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Chapter Fifteen— Herr von Words and Doctor Music
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Chapter Fifteen—
Herr von Words and Doctor Music

The very salutations of their letters are a clue. For almost thirty years, through more than five hundred surviving letters, they most commonly address each other as "My dear Dr. Strauss" or "Dear Herr von Hofmannsthal." (Actually, the poet had a better right to the title than the composer. Hofmannsthal had an earned Ph.D., University of Vienna, class of 1898. Strauss's doctorates—Heidelberg '03 and Oxford '1—were both honoris causa .)

Ten years into their correspondence, Strauss begins using "My dear friend"—an intimacy the poet permits himself only ten times in his 304 letters. Only once in the entire published correspondence does one of their first names appear. Birthday letters, letters of congratulations for honors and successes, even letters on illnesses or bereavements have a chill, carved-in-marble effect. For two men who worked so productively together for so long, their celebrated correspondence is astonishingly cool, formal, distant—and, very often, frankly hostile.

One could argue that the words-and-music collaboration of Da Ponte and Mozart (three operas), like that of Boito and Verdi (two operas), produced a considerably more substantial body of work than the six operas created by Team Hofmannsthal-Strauss between 1909 and 1929. (The first, Elektra , had already been produced as a play in 1906, when Strauss saw it and decided he wanted to set it to music. The libretto of the last, Arabella , was essentially finished when Hofmannsthal died in 1929. Completing the score and arranging for production took Strauss another four years.)

Whatever the qualitative sum, the numbers are impressive. No other composer/librettist pair in the history of opera managed to write so many works that have remained in the international standard repertory and—for all of the dispraise of their detractors—seem likely to remain there. In addition to the first and the last, they collaborated on three other enduring works—Der Rosenkavalier (1911),


Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, revised 1916), and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919)—and one flop, Die ägyptische Helena (1928), which is occasionally revived by Strauss die-hards in places like Munich and Santa Fe.

But despite their frequent, formal professions of admiration, if not for each other, at least for each other's talent; and despite the poet's everlasting agonizing over the fragility of their "relationship," like some anxious modern lover arguing with a partner—"I beg of you, do not inflict on me this injury; do not injure us both, do not injure our relationship!"—they were never, as far as one can tell, friends; scarcely even friendly.

Their motor trip together through northern Italy in March 1913 comes to the reader of the correspondence as something of a shock. It was one of their rare face-to-face encounters. Strauss, typically, was the one to offer the invitation. Hofmannsthal, typically, raised objections. "Your kind, attractive proposal that I might accompany you on a car journey from Ala was altogether unexpected, and not easy to fit in with everything I had planned. But . . . this personal contact (which we have never before had over anything we have done before) might greatly benefit our chief joint work"—by which he meant Die Frau ohne Schatten , the opera they were working on at the time.

During most of their acquaintance, Strauss lived at Garmisch, near Munich; Hofmannsthal, in a village near Vienna. But even when cars and chauffeurs (let alone trains) were available, they almost never made the effort to meet. When Strauss accepted the post of co-director of the Vienna State Opera in 1919 (an appointment his "dear friend" had bitterly opposed), which obliged him to spend a few months of each year in the city, Hofmannsthal still found excuses not to visit or receive him. "It is most kind of you to offer to come out here, but please don't think of it under any circumstances; the tram journey of one and three-quarter hours each way is torture, and I do not enjoy visitors."

Although he occasionally traveled about Europe on literary and theatrical business, Hugo von Hofmannsthal—the classic neurotic artist—preferred either to stay home at Rodaun, tending his fragile nerves and coddling his fragile genius; move to Salzburg for the international theatre festival that he and Max Reinhardt had essentially created; or venture from time to time out to Alpine spas or sunny Italy in a quest for calm and for mental health. The more robust Richard Strauss, meanwhile (ten years older than the poet, he outlived him by twenty years), toured all of Europe, including Russia, virtually nonstop, conducting and promoting his (and their) works, spreading his (and their) reputation, enjoying the rewards of an international celebrity. He also traveled twice to the United States and twice to South America. It is he who oversaw the premières and new productions of their joint works, and reported dutifully on them back to Hofmannsthal: "I have just concluded a magnificent triumphal progress with your works: first Rosenkavalier at the Hague and in Amsterdam . . . full houses at unheard-of prices; a Strauss


Week in Mannheim, with Salome, Rosenkavalier, and Ariadne , staged very prettily and wittily by Dr. Hagemann . . . finally Ariadne and Elektra in Switzerland, with a downright triumphal success." "On Monday the one hundredth Rosenkavalier came off gloriously in Dresden, with a full house and an impeccable performance. Afterwards, in cheerful company, we thought of you gratefully with much admiration." "I believe that Ariadne has inaugurated a new theatrical era in Italy. A pity you weren't there!"

