Richard Strauss (Master Musicians Series)

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9780028645179: Richard Strauss (Master Musicians Series)
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"I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time," wrote Richard Strauss in 1924. "I want to create joy. I need it." In a career that extended from the age of Wagner and Brahms to the middle of the twentieth century, Strauss wrote music that kept alive the German Romantic ideals of melody and emotional expressiveness. Among his fifteen operas are the beloved Der Rosenkavalier with its bittersweet evocation of bygone days in imperial Vienna, the ingenious Ariadne auf Naxos, and other works that hold the stage to this day. His brilliant tone poems for orchestra include such staples of the repertory as Death and Transfiguration, Don Juan, Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, and Also sprach Zarathustra - source of the famous "sunrise" music used in the film 2001. A distinguished composer of songs, chamber music, and ballets as well, Strauss was also one of the outstanding conductors of his time, directing opera companies in Weimar, Munich, Berlin, and Vienna.
In his young manhood, Strauss was regarded by many as a leader of the dissonant avant-garde; his early operas Salome and Elektra feature a harmonic vocabulary that ventures to the brink of the atonal, as well as subject matter considered scandalous at the time. But by the 1930s, Strauss's refusal to follow in the footsteps of Schoenberg and the modernists had led to his being written off as a reactionary. Michael Kennedy challenges this verdict with a comprehensive appreciation of Strauss's music and an evenhanded assessment of his life, including his tempestuous marriage to Pauline de Ahna and his controversial relationship with the Nazi regime. Contradicting the received opinion that Strauss's genius declined after Der Rosenkavalier, this authoritative study makes the case for Strauss as a key figure in the history of the last hundred years of music, widely misrepresented and misunderstood.

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Review:

There are few composers whose critical stock has roller-coastered as dramatically as that of Richard Strauss, both during his lifetime and in the five decades since his death in 1949. Once considered a dangerous firebrand of the avant-garde--his early masterpiece Salome was given the equivalent of an X rating--Strauss remained an exceedingly prolific composer throughout his long career, yet lived to be "written off as an extinct volcano." The painful story of his involvement with the Third Reich further cast a pall over his final years. But in the past two decades, a gradual reassessment has been underway--along with a recuperation of his neglected later works--and the field is ripe for a critically insightful overview of Strauss's achievement.

Such is the goal of Michael Kennedy, a longtime advocate of Strauss, in his new biography, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Kennedy, the Sunday Telegraph's music critic and author of several other musical biographies--including an earlier study of the composer as well as illuminating articles and CD booklets on his music--here undertakes to penetrate the contradictions and see the man whole. Through his impressive access to diaries, letters, and living relatives, he posits an underlying consistency of attitude that made "art the reality in [Strauss's] life." The central enigma about the composer that fascinates Kennedy is the "disparity between man and musician," the paradox that this fundamentally aloof and reserved person, dedicated to bourgeois stability, could produce music of such overpowering passion.

While steering clear of Freudian reductionism, Kennedy reveals the crucial significance of Strauss's mother's nervous instability--she was eventually committed to various sanatoriums--and the centrality of the work ethic inherited from his father. The result was to make music "Strauss's means of escape ... and in much of his music he wore a mask." Yet for all his aloofness, Strauss "let [the mask] slip"--another aspect of the enigma surrounding him--in such compositions as Don Quixote ("the most profound" of his orchestral works) or the pervasively autobiographical Sinfonia Domestica, Intermezzo, and Capriccio, which Kennedy counts as Strauss's greatest achievement for the lyrical stage.

Kennedy is particularly persuasive in his high estimation of the post-Rosenkavalier output and the undiminished quest for artistic innovation that they continued to exemplify--above all in Strauss's development of a fluently conversational style in his operas. Although commentary on individual works involves generally concise summations, many observations sparkle with insight, and Kennedy continually sheds light on neglected gems among Strauss's output. The rapport with Hofmannsthal and his other librettists is admirably clarified, and the remarkably well-read Strauss emerges as a more imposingly intellectual figure, steeped in literature and philosophy, than he is usually depicted. We learn of his obsession with the card game skat and of his disdainful attitude toward the new medium of film. Kennedy similarly demystifies much of the received opinion that has developed around the composer, particularly in his level-headed portrait of his wife, Pauline. The fundamental happiness of their lifelong relationship emerges as a context indispensable to Strauss's creative focus.

Kennedy devotes a significant portion of the book to the composer's position as president of the Reich Music Chamber and subsequent fall from grace both with the Nazis and in world opinion. Here the author aims to offer perspective by carefully detailing the facts and documentary evidence from the time. In his view, Strauss becomes a "tragic figure, symbolising the struggle to preserve beauty and style in Western European culture" against emerging barbarism. Yet, as throughout the book, Kennedy's abiding sympathy with Strauss at times veers close to a kind of special pleading that invites skepticism. For all that, his style is admirably lucid, and his biography largely succeeds in pointing to a greatness that "has not yet been fully understood and discovered." --Thomas May

Book Description:

This first detailed biography of Strauss for many years re-assesses the man and his music half a century after his death, drawing on much hitherto ignored material. Kennedy considers fully the period during the Third Reich when Strauss was first feted and then cold-shouldered by the authorities, as well as describing his long, happy but tempestuous marriage. A picture emerges of a level-headed, practical and extremely versatile musician--a great conductor as well as a great composer.

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