MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Strauss at 150

“The life which began with a comet-like blaze of sensational excitement ended with a long sunset in which exile and the threat of disgrace cast lengthening tragic shadows. … The enigma of Richard Strauss, the why and the wherefore of the man and the musician, will perhaps never be solved,” writes Michael Kennedy in his biography Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma.

No matter how confident his peers became that they understood Strauss and his place in music history, he remained — and remains — elusive.

Back in 1992, in the collection of essays and writings titled Richard Strauss and His World (edited by Bryan Gilliam for the Princeton Press series), the head-spinningly prolific conductor and scholar Leon Botstein nailed it: If you dig past convention, in Strauss you will find “a continuous evolution in technique and aesthetic ambition rather than a set of discontinuous breaks.”

Botstein continues: “There may have been neither a radical shift in direction nor a decline in artistic quality between 1910 and 1941. Each period has its masterpieces.”

And: “Strauss was the first composer to deconstruct the conventional historical narrative … in which style in the arts was evidence of a spiritually unique and unified discrete historical period.”

As the music world reassesses Strauss’s legacy throughout this 150th anniversary year, perhaps some of the cliches and pat explanations that remain common currency will be challenged a little more.

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