Monday, January 21, 2008

The composer without a shadow?


If you want to start a fascinating thread write about Leonard Bernstein's Mass. Here are some comments from my most recent Mass post:

Movie commented - It's not a dishonest piece and I think it still works today.

I commented - But what are examples of dishonest pieces of music?

Pentimento commented - I'd say much of Strauss's oeuvre is dishonest.

I couldn't live without Metamorphosen, Capriccio or the wind concertos, and one of my most memorable, and disturbing, evenings in the opera house was Hildegard Behrens singing the title role in Salome with Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic at the 1977 Salzburg Festival. But, despite that, you may be right Pentimento. Which leaves me with only one possible back link - Herbert von Karajan Ein Heldenleben
Sorry I cannot credit the lovely portrait of Richard Strauss (I do hope you meant Richard and not Johann, Pentimento), but I do not know who it is by. It comes from Ferdinand Von Galitzien's blog. Help with attribution much appreciated. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

18 comments:

The Gtra1n said...

I want to second the comment about Stauss and dishonesty, and add that it was a performance of Capriccio that drove it home for me.

I should point out that Strauss was a frighteningly skillful composer, but such a craven personality that what he ends up expressing is that cravenness, which I find loathsome. His desire to be amongst the elites of the Nazi party cannot be excused or apologized for in any way, and that is best expressed in Capriccio, his love-letter to the Nazis so that they might, finally, admit him as a party member. Which they never did.

Pliable said...

Interesting linked post here -

http://cshere.blogspot.com/2008/01/music-honest-and-dishonest.html

Henry Holland said...

His desire to be amongst the elites of the Nazi party cannot be excused or apologized for in any way

Yeah, except for that part about being appointed to his post by Goebbels who did so without consulting Strauss --oooohhh! telling Goebbels to stuff it would have meant happy bunnies and sunshine for Strauss forever and ever!-- or the fact his son and daughter-in-law (who was Jewish) were saved from the internment camps > death camps by his intervention, intervention only possible because of his position and status or the help he gave Stefan Zweig and other Jewish musicians and....and.....

Compare Strass to Toscanini. Hmmmmmm....he joined the Fascist party in 1919 and then buggered off to America in 1938--easy for *him* to take potshots at people who stayed behind in Europe from his safe perch in a recording studio in New York.

Oh how bloody easy to sit back *now* and wag a censorious finger. Compared to craven opportunists like Pfitzner or fascists like Mascagni or Respighi, Strauss is a resistance fighter in comparison.

Capriccio, his love-letter to the Nazis so that they might, finally, admit him as a party member. Which they never did

C'mon genius, explain how that wonderful opera is a "love-letter to the Nazis", I need a good laugh today.

Salome, Elektra, Frau Ohne Schatten, Capriccio, Don Juan, Tod und Verklarung, Vie Letze Lieder, the two wonderful horn concertos, that music will live as long as there are opera houses and orchestras still in business.

Pentimento said...

I did indeed mean Richard, not Johann, as Pliable guessed. And, while I'll leave the arguments about his intentions vis-a-vis the Nazis and Jewish musicians to those who know a lot more about the issue than I do, I will submit that Strauss's actions, whatever he hoped their outcome would be, look unsavory in the light of history. But it's his music that I find dishonest -- to my ear it is glib and pandering.

As far as "Mass" goes, I took a graduate seminar with the conductor who helped Bernstein prepare the piece a few years ago during my doctoral coursework. Maurice Peress told the class something I found very interesting, and which I believe speaks to the issue of Bernstein's "honesty" or "dishonesty" in an unexpected way. He said that while B. was writing and rehearsing the piece, he in effect "became" a Catholic through what we Catholics might call the baptism of desire. He became fascinated with Catholic doctrine and even began wearing a Celtic cross. I wonder if that can be attributed to dishonesty or just to Bernstein's tremendous enthusiasm and creativity -- one might even say pliability, no pun intended. But I like to think it was genuine (I admit my doctoral dissertation-in-progress is about music and conversion). I also happen to really like "Mass," while I loathe Strauss, so go figure.

Pliable said...

http://www.gershunoff.com/peress.html

ABT said...

Without defining more clearly what is meant by "dishonest", this line of discussion becomes nothing more than a venting of likes and dislikes. Does "dishonest" mean lack of consistency of idiom? Failing to be true to one's inspiration? By these standards, are we really to believe that Strauss is less "honest" than Rachmaninov, Shostakovitch, Stravinsky, or your Broadway musical composer here? Utter nonsense.

Sure, many of Strauss's personal beliefs and actions may be objectionable; but if one begins throwing out composers based on their personal beliefs one will soon end up with a very short list of "acceptable" works.

All we learn from this thread is that this person dislikes Strauss's music. Who cares?

Dennis said...

I must agree with abt. How exactly does one define "dishonest" music? Music is either good or bad, or appealing to some and not appealing to others, but how does one assess the "honesty" of the composer or his compositions?

Such subjective conjectures about such a vague notion as "musical honesty" seem rather pointless. Assess the works based on their merits as music, not based on subjective notions of the composer's integrity or intent.

Pentimento said...

There is certainly something to what these posters say about matters of taste. But I suppose what makes me think of Strauss's work as dishonest (note that I did not say bad) is that -- and I hasten to add, of course, that this is simply my opinion -- he squandered his prodigious talent to write music that never rises to the level of greatness, humanity, or importance that it could and should have. (Whether he also squandered his prodigious influence when he could have used it more strenuously to mitigate the harm done to Jewish musicians by the Nazis is another matter.) I don't dislike Strauss because he's a bad composer; as the gtra1n commented above, he was an exceptionally fine one. Just not, perhaps, an honest one.

