Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma

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9780521027748: Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma

Was Richard Strauss the most incandescent composer of the twentieth century or merely a bourgeoisie artist and Nazi sympathizer? For the fifty years since his death on September 8, 1949, Richard Strauss has remained dogmatically elusive in the wider body of musical and historical criticism. Lauded as nothing less than the "greatest musical figure" of his time by Canadian musician, Glenn Gould, in 1962, Strauss also has attracted his share of posthumous epithets: in summary, an artist who lived off his own fat during his later years. As recently as 1995, the English critic Rodney Milnes wrote, "the court of posterity is still reserving judgment." In Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma, biographer Michael Kennedy demonstrates that the many varying shades of criticism that have painted this figure in the past half century resemble the similar understandings and misunderstandings held by his contemporaries--perceptions that touched almost every aspect of Strauss' life and career. Introducing his detailed work more as a broad explication than a firm answer to the Straussian riddle, Kennedy's scope includes the exuberant, extroverted Strauss of young adulthood as well as the phlegmatic and aloof middle-aged man who resembled a "prosperous bank manager;" the arch-fiend of modernism and the composer who redefined the term; a man who professed to lack all spiritual curiosity and a musician who penned the touching ballet Der Kometentanz; an at times almost humble family man and an artist who claimed to be as interesting as Napoleon and Alexander the Great. Kennedy clearly elucidates his enigmatic subject by building his analysis around the few constants in Strauss' life: his profound admiration for German culture, his dependence on his own family for guidance, and his "Nietzschean total absorption in art." This frame offers everyone from Straussian scholars to general readers an insightful and easy-to-follow biographical narrative. Kennedy also deals at length with Strauss' problematic relationship with Nazi authorities, detailing his incompatible roles as the father-in-law of a Jewish woman and as one of the country's leading composers. Michael Kennedy is the chief music critic of the (London) Sunday Telegraph and the author of many books about music.

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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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Book Description CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, United Kingdom, 2006. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reissue. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****.This book re-evaluates a figure whom the author considers to be the greatest composer of the twentieth century. Kennedy deals fully with Strauss s life as leading composer and national figure in the Third Reich, during which he was both feted and cold-shouldered by the authorities. In putting this period into perspective he draws heavily on hitherto ignored material, including Strauss s own letters and diaries. In addition he reveals much about Strauss s long, happy but tempestuous marriage to the soprano Pauline de Ahna as well as tracing the important relationships to his librettists Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Gregor and Clemens Krauss. Kennedy reassesses the man and the music, revealing a picture of a level-headed, practical and extremely versatile musician - a great conductor as well as a great composer. Bookseller Inventory # AAV9780521027748

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