The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss
Edited by Charles Youmans
Cambridge University Press; 340 pp. $22
For much of the twentieth century, for all his popular success, Richard Strauss was an object of contempt to the musical intelligentsia. He had been too accommodating toward the Nazi regime and, after his early revolutionary period, too conventional in terms of tonality. Igor Stravinsky's famous dismissal, alleging "triumphant banality," went unchallenged, except by pianist Glenn Gould.
As this excellent collaborative study amply demonstrates, the wind has shifted, thanks partly to the rehabilitation of tonal harmony — and to a certain historical relativism. The political question receives a judicious review here by Michael Walter, who confirms the composer's complex, self- interested yet tense relations with the Third Reich. In one of the best-argued contributions in the book, New Yorker critic Alex Ross reassesses the composer's place among his contemporaries and successors. Ross's minute analyses of harmony and timbre discover subtle echoes in such avowed anti-Straussians as Schoenberg, Boulez, even Messiaen(!).
It is the fan of the operas and songs, though, who may feel slighted. Inevitably, any attempt in 300-plus pages to cover Strauss's diverse, prolific output, as well as questions of biography, sources, influence and reputation, will scrimp to some extent. We find the Hofmannsthal operas checked off in a mere seventeen pages. To his great credit, Bryan Gilliam drives home the essentials and also manages to put the famous partnership in perspective, tempering the negative assessment made by Norman Del Mar in the 1960s. Incidentally, it is curious to find Gilliam referring to Die Ägyptische Helena as a "bel canto work," but that remains a minor quirk in an authoritative summary.
Susan Youens's chapter on the Strauss lieder, to one's initial horror, omits the Four Last Songs and other "chestnuts" to focus on some of the more obscure of his 150 examples in the genre. Yet this proves to be a truly captivating study, likely to inspire the serious reader to explore further. Youens not only shares her intimate knowledge of the poems; she will surely deepen most listeners' sense of what a song can accomplish, and what it can intimate, especially in the hands of a composer of such prodigious detail and ingenuity.
And the Four Last Songs do crop up later, briefly, in Jürgen May's treatment of the final works, which emphasizes externals such as the sequence in which the four should be performed — an unresolved matter, as it turns out. Altogether, the volume is remarkable in scope, including the lesser-known operas and topics such as Strauss as conductor and his mania for musical quotations. Ample documentation, musical examples and consistently strong writing make it a valuable reference.
DAVID J. BAKER
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