1906 another form of text setting became the focus of his interest: opera. There were other reasons for his avoiding that genre for so long. He was embroiled in a gruelling dispute with his publishers over the copyright on his songs. Moreover, in 1906 his wife had withdrawn from public performance as a soprano. Following some piano songs on texts by Shakespeare and Goethe, Strauss now turned to three poems by the most modern of classicists: Hölderlin.
Hölderlin’s richly coloured, rhythmically flexible language offered him a pithy physiognomy for mapping out a vocal line. He hewed closely to Hölderlin’s rhythms and judiciously incorporated expansive coloratura. With their finely crafted, memorable vocal writing, the Three Hymns are not just precursors of the far more often heard Four Last Songs; they also, in a sense, anticipate the Hölderlin boom of the 1960s and 70s, in the wake of which composers of every stripe, from Wolfgang Rihm to Luigi Nono, were inspired by the structure-lending power of the Swabian poet’s language.
Strauss used his own compositions for orientation in interpreting the work’s content. When Hölderlin depicts love’s all-embracing potency in the Hymn to Love (“Against the wild mountains it arranges the gentle valleys”), Strauss refers to his Alpine Symphony. In the second song, Return to the Homeland, he can relate the text to Death and Transfiguration when Hölderlin speaks of the transience of youth: “How long it has been, oh how long! Childhood peace is gone, and gone are youth and joy and pleasure.” Each of the songs seeks continuity in the face of constant flux. Here it is the homeland that can offer consolation to bridge the distance from one’s own childhood. In the first song it is love than can help one forget “the languid flowing of time”.
“Everything disperses like mist and dreams”: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, op. 59
Forgetting time is more complicated in Der Rosenkavalier (1909-10). The opera is set in mid-18th century Vienna. The young aristocrat Octavian (sung by a mezzo-soprano) has an affair with the older Marschallin. Baron Ochs, a cousin of the Marschallin but, unlike her, absolutely uncultured, wants to marry young Sophie. The Marschallin recommends Octavian as go-between for the marriage proposal, while fully aware of the power of love and that her own love for Octavian has no future; sooner or later he will find his way to the girl. Concert excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier began to appear almost immediately after the premiere – some adapted by Strauss himself, many more the work of others. It is uncertain who arranged the suite heard here. The most plausible theory is that it was made by the Polish conductor Artur Rodziński before he performed it in 1944 as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
The suite begins like the opera: with horns and passionate strings evoking an intimate scene between Octavian and the Marschallin. A series of fluorescing chords on alternately overlaid flutes, violins, harps and celesta illustrates Octavian’s presentation of the Silver Rose to Sophie. The ensuing turbulent music is associated with Ochs’s realization that Octavian is also interested in Sophie. It leads to the sequence of waltzes heard in the opera’s second act as Ochs woos her. At this point the suite departs from the opera’s chronology, jumping back to the beginning of the second act, then to an orchestral version of the famous trio and duet from the end of the opera. The coda presents the waltz from the beginning of the third act.
“Time is a strange thing.” This pronouncement of the Marschallin is more than an older lady’s words of wisdom. It refers to the “unsalvageable ego” which the pioneering thinker of Viennese modernism Hermann Bahr had postulated in a 1903 essay by that name. Alluding to the physicist Ernst Mach, Bahr maintained that sensory impressions like colours, sounds and time are all transitory. Individual moods, memories and thoughts appear only as temporary states, the “ego” as a bundle of constantly changing perceptions. The Marschallin, to be sure, formulates this turn-of-the-century attitude towards life more beautifully, and it finds its fullest expression in Richard Strauss’s music: “I am in the mood when I really sense the weakness of all temporal things. In the depths of my heart I sense that one should keep nothing, that one can grasp nothing, how everything runs between the fingers, how everything we grasp at dissolves, how everything disperses like mist and dreams.”