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Richard Strauss, Mozart, and Der Rosenkavalier

By Sigurd Neubauer


Richard Strauss (1864–1949) is often widely considered to be the last of the great composers. Whether it be tone-poems such as Till Eulenspiegel or Also sprach Zarathustra, or operas such as Salome or Elektra, his music has enshrined itself into both popular and high culture, and has become a benchmark of artistic excellence.

But he was also an influential conductor who shaped three generations of younger performing artists. A holder of important conducting posts in Weimar, Munich, Berlin, and Vienna throughout his long and often controversial career, Strauss was particularly feted for his readings of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756–1791) music.

His revelatory interpretations of the composer’s symphonies and operas were particularly impactful and affected profoundly the ways in which subsequent conductors interpreted these works, as Professor Raymond Holden AM, Emeritus Professor of Music at London’s Royal Academy of Music, explains in a wide-raging interview. 

A leading authority on performance practice and performance history, Holden is the author of the award-winning Richard Strauss: A Musical Life and of The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan, amongst other books.

The professor is also a conductor, broadcaster and public intellectual who has been affiliated with the Royal Academy of Music since 2005.  A native of Australia, Holden was appointed member of the Order of Australia in 2019.

Holden’s mentor and friend was the great Mozart and Strauss interpreter, Sir John Pritchard (1918–1989), a student of the legendary German conductor Fritz Busch (1890–1951).

 Busch had been heavily influenced by Strauss, and after being forced to flee his homeland in 1933 because of his outspoken anti-Nazi stance, became one of the founding fathers of Britain’s famous Glyndebourne Festival Opera the following year. 

There, as Holden explains, Busch taught a generation of musicians how to interpret Mozart’s music based on the principles that Strauss had established at Munich in 1896 with his groundbreaking performances of Don Giovanni

Busch did this through his championing of Mozart’s three Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838) operas – Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte – at Glyndebourne before World War II and by being the first conductor to make complete recordings of those works during the mid-1930s. 

“And one mustn’t forget”, as Holden points out, “that Strauss, too, made a significant contribution to Mozart’s discography by becoming the first conductor to record the composer’s last three symphonies as a unit with the Staatskapelle Berlin between 1926 and 1928.”

When reassessing Don Giovanni at Munich’s highly ornate, Baroque Residenztheater in 1896, Strauss not only consulted Mozart’s autograph score of the work, but also played on a restored fortepiano when accompanying the recitatives; probably the same fortepiano that Mozart had used at the premiere of his Idomeneo at the same theatre in 1781. “But, of course, the Residenztheater was destroyed during the war, and so, too, was the fortepiano,”  Holden laments.

“And it must be remembered that Mozart’s Munich masterpiece was also of some considerable importance to Strauss,” Holden explains, “and that it, like Così fan tutte, had fallen from the repertoire, until he championed it. In fact, Strauss created a new performing version of Idomeneo in 1931 that later brought the opera to the attention of both Busch and Pritchard.” 

“Inspired by what they heard, they quickly followed in Strauss’s footsteps, adopted the opera as something of a signature piece and made influential recordings of it. But, of course, Don Giovanni was a completely different kettle of operatic fish, as it was Mozart’s most-often-performed opera in Germany and Austria during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” 

And, as Holden also explains in his Strauss biography, it was a work that the composer-conductor returned to time and again during the dark days following World War I, as it allowed him “to … [detach] himself from [Germany’s] troubles by looking back to the halcyon days of his second Munich period, when political stability reigned and when musical innovation was the principal source of dissent at the opera house.”

Professor Holden received the Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research for his landmark biography of Strauss 

Strauss revitalized Mozart's operas Idomeneo and Cosi fan tutte

While we will be examining Strauss’ complicated relationship with the Third Reich in a separate interview with Holden, it’s necessary to consider how Strauss’ legacy is viewed today, and why the biographer argues that that legacy was not only “wide-ranging” but “influential.”

“Put simply,” Holden says, “very few composers have been able to accomplish what Strauss did. He was able to compose at will, which meant that he created his 15 operas, nine tone poems, immense quantity of songs, numerous chamber works and vast array of other pieces with comparative ease.”

For those enjoying Strauss’ aesthetic, it’s clear that, “He was equally successful in every genre in which he composed, and that he established in the process new technical and interpretative standards in both the opera house and the concert hall. To compose with such a tremendous facility is very rare indeed, and is only comparable to his great hero Mozart, and, to a lesser extent, Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975),” the professor explains.

A celebrated, and gracious public intellectual, Holden is a conductor, broadcaster, and lecturer
Strauss, Mozart, and the 18th century 

About what surprised Holden the most about his research and its findings,  the scholar explains:

“As I was the first scholar-performer to recognize the importance of conductors’ marked scores and annotated orchestral parts, and as I belonged to a Mozart tradition that included Fritz Busch and Sir John Pritchard, I was keen to explore my own artistic roots. When I opened Strauss’ score of Mozart’s 29th Symphony for the first time, I was struck immediately by how similar the contents of that score were to my own reading of the work when it came to bowing, phrasing, articulation and tempo. And although I had never heard Busch or Pritchard conduct the piece, it was clear that Strauss’ Mozart style had been passed down to me by way of these two great artists, thanks to the composer-conductor’s influence on them. It then really struck me that by comparing Strauss’ other marked scores of Mozart with his extant recordings of those compositions that these materials could be used as teaching tools, and that students could learn a great deal from them. It was as if I had Richard Strauss standing beside me and imparting his vast wisdom to me.”

