Sunday, 21 October 2018

Strauss and the nazis

There is this totally damning interview that Klaus Mann, the son of the famous author, had with Strauss just after the war when he and a comrade visited the 81-year composer at his villa at Garmisch, with Mann concealing his true identity and claiming to be 'Mr Brown'. He found the old composer saying a couple of embarrassingly stupid things, but labelled them with a moral condemnation informed by the consciousness of the scope of the war catastrophe, an insight which had escaped the composer for many years, retreated as he had into a cocoon of artistic nostalgia.

Strauss, who got irritated by the internationalising trends and eroding of standards of German music life in the twenties, and deplored the then fashionable hard-edged 'modern musics', and who had not taken the trouble to give real attention to political questions of post-1918 society, was dismayed about the postwar government's attitude towards concert life. So, when the nazis took power in 1933, he saw an opportunity - as number one of the eminent German composers with authority in musical matters - to work for the improvement of national music life. The idea that 'Germanness' was under threat from influences from abroad, the realization that the international standing and influence of German music of the past - especially its 'romanticism' and 'pathos' - had suffered in the aftermath of the war, a style of music and music making which was seen as no longer compatible with the much 'cooler' modern times, had created a longing for resurrection, shared by many Germans, of 'German cultural identity' which took-on a particularly conservative and reactionary character, which could easily be manipulated by the nazis with their fantasies about 'race' and 'national superiority'.

In contrast with Klaus Mann, who had to endure forced emigration and alienation and uprootedness in the USA, Strauss had experienced the greatest successes under any regime, and had gradually lost a clear sight on reality, which had turned, in the thirties, to the bitter reality that Klaus Mann knew all too well. With his usual combination of carelessness and contempt for officialdom, hidden behind the rhetoric of earnest Germanness, Strauss tried to charm the nazi regime so that he might get his ideas into the government machinery. But that fell flat because the regime had its own ideas, which were incompatible with Strauss's. After a quite dangerous confrontation with the dark side of the authorities, he retreated into his own world, trying to wall-off the increasingly unpleasant outer reality. Shortly after the war, the vast scope of what had happened, took some time to sink-in, and the realisation of his being compromised and the destruction of the country resulted in his 'Metamorphosen' and the 'Vier Letzte Lieder', which he never heard because he died before the première. Mann spoke with him during the period that Strauss tried to get onto terms with what had happened, and in the same time tried to ignore it all because of its utter awfulness. He may have said some stupid things, partly because of the presence of his family (who commented from afar, as reported by Mann) and trying to put a brave face with the two foreigners, but if Mann's report is literally true - which we cannot know - it shows us a petit-bourgeois, narrow-minded man in denial, not a nazi fan. In this, Strauss was not an exception, as many witnesses and documentation since WW II demonstrate. In an attempt to preserve his own inner musical world and to remedy some ills (as he saw it) in concert life, he had wilfully closed his eyes, ignoring important signals - but could not prevent the fall-out of what had happened to force him to become aware of it all, or at least of some of it, and we know that even small doses were - and still are - extremely painful.

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