One result of this willed separation is the fact that they had to do much, perhaps most, of their collaboration by mail. This is a godsend for us, because a byproduct was one of the most revealing and provocative correspondences in the history of art. The two writers, in fact, grew aware of just how good their letters were, and had a censored selection of them published in 1925.

To musicians and musicologists, what is most fascinating about the Strauss-Hofmannsthal letters is the detailed image they provide of the collaborative creative process, of the conception and slow growth of important works of art. Through the letters (and the many surviving draft texts and scores), we can trace in close detail the means and steps by which their six operas came into being. Articles, theses, and books have been written on the "genesis" of each of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal operas, because the two men left scholars so much wonderful material to play with.

Reading the earliest letters in a sequence can be quite exciting; the reader feels privy to the very conception of a new work. Strauss asks Hofmannsthal for a particular kind of plot or libretto. Hofmannsthal replies that he can't possibly provide that , but he sends instead a sketch of some of his own new-forming notions. Strauss, ever desperate for material, usually accepts the poet's ideas and sets to work.

In May 1916 (to follow the case of Arabella ), Strauss writes that he'd like to do another "love opera." Six years later, when Die Frau ohne Schatten (an idea of Hofmannstahl's) is finally finished, Strauss returns to the theme: "I feel like doing another Rosenkavalier just now." Trying to be helpful, his collaborator writes that he is steeping himself in Stendhal, Scribe, and Musset, looking for ideas for something "light and conversational." Strauss continues to insist that he wants "a second Rosenkavalier [by far their biggest 'hit'], without its mistakes and longueurs." By September 1923, the poet has decided to set the new work in Vienna of 1840. A year later, turning back to the project from a heavy, symbolic Salzburg Festival drama, he decides to shift the action forward to the seedier 1880s, and digs out of his drawer the scenario of "a bourgeois comedy of the Scribe sort" he had sketched two years before. By November 1927, he has reworked it into the notes and character sketches for a "lighter Der Rosenkavalier ," which he happily sends to Strauss.

Then the arguments, the rewrites, and the refinements begin. In the case of each


opera, the evolving work keeps changing its shape and direction under pressure first from one man, then the other. In the process, each "invades" the other's field. Strauss tells Hofmannsthal how to create his characters and plots. Hofmannsthal tells Strauss how to write music.

Much of this is simply two craftsmen exchanging requests or suggestions, the way an architect and a builder might leave notes for each other. Here I need eight more words, says Strauss. Please write me a short scene for Orestes; what I want here is something more passionate; I must have a great musical conclusion in the form of a trio. Hofmannsthal takes issue with Strauss's musical characterization of one of his literary creations: "[Ochs] must whisper, not bawl, for God's sake! It cut me to the quick to hear him shout the word 'Hay' at fortissimo ."

It is Hofmannsthal who first proposes that "an old-fashioned Viennese waltz, sweet and yet saucy," pervade the last act of Der Rosenkavalier . He warns Strauss away from "a Wagnerian kind of erotic screaming" in the love duets. The complex, elusive, creatively frustrating conception of Ariadne auf Naxos (rewritten Molière comedy-plus-musical divertissement) is from the start 100 percent Hofmannsthal's idea. To his first proposals, Strauss sends back a list of the vocal ranges, set numbers, and orchestration he desires, for the poet to keep in mind as he drafts his text.

"That was a brilliant idea you had in the moonlight between San Michele and Bozen," Hofmannsthal writes of their Die Frau ohne Schatten discussions on the 1913 Italian tour—"of accompanying the upper world with the Ariadne orchestra, and the denser, more colorful world with the full orchestra." He alters his poetic diction to suit. Sometimes the poet—who could not read music—indicates the sort of music he hears in his mind's car by evocative descriptions or vivid metaphors. For Helena, he wants something "diabolic and the same time amusing." "When I mention 'gurgling' I have in mind the noise of water 'speaking' in a pipe."

"This is the only way to collaborate," writes Hofmannsthal of their early work on Ariadne I . "There will be other occasions when I shall ask you to comply with requests of mine; where, in certain episodes, a given text requires a more subordinate attitude from the music, as was the case in the Marschallin's scene. Here, on the contrary, the whole thing is to be simply a framework on which to hang the music, well and prettily. We must not merely work together, but actually into each other's hands ."

And yet how often, and how radically, did these two men work at cross-purposes, rather than together. Each developed formal epistolary conventions to defer or blunt the edge of his attacks. But the attacks came all the same, and when they came, they could be devastating.

