Between Heaven and Earth

The Mozart admirer Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss, fotografiert von Rudolph Dührkoop (1848-1918)
(Photo: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek / Dietmar Katz CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The operatic tradition at the Salzburg Festival began in 1922 with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, conducted by Richard Strauss. Operas by Mozart and Strauss dominate the Festival programme to this day, although one can ask oneself how well these seemingly contrasting musical and expressive worlds actually harmonize with each other. The answer is: perfectly! – when one recalls Strauss’s deep admiration for Mozart.

Richard Strauss deeply admired Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his “infinitely fine and richly structured spiritual landscape”. Mozart’s “melodies,” Strauss wrote, were “poised between heaven and earth, between the mortal and the immortal, the deepest penetration of artistic imagination into the final mysteries.” He had loved Mozart’s bright transparency and consummate melodic structure since his youth.

Strauss made his debut as a pianist in Meiningen with Mozart’s C minor Concerto, as a conductor he particularly admired Così fan tutte, and he tackled Idomeneo as an arranger. Of course, Strauss did not base Mozart’s “divinity” solely on the well-balanced equilibrium of his melodies but on his emotional richness as well – particularly in the late works, such as the “Haffner” Symphony. As a 17-year-old, he composed a serenade for winds that emulated Mozart’s “Gran Partita”. And, at almost 80, he drew on Mozart again with wind sonatinas and concert works.

Indeed, during the chaos of the war and post-war years, in his old age Strauss’s notes often revolved around the “miracle of Mozart”, the “incredible fascination of Mozart’s melodies”, with their “revelations of the innermost soul of the world”. His yearning for Apollonian clarity seemed to become even stronger the more the world outside sank in ruins. The Metamorphosen are a devastating reflection of despair and disorientation in the face of wartime destruction, but also of the quiet hope for new growth out of the ruins.

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