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Richard Strauss’ correspondence with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, librettist for Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Arabella, among others,is one of the most confounding such exchanges preserved for posterity. The musicologist Laurenz Lütteken, who teaches at the University of Zurich, notes that the Strauss- Hofmannsthal exchange ‘abounds in irritation, crises, reproaches, and admonitions.’ Hofmannsthal informed Strauss that his music for Act I of Der Rosenkavelier was ‘truly beautiful’, but wrote to a friend the same day to describe it as ‘unappetising’. Yet both collaborators saw opera as an integral part of history. For Strauss, Hofmannsthal made it possible for him to reach ‘un-Wagnerian …operatic terrain’. One project, never realised, was an opera inspired by Semiramis, a play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, a Spanish Golden Age playwright. Strauss saw Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929 as the end of his operatic career, although he continued to produce works, including Daphne and Capriccio. Soon, Strauss was also challenged by the Nazi regime. Due in part to his insistence on working with Stefan Zweig, a Jewish author, as librettist, Strauss was in intermittent disfavour with Hitler’s government. Professor Lütteken is more severe than some other music historians about Strauss’s activities during the Nazi era, stating that ‘from spring 1933, Strauss’s actions began to display a strange mixture of misjudgment, confused gestures, and self-interest.’

Professor Lütteken posits that Nazi rule further shook Strauss’s conviction that opera might provide an artistic solution to the challenges of modern life. Shortly before his death, Strauss regained a certain optimism, planning a school opera, The Donkey’s Shadow, as part of humanist education. Yet Professor Lütteken asserts: ‘Curiously disregarding the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, Strauss understood the war as the extinction of human culture – symbolised, in “plastic” form, by the bombed- out opera houses’ of Dresden and Vienna.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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