Composer Richard Strauss took a prominent post in Hitler’s Germany – but we should not let that ruin our enjoyment of his music, writes Clemency Burton-Hill.

“To Richard Strauss, the composer, I take off my hat,” the conductor Arturo Toscanini once famously declared. “To Richard Strauss, the man, I put it on again.” Toscanini’s distinction between the individual and his work raises an age-old conundrum about art and morality which the 150th anniversary of Strauss’ birth this week brings into sharp relief. Should we allow the details of an artist’s biography to affect the way we view their work? Can we admire Eric Gill’s sculpture or type in the Gill Sans typeface he created with a clean conscience, knowing what we know about its creator’s reprehensible paedophile tendencies? Can we separate Philip Larkin’s poetry from the racist, misogynist mind that produced it? Is Wagner’s music anti-Semitic? And what of Richard Strauss?

On 11 June, 1964, celebrations to mark the Strauss centenary were notably muted. Despite being cleared by a German denazification board in June 1948 his music still carried a stigma. Like Wagner’s, it was banned in Israel and repressed, rejected, even reviled elsewhere, due to unease about the official role the composer had played in Germany under the Nazis. Thomas Mann’s denouncement of Strauss as a “Hitlerian composer” (Strauss signed an anti-Thomas Mann manifesto in early 1933) resonated strongly with many people, for whom any celebration of his life would be insupportable.

In 2014, by contrast, musical organisations are marking what would have been his 150th birthday with fanfare. Around the globe, his groundbreaking operas (Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier); his magnificent tone poems (Don Juan, Don Quixote, Macbeth); his great symphonies and exquisite songs are being given lavish, loving outings with the finest orchestras, conductors and soloists. On BBC Radio 3, freely available online, his music takes over the airwaves: ‘Strauss 150’ includes a host of diverse programmes exploring different aspects of his life and music.

Art over politics?

All this suggests Strauss’ rather complex legacy – this was a man who was president of Hitler’s Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber), yet watched the persecution of his beloved Jewish daughter-in-law and family in horror – has finally settled around what is arguably the only incontrovertible fact: that of his musical and dramatic genius. Where the debate around Wagner’s anti-Semitism and his music still rumbles on, Strauss has been largely exonerated in the popular as well as official historical imagination.

As the music critic Michael Kennedy makes clear in his masterful biography Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma, after Hitler came to power in January 1933, Strauss faced a moral and professional quandary (as did all professional musicians in Germany at the time). He was ambitious and rather self-regarding, but above all he was a pragmatist. “I made music under the Kaiser,” he supposedly told his family. “I’ll survive under this lot, as well.” Considering himself above politics, he also said: “I just sit here in Garmisch [his home, outside Munich] and compose. Everything else is irrelevant to me.”

If this seems disingenuous, especially given his acceptance of Goebbels’ invitation to take up the post of Reichsmusikkammer president on 15 November 1933, Strauss was adamant that he wished to use his influential position for the good. “I hoped that I would be able to do some good and prevent worse misfortunes,” he said later. While his chief objective seemed to be improving the economic position of musicians, increasing their job security, ensuring more government subsidy and in particular protecting the rights of composers – he lobbied hard for Germany to sign the Berne Convention on copyright law – he also refused to blacklist Jewish composers and remained publicly loyal to his Jewish friends and colleagues who were falling foul of the ‘Aryanizing’ Nazi authorities – most notably the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who wrote the libretto for his opera Die Schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) in 1934.

It was, indeed, a letter from Strauss to Zweig that led to Strauss’ forced resignation from the Reichsmusikkammer and his official downfall. Hinting that his position as president was merely a form of play-acting, the letter was intercepted by the Gestapo in June 1935; Strauss was out on his ear and the opera was never again performed in Nazi Germany. In one of his more shameful episodes, Strauss backpedalled furiously, writing to Hitler to assure him that his missive to Zweig had “not represent[ed] my view of the world nor my true conviction”. Hitler never replied.

Under pressure

Such pandering to Nazi top brass must have been galling for the man who in his private notebooks wrote, “I consider the Jew-baiting by Goebbels a disgrace to German honour.” (Goebbels, for his part, called Strauss a “decadent neurotic” behind the scenes.) Nor did the Nazi menace remain something abstract to Strauss – on the contrary, he was personally touched by its evil. He was deeply fond of his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice and his Jewish grandchildren, and was aghast when Alice was arrested towards the end of World War II. Although she was released, members of her immediate family were deported to Terezín in what is now the Czech Republic, and when Strauss’ letters begging for their release fell on deaf ears the composer personally drove to the camp in an attempt to use his influence to get them released. It was futile: not a single one escaped the Nazi concentration camp alive.

There are no easy answers when it comes to the question of art, biography and morality; and the line between resistance, passivity and collaboration in Nazi Germany is arguably the murkiest of all. On the occasion of his 150th birthday, as we marvel anew at music in which beauty and truth and humanity seem to defy any other judgment, perhaps we may finally allow ourselves to tip our hats to Richard Strauss – and leave them off.

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