The anniversaries keep coming, particularly the sixtieths. The German composer Richard Strauss died sixty years ago today. He lived a long and very productive life and his works are still prominent in the repertoire. His “greatest hits” include the operas Salome, Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra and the tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the opening of which shot to iconic status when it featured in Stanley Kubrick’s cult film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But I have never been able to fully overcome some lingering doubts about Strauss’ status as a great composer. His technical mastery is beyond question. The sheer brilliance of his writing for orchestra and for the voice is outstanding and produced some of the most memorable moments in opera. But does his music have that extra something that makes great art?
I once asked Simon Rattle if he planned to conduct the entire cycle of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. In response he said he was not sure about conducting the Eighth because he was not convinced that Mahler “meant it”. (He has, however, gone on to perform and record the entire cycle, including the Eighth.) That is my problem with Richard Strauss. I am not sure he really meant much of his music. There is not much “heart” in the music. The passion that is there seems staged, like that of a great actor.
Strauss and Mahler were contemporaries and friends, the latter being just four years older. But what a difference there is between the two. While I share some of Rattle’s doubt about the Eighth, few would question Mahler’s commitment to his art and his personal “presence” in his works. He meant it! Strauss was a wonderful craftsman but only rarely did he rise to the heights of great art.