Holden was also quick to added that “Strauss fascination with the eighteenth century was not simply restricted to the music of Mozart, but also served as a model for some of his own tone-poems, such as Don Juan, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben. And after I began studying how Strauss conducted the Mozart symphonies, I immediately saw the correlation between his approach to those works and the ways in which he addressed his own symphonic compositions in performance.” 

Der Rosenkavalier premiered at the Hofoper Dresden

Some of his operas, such Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, were also beneficiaries of his interest in the Classical Period. Der Rosenkavalier was premiered at the Dresden Hofoper – presently known as Semperoper – on January, 26 1911.  

The opera is set in Vienna during the middle of the eighteenth century at a time when the Austro-Hungarian Empire  was ruled by the Habsburgs, the dynasty that did so much to shape Mozart’s life and times.

“Ariadne auf Naxos, which was heard initially in its first version at Stuttgart in 1912, and in its second version at Vienna in 1916, also drew heavily upon eighteenth-century techniques. The opera not only references the works of Mozart, but also those of Georg Benda (1722–1795), an early exponent of melodrama, the practice of juxtaposing the spoken word with musical interludes,” the professor explains.

“Mozart employed this technique in both Zaide and Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Strauss put it to good use in the Prologue of his 1916 version of Ariadne auf Naxos. And without seeming to labor this point too fully, one might not be completely surprised to learn that one of Benda’s most popular melodramas was also called Ariadne auf Naxos!,” Holden adds.

The Sleeping Ariadne in Naxos by John Vanderlyn (1775-1852)

Hugo von Hofmannsthal 

The librettist for both Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos was the great Austrian poet and playwright, Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), an artist who shared Strauss’ love of all things eighteenth century, and whose quasi-aristocratic background allowed him to identify with many of the characters whom he created. 

As Holden makes clear, Strauss’ and Hofmannsthal’s partnership has often been compared with that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte (1749–1838), and that they even described Der Rosenkavalier as “their [Le nozze di] Figaro.” But more important for Holden was the fact that, “Strauss and Hofmannsthal were men of the theatre, who went to great pains to ensure that whatever they created worked dramatically.

“Like Mozart and da Ponte, Strauss and Hofmannsthal had the ability to bring their characters to life by exploiting their very human characteristics, leaving audiences in no doubt that they were witnessing real emotions being expressed by real flesh-and-blood human beings. As a spectator, one enters their world, a world where text and music come together in perfect harmony,” the professor explains.

Citing the observation of the celebrated Irish mezzo-soprano, Dame Ann Murray, whom he interviewed in 2015 for his forthcoming book, Speaking Musically: Great Artists in Conversation at the Royal Academy of Music, Holden describes Der Rosenkavalier as “a missing-wall opera, an opera that allows you to peer into the day-to-day life of the characters in much the same way as Alfred Hitchcock allows us to do in his Rear Window.”

Der Rosenkavalier scandalized audiences because of its explicit sexual references

Holden writes in his Strauss biography that when Der Rosenkavalier was first performed “it caused a sensation with its morally challenging opening scene and its sexually explicit use of horns in the Prelude to Act I, playing erotically charged whooping figures moments before the aging Marschallin and the young Octavian are exposed on stage enjoying a moment of post-coital bliss.”

And as Holden rightly observes, “Strauss must have known that censors around the world would be scrambling for their rule books [and that in] some theaters either the bed would have to be removed or the lovers [would have to be] detached from it … [In] others, the language would have to be altered because it was considered coarse.”

But with this came notoriety, “and so eager was the public to be scandalized after the premiere that extra trains had to be scheduled between Berlin and Dresden to meet the demand,” Holden writes.

Whether or not Strauss and Hofmannsthal set out to scandalize has become a fashionable discussion  in itself, and as Holden explained in our interview, “Everyone loves to be scandalized, and it was for that very reason that the train service between Berlin and Dresden ran hot with German theatre-goers hoping to be shocked and outraged.”

And one should not forget that there is also a personal connection between Octavian’s torrid relationship with the more-mature Marschallin and Strauss’ own sexual exploits as a young man.

“As a nineteen year old in 1883, he embarked on an affair with Dora Wihan, the wife of Hanuš Wihan, the cellist for whom Antonin Dvořák wrote his famous cello concerto. And although the married Dora was only five years older than the teenage Strauss, it is not hard to find parallels between that relationship and the one that he and Hofmannsthal created in Der Rosenkavalier some thirty years later.”

Over six feet tall (182 cm), Strauss the conductor was restrained on the podium: Holden
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