I personally would not lump Rakhmaninov nor even Shostakovich in with the dishonest, but I might feel inclined to place Stravinski in there.

Dennis said...

I'm still not sure how it's "dishonest" to fail to make music that "rises to the level of greatness, humanity, or importance that it could and should have" based on what are deemed to be one's "prodigous talents". Perhaps Strauss achieved the best he could, or the best he was inspired to, with the talents he had. "Prodigious talent" is itself subjective, and simply having talent - even a lot of it - doesn't mean one will be inspired to reach the most sublime heights of creativity. There are worse fates in the world.

Strauss himself once admitted (though I don't have a precise reference to the quote offhand) that he was not of the first rank of composers, but perhaps near the top of the second rank. One is free to quibble about where he ultimately ranks as a composer (and I agree he isn't in the very top rank), but failing to be in the top rank doesn't make one "dishonest".

Was Mendelssohn also a "dishonest" composer because his body of work ultimately failed, despite his having been hailed in his youth as a greater prodigy than Mozart, "to rise to the level of greatness, humanity, or importance" of Mozart? I think we should simply be thankful for the great works we do have from Mendelssohn, and assess those on their merits, rather than lamenting that he failed to achive the most sublime, Mozartean heights, and calling him (and similarly fated composers) "dishonest" because of that failure.

ABT said...

To say that Strauss "never rises to the level of greatness" seems to me to grossly overstate the case. Salome, Elektra, Metamorphosen, and the Four Last Songs are (for me) among the great monuments of 20th-century music. Again, though, a matter of taste.

Similarly, it is not fair to fault a composer because not all of his works reach the same heights of greatness. We can forgive Shostakovich his few execrable symphonies because he left us with the P&Fs and quartets. Likewise, we can perhaps excuse Rachmaninov's kitschy and overplayed concerti because of his piano music. Even Bach and Beethoven mailed it in from time to time.

Thanks to Pliable for stimulating an interesting discussion (and for a fascinating blog)!

Pentimento said...

Dennis and Abt, you make excellent points. I should have clarified my own. I think that for me the real criterion of "honesty" here is what I will call the relative humanity apparent in these composers' work. Again, this is subjective and based on the ear of the beholder. But I think that Strauss failed to use his abilities to achieve what the best music does, which is to really touch the core of humanity and bring the audience to a higher experience of it. For this reason, I don't think of Mendelssohn as dishonest, because he never lost his humanity in music, so to speak. I just don't think most of Strauss's works, even his greatest, are that *humane*, although I will make an exception for the Four Last Songs.

ABT said...

Here I think we can agree, at least to a certain extent. There is much in Strauss that is not comforting or uplifting, if that is what we think of humane meaning. But included among these are works that reveal aspects of humanity which may be unpalatable but are present nonetheless -- potentially another definition of humane. I am thinking for instance of Salome or Elektra. If done right, these works can be terribly harrowing to experience, precisely because they tell us something about humans that might otherwise remain in darkness. These works are certainly not comforting or uplifting. I'm not prepared to rule them out as great works of art on that basis; I just might not want to hear them all the time.

Pentimento said...

Abt, excellent points all and I must admit I agree with you.

Henry Holland said...

(Whether he also squandered his prodigious influence when he could have used it more strenuously to mitigate the harm done to Jewish musicians by the Nazis is another matter.)

Like what? I'd *love* to hear concrete suggestions. Have you seen István Szabó's movie Mephisto? There's a scene where the Nazi official mocks the actor played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, because the actor --a mere actor!-- thinks he can tell the Nazi's what to do. If Strauss would have objected any more than he did, he'd have ended up in a camp or with a bullet in his skull. It's oh so easy to judge from the safe distance of 2008 and our comfy, computer-based lives. [insert some rolling eye emoticons here]

It's probably just me, but if I'm told that a piece of music is "uplifting" or "touches the core of what it is to be human", I run as fast as I can from it. I look for two things from music:

1. Tickle my ear with interesting sounds
2. Engage my intellect via form, harmony etc.

On those counts, Strauss succeeds in spades. I don't listen to music as an exercise in self-improvement, but as music.

Pentimento said...

Well, Strauss had the option, as a world-famous composer, of going into exile, which would have been a strong and principled statement against fascism. Many prominent German artists made this sacrifice, including the great Lotte Lehmann (the first Marschallin, incidentally), who was actively recruited to be the "soprano of the Third Reich." Some influential Germans valued truth and morality more than they did their own success back then; noble ideals aren't restricted to us with our comfy, computer-based lives.

Juan Jiménez A. said...

Actually, for a world-famous composer, going into exile it could had been the easy solution: He goes to exile, he can be seen as someone that values truth and morality and no-one fate could had been better for it.

Staying in Germany and helping some people there(if Henry Holland is telling the story right), that is valuable. Making a strong and principle statement that do not have any cost and do not have any effect is not that valuable.

Pentimento said...

I have to disagree with you: going into exile carries the tremendous cost of leaving one's homeland, a hardship for anyone.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Lotte Lehmann was not the first Marschallin; it was Margarete Siems. (Lehmann was not in the first performance but eventually sang both Sophie and Oktavian in addition to the Marschallin.)

he squandered his prodigious talent to write music that never rises to the level of greatness, humanity, or importance that it could and should have.

You have no way to tell that. As far as that "touching the inner soul" stuff, speak for yourself. I weep at "Ich will nicht."