Saturday, October 25, 2014

Richard Strauss and the March into Modernism

The composer Richard Strauss is often seen as a bridge figure, someone whose career takes us from the world of nineteenth century bourgeois culture to the difficult, dissonant world of modernism. Alex Ross, for example, begins his study of classical music in the twentieth century, The Rest is Noise, with an examination of Strauss' opera Salome, which combined crowd-pleasing showmanship with bold dissonance and even the abandonment of music, classically conceived, for something more properly described as noise.  The middle class audience lapped it up, but it also impressed the young Arnold Schoenberg, who attended an early performance and walked away with his head abuzz with new ideas.  I have an abiding affection for Strauss' Salome: it was the first opera I attended of my own free will, as neither the captive of a school field trip nor the grumbling child dragged along by my mother.  I still remember the lavish art nouveau sets, and the giant figure of Jochanaan, surrounded by the bickering theologians, repeating simply "He is nigh." In fact, the latter has become a kind of a touchstone for me, presenting as it does a powerful critique of academics—that is: of me and my kind.

For me, though, the real moment when Strauss points the way to modernism doesn't come in Salome, but in his first opera, Guntram, which premiered more than a decade earlier, in 1894. In a way, it gives away the main plot of the story of modernism even while the protagonists to that history are in their childhoods, or not yet born. When he began writing the libretto, Strauss wanted to tell the story of the young knight Guntram, who belongs to an order dedicated to the idea of the brotherhood of all mankind (and who think of song as a tool for the creation of this brotherhood). Guntram falls in love with a noble lady, though, and accidentally kills her dictatorial, oppressive husband. Even though the husband was a terrible person, Guntram sees that he has violated the laws of his order, and announces he will be penitent and make a holy pilgrimage to cleanse his soul. That, anyway, was the first draft. But it's not the libretto Strauss ended up writing. Instead, Strauss decides to have his hero renounce his order, his religion, and everything else, and to stalk off alone.

The change mattered.  Strauss' colleague Alexander Ritter saw it as immoral and as heresy against the Great God Wagner, who would never allow a hero to disown his community.  As Ross puts it, "Strauss did not repent. Guntram's order, he told Ritter in reply, had unwisely sought to launch an ethical crusade through art, to unify religion and art."  This is the interesting bit, from the perspective of modernism.  Wagner—an enormous influence on Strauss, (Strauss' father had played French horn under Wagner's direction)—was committed to art as a form of morality, as an articulation of the values of a community.  But in the final libretto of Strauss' Guntram, we have a hero who departs with just song, and no notions of committing that song to the cause of the community, or of accommodating his music to the values of the polity.

This is important stuff: it signals the separation of the individual from the values of the broad public, but it does more than that.  The separation of the individual from the community had, after all, been a major theme of early nineteenth century Romanticism: it's a huge theme in poetry and in music, although in both genres there tends to be a desire to reintegrate the alienated individual with society. Consider Coleridge's ambivalence about his pantheism, and his desire to return to the Christian community in "The Eolian Harp," or the sailor's yearning to return to community in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Or consider the "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's ninth symphony, where all that brooding and melancholy is finally banished in the glorious collective voice of the choir preaching the brotherhood of all. Even Byron, in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, sees his glamorous exile as wandering endlessly because he was incapable of holding a place in (desirable) community due to his own dark and uncontrollable passions.  These are all individuals with an uncomfortable or ruptured relation to community, but they all have some form of yearning to reintegrate themselves into community and, more importantly, none of them are exiles specifically because they want to separate art from anything other than itself. That is: they are alienated from society, but they are not alienated because they are aesthetes. 

The great mid-nineteenth century artists are often bourgeois in outlook, hoping to put art to the service of some larger and more popular cause: Tennyson's Arthurian myths and Wagner's Teutonic ones are cases in point.  When Strauss decides to disentangle art as art from art as a part of some larger, more moralistic enterprise, he's allying himself with people like Walter Pater and the aesthetes, and starting to partake of the modern culture of specialization, of discrete fields of activity operating autonomously. Art is one of these fields, and we start to see figures like James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, figures devoted to form, to experiment, and to art first and foremost as art, not as the vehicle for the expression of community values. We begin to see figures like Gertrude Stein come into focus, with language used as language and not as the medium for anything so communal as a collective mythology or ideology.  We can even glimpse, in the distance, someone like Mark Rothko, making paintings that leave subject matter behind to consider color as color, in relation to color.

When Strauss' Guntram abandons his order at the end of the opera, he marches not just offstage, but into modernism.

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