Their letters are sprinkled with assertions of admiration by each man for the other's work. "How great and pure a joy it is to me to work for you." "You're


STRAUSSDer Rosenkavalier , Manfred Jungwirth, San Francisco Opera, 1971.
Photograph by Ken Howard.


Da Ponte and Scribe rolled into one." But often these are only a kind of stroking before a slap. Their letters are also full of pretenses of humility or self-effacement. These, too, however, are usually rhetorical preludes to a critical blast. "Of course, I know nothing of music." "Of course, we musicians have no taste."

The formulas of civility and the veneer of false friendship are kept in place right up to the brink. "I know you will take what I am about to say in the right spirit." "Don't get angry if I venture to come forward as a critic of your music." "Forgive me if I use very harsh and unduly strong language." And then it breaks, it erupts, explodes, pours out in a brutal, bitter, or venom-filled stream.

On receiving a libretto into which Hofmannsthal insists he has poured his whole soul, which is the best thing he has ever done, Strauss replies with a blunt, unfeeling list of all of its radical flaws. Of the first Ariadne idea, he writes, "Personally, I am not particularly interested by the whole thing." Of a proposed text for the second Ariadne , he says, "To be quite frank, I have so far not found it to my liking at all. Indeed, it contains certain things that are downright distasteful to me."

He doesn't basically like the libretto for Die Frau ohne Schatten either, he tells the poet. It has no real people in it, he can't get inspired, the musical result is cold, and all of his friends find it too obscure. "The characters [of Arabella ] are not interesting . . . and so far I've been unable to warm to any of them. The thing doesn't even begin to come to music."

If Strauss call be abrupt and unfeeling, Hofmannsthal's outbursts can be petulant, aggrieved, extravagant, and vicious. He will label Strauss's most innocent actions as treason, his least compromise (on a singer, or stage production) as a diabolical betrayal, or as evidence of the composer's crude crowd-pleasing instincts. In many of the letters, Hofmannsthal comes very close to calling Strauss a vulgar, tasteless, Bavarian clod.

He regards the composer's idea of a female composer for Ariadne II as "a travesty" that "smacks of operetta." (To Hofmannsthal, the word operetta implied something beneath contempt.) "This strikes me, forgive my plain speaking, as odious." Some of the composer's more radical ideas for revising the plot of Ariadne he calls "rubbish . . . nonsense . . . a stylistic absurdity . . . truly horrid!" "I feel quite faint." "Your proposals I consider, if you will forgive me, beneath discussion. They demonstrate to me that your taste and mine are miles apart." He icily dismisses Intermezzo , for which Strauss had written his own libretto.

In June 1916, piqued over another matter, Hofmannsthal writes an unusually nasty letter in which he declares that he has never liked much of the music for Der Rosenkavalier either—but then he decides not to mail the letter. Two months before he died, in 1929, he returned to scratch that sore open again. His friend, the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, he wrote Strauss, had never liked the "lapse into farce" of Act III. "As a matter of fact it is you alone who must take the blame for


that 'lapse into farce.' You wrote me incessantly, letter after letter, saying that there was nothing in it to make one laugh, that in a comic opera one ought to laugh, and so on, and yet I believe to this day that the third act without this trend would have become far more beautiful still."

In some ways, Hofmannsthal's letter of August 1, 1918, opposing Strauss's candidacy as co-director of the postwar Vienna State Opera (a letter that Hofmannsthal wanted to include in their 1925 collection and that Strauss did not), shows most clearly the breadth of the chasm that lay between them. In it, the poet comes flat out and says that he regards Strauss as too much of a manipulative egotist, too neglectful of higher standards to be the right man for the job; as a man whose music, for some reason, was more valuable and civilized than Strauss was himself.

Strauss's response was a masterpiece of tact and restraint, and Hofmannsthal eventually came round. Later, he wrote, "What touched me profoundly on this occasion was the infinite kindness and forbearance with which you reacted to my opposition against your coming to Vienna."

In general, Strauss can rise above the poet's temperamental outbursts. He either ignores them, coolly refutes them, or, occasionally, concedes a point to keep the peace. "Why do you always turn so poisonous [he wrote in 1927] the moment artistic questions have to be discussed in a businesslike manner and you don't share my opinion?"

Hofmannsthal's typical reaction to criticism, even to what he regards as insufficient praise, is a fit of old-fashioned pique. He is hurt, wounded, cut to the quick, sensitive to slights real or imagined, so easily offended, so ready to offend: "I have sacrificed everything for you!" More than once he proposes breaking off all contact forever. Yet in these "fits," he sometimes reaches a plateau of lucidity from which he sees clearly what irreconcilably and absolutely different men they are.

There is something wrong between the two of us (you and me) which in the end will have to be brought out in the open. . . .

