I have always regarded Richard Strauss’s work to be akin, in a more modest form, to that of Richard Wagner for both its power and lyrical connotations.
A great twentieth-century composer, whose rich repertoire has become a favourite with music buffs, he is a controversial figure with a marred reputation in certain quarters for having lived in the shadow of Nazism in the Second World War. One could argue that it takes more courage to stay than to leave. On the other hand it could lead to more complex questions, which would trigger off a heated debate such as the one currently taking place in New York with regard to the visit of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The same happened to Leni Riefenstahl, the prodigious filmmaker, whose scope and ability were blighted after the war for having made the highly acclaimed film Olympia and other documentaries in collaboration with the Nazi regime. The music of Richard Strauss and the films of Leni will nevertheless always remain puissant artistic endeavours for future generations.
I had known Leni for a few years, having trailed her in the early 1980s without much success, until I saw her by chance at the Frankfurt Book Fair years later – resulting in my publishing her autobiography The Sieve of Time in 1992. The book’s launch party, at the Museum of the Moving Image on London’s South Bank, was boycotted by the majority of the press, including a large section of the Jewish lobby, who accused her of being a staunch Nazi for staying and working in Germany, unlike Marlene Dietrich who made America her home throughout the war.
Another victim who stayed in Germany was the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had a similar accusation thrown at him and, as a consequence, suffered isolation after the war. He was only rehabilitated, thanks principally to the efforts of Yehudi Menuhin, who persuaded the music fraternity that Furtwängler was never a Nazi and worked in Germany during the war under duress. In 1995, Quartet published Furtwängler’s Notebooks: 1924 -1954 to well-deserved critical acclaim.
Most geniuses have what we call a dark side to their character, which should not necessarily prejudice our assessment of their work. We must ultimately judge them purely on the merits of their art and not on their personal behaviour or loose moralistic values.
Richard Wagner is a case in point. An example of a person I could not warm up to, but his music is another matter; an oeuvre with dimensions well beyond the realms of anything we could imagine. He stands supreme and it is hard to contemplate more absorbing music, the parallel of which one rarely encounters.
His mammoth sequence of operas, The Ring, is one of the great wonders of the world. Its scope and dramatic effect on the senses have not been surpassed.
As for Richard Strauss, I now look forward to celebrating his one hundred and fiftieth birthday by listening to his music – if only to remind oneself that prodigies of his calibre are hard to come by these days. We are much too involved in moneymaking and have forgotten how to live through the magical, dreamlike world of music often described by sages as the eye of the ear, without which we categorically cease to exist.