On the morning of 30 April 1945, the same day that Adolf Hitler committed suicide in an underground bunker in Berlin, Major John Kramers of the US Army 103rd Infantry Division and his men called on the shuttered villa at Zöppritzstrasse 42 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps with a view to headquarter his men there.
He was greeted by the elderly Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949), his wife Pauline de Ahna and members of their family. “I am the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome” Strauss announced, in English. In spite of his advanced years, Strauss was still sharp, vigorous and charming; food was served, and he played extracts from Der Rosenkavalier at the piano. A few hours later, Kramer received orders to move on and a post was established elsewhere in the area.
Strauss’s final years were troubled, not by ill-health or personal tragedy but by deep uncertainties about the future, worries about money and a frustrating nomadic lifestyle (he spent much of the last four years of his life living out of suitcases). But this period, often called his ‘Indian summer’, did coincide with an astonishing outpouring of masterworks, from the elegiac Metamorphosen, the sublime Second Horn Concerto and Oboe Concerto to the ravishingly beautiful, Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs).
Strauss became something of a celebrity with the Americans at Garmisch-Partenkirchen and received several military visitors. He tired of questions about a statue of Beethoven, once muttering “If they ask one more time, I’m telling them it’s Hitler’s father!” One soldier and former oboist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, John de Lancie, enquired whether he had ever thought of writing an Oboe Concerto. Strauss replied that he hadn’t – but went on to do just that. The young jazz composer Dave Brubeck was stationed with the army nearby and would often go past Strauss’s home but “never had the nerve to go knock at his door”.
In October 1945, Strauss received permission to leave his villa to live in Switzerland, staying weeks at a time in hotels in Pontresina, Lugano and finally Montreux at the Palace Hotel in 1947. He was under investigation by a ‘denazification tribunal’ for his collaboration with the Nazi regime and although finally exonerated in June 1948 of any charges of complicity, he found it difficult to get his works performed during his years of exile and was treated as a social pariah. The author and poet Hermann Hesse summed up the unease; Hesse was initially reluctant to meet him saying “we have no right to place great blame on him. But I believe we have the right to distance ourselves from him.”
Strauss disliked politics but was a great pragmatist who looked after his own interests (especially money) and liked to create a space around him where he could just get on with the business of composing with few distractions. When he was appointed without warning to the post of President of the Reichsmusikkammer in November 1933 by Joseph Goebbels, he genuinely thought he could do some good and “prevent worse misfortunes, if from now onwards German musical life were going to be … ‘reorganized’ by amateurs and ignorant place-seekers”. A young Hitler had attended the Austrian premiere of his opera Salome in Graz in 1906 and thought highly of the work. Presumably Strauss thought he had some leverage with him (he didn’t). Writing to his family he said “I made music under the Kaiser … I’ll survive under this one as well”.
It didn’t take long for things to go pear-shaped. He blatantly ignored the bans on performing works by the Jewish composers Mendelssohn, Mahler and others but his fall from grace came about for his acerbic correspondence intercepted by the Gestapo in 1935 with Stefan Zweig, his Jewish friend and the librettist for his comic opera Die schweigsame Frau. (The Oscar-winning film Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by this brilliant writer who later committed suicide in 1942 with his wife while refugees in Petrópolis, Brazil). Strauss wrote a grovelling letter of apology to Hitler for his remarks and requested to see him but he never received a reply. He was sacked from the Reichsmusikkammer in 1935 but continued to write music. As late as 1944, Goebbels would chillingly write in his diary “Unfortunately, we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic”. Strauss’s son (and his business manager) Franz had married into a Jewish family; 32 members of which were interned and later perished at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in spite of Strauss’s own interventions to have them released.
His years of peripatetic exile in Switzerland were worrisome, especially his precarious financial position; he had lost a large part of his fortune and his assets and investments overseas had been frozen. Help came in the form of a London Strauss music festival organised in October 1947 by Ernst Roth (chief editor of Boosey & Hawkes music publishers) and his old friend the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham with the BBC and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. (Beecham had conducted the London premiere of Strauss’s opera Elektra in 1910 after which a composer in the audience famously said that he was going home “to play the chord of C major 20 times to satisfy myself that it still exists”). The festival was a great success; it was the first time Strauss had travelled by plane and people were impressed with the vitality and enthusiasm of this spritely 83 year old. He wisely kept his head down in public and gave monosyllabic press interviews, one journalist even asking how it felt “to be the composer of the Blue Danube Waltz”.
In November 1947, his mood darkened and he showed the first signs of a bladder infection that would finally carry him off but he managed to complete his Duett Concertino for clarinet and bassoon. His son Franz tried to cheer him up. “Papa, stop writing letters and brooding. It does no good. Write a few nice songs instead.”Franz reasoned that as there were fewer opera houses (those in Munich, Berlin, Dresden, Weimar and Vienna had all been destroyed during the war) there was a bigger market for concert performances. The result of Franz’s intervention was of course, the achingly beautiful Four Last Songs, perhaps the greatest summation of his art (which, sadly, he never lived to hear). He finished the four songs on 20 September 1948 and gave them to Franz’s wife Alice, saying presumably in jest “Here are the songs your husband ordered!”. Ernst Roth published them after Strauss’s death with the title Vier letzte Lieder in the order they are usually performed today.
What is so extraordinary about these songs – which deal with life, death and rebirth – is the sense of quiet resignation and contentment, described by one music critic as “…the most consciously and most beautifully delivered Abschied (farewell) in all music”. Rarely has a soprano been given such beautiful lines; they seem to be extended love letters for his wife of over 50 years, the soprano Pauline de Ahna who sang the role of Isolde under his baton at Weimar as well as several other Wagnerian roles.
Strauss set to music three poems of Hermann Hesse (whom he did eventually meet) – Frühling, September, and Beim Schlafengehen¸and one poem by the Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff Im Abendrot. The orchestration and the balance with the voice is masterly, one critic observing that they are essentially tone poems with a soprano obbligato. The French Horn plays a important role too, perhaps as a tribute to Strauss’s own father who had played the horn for the Munich Court Opera for 49 years. For the final Im Abendrot the horn quotes the ‘idealism’ theme from Strauss’s earlier tone-poem Tod und Verklärung on the word ‘death’.
Strauss remained in Switzerland for surgery following his exoneration by the denazification tribunal and finally returned to his home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1949, visibly weakened by disease. He can be seen in a short film from his last public appearance on10 June 1949, effortlessly conducting the finale from the second and third acts of Der Rosenkavalier with a young Georg Solti in attendance. He died on 8 September 1949 and his wife Pauline followed him into the sunset eight months later, shortly before the rapturous first performance of the Four Last Songs in London with Strauss’s favoured musicians – the soprano Kirsten Flagstad under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Strauss always knew how to round off and finish a piece of music without resorting to novelty or cliché and he sometimes saved the best moments for the end (think of the glorious soprano trio from the final act of his opera Der Rosenkavalier). With the Four Last Songs it seems he had saved his best music for the end of his long life.
Published 28 November 2015 on primephonic.
pour en voir plus …