Although we have known each other for so long and mean so well by each other . . . I do not think there is anyone who knows me so little.

I am a much more bizarre kind of person than you can suspect; what you know is only a small part of me, the surface; the factors which govern me you cannot see.

The poet seems to be right: the union of these two talents and temperaments does look like a mésalliance. But it would be pointless to ask whether either man could have created "better" operas with another collaborator, since no one acceptable


appeared. Hans Pfitzner, a popular German composer of the 1920s, kept hinting to Hofmannsthal that he would like a libretto. ("I told him," Hofmannsthal wrote Strauss, "that, if I did have an idea for an opera, I would write it for you.") Famous writers like Gerhart Hauptmann and Gabriele D'Annunzio let it be known that they would like to work with Strauss. For better or worse—as long as both were alive—neither man could comfortably conceive of collaborating on an opera with anyone else. (After his first partner's death, Strauss wrote operas together with three other men—operas less popular and respected than his better-known earlier works.) "If you now estrange me from yourself," Hofmannsthal wrote after the first Ariadne fiasco, "you can find in Germany and abroad men of talent and rank who will write opera libretti for you, but it won't be the same."

Hofmannsthal's defense of their embattled partnership (which he compares to a tired old marriage) was, in effect, that he drove Strauss to do his best work in spite of the composer's own "baser," crowd-pleasing tastes and instincts. The poet was especially certain that this had taken place with Die Frau ohne Schatten —a play that Strauss never fully understood, made up of characters and ideas with which he was often unsympathetic. At the very time Strauss was begging the poet to help him become "the Offenbach of the twentieth century," Hofmannsthal was writing, "You have every reason to be grateful to me for bringing you . . . that element which is sure to bewilder people and to provoke a certain amount of antagonism. . . . This 'Incomprehensibility,' it is a mortgage to be redeemed by the next generation."

Which, in effect, turned out to be true. Ignored or resisted during Strauss's lifetime, Die Frau ohne Schatten only began to attain universal acceptance ten years after his death, with the U.S. première (at San Francisco) in 1959, followed by impressive first or new productions at Munich, New York, Vienna, Salzburg, London, and Paris.

These ill-matched collaborators were separated by fundamental differences of temperament, background, intellect, and taste. But what set them most strenuously at odds are two other issues. Strauss believed that music is more important than words, and Hofmannsthal believed the reverse; and each man regarded himself as an artist in no way inferior to the other.

Long after his first partner had died, Strauss wrote (with Clemens Krauss) an opera called Capriccio , in which he stages a debate—which is never resolved—on the question "Which comes first—words or music?" (Wort oder Ton? ) "Prima le parole, dopo la musica" (first the words, then the music) may express a good working rule for the collaborative process; but does de Casti's phrase, around which Capriccio is built, also express a hierarchy of artistic values?

Hofmannsthal thought it did. For all of his profound frustration with the ultimate inadequacy of words to say all that people need to express, he was a


European man of letters to the core. He hated having his sublime (or clever) texts swamped out of recognition by Strauss's often voluptuous music, his profound symbols and ideas "canceled out" by an unsympathetic score. And for all Strauss's conscientious concern to make clear and audible the lyrics of his operas, the composer obviously believed in the superior expressiveness of music.

Don't all composers care more for music, all librettists more for words? Perhaps. But either they are somehow able to collaborate as a sort of pair of Siamese twins, composing together , four hands to the task, each anticipating the other's instincts and style (Brecht and Weill, Rodgers and Hart, Gilbert and Sullivan), or—and this is certainly the case with all enduring operas of the first rank—the composer is, without question, acknowledged by both as the leader of the team: Prima la musica, dopo le parole.

Hofmannsthal would have none of that. Alone among the composers of operas regularly and consistently performed, Strauss worked most often with a librettist who regarded himself as the composer's artistic equal or better. Norman Del Mar has written, "History knows of no other instance of an author of the highest rank acting unaided as the librettist to a great composer."

Actually, history knows of a few one-shot instances—Maeterlinck and Debussy, Auden and Stravinsky. A number of serious and respected twentieth-century writers (Apollinaire, Claudel, Cocteau, Colette, E. M. Forster) have written performable opera libretti. But I cannot imagine any of them (or Da Ponte, Scribe, or Boito) writing to his composer-partner, as Hofmannsthal did to Strauss, "I know the worth of my work; I know that for many generations past no distinguished poet of the rank with which I may credit myself amongst the living, has dedicated himself willingly and devotedly to the task of writing for a musician."

Hofmannsthal insisted that for a producer to alter one syllable of his final text would be as vandalistic as to alter a note of Strauss's score. He saw to it that his dramas were published as he wrote them, not as revised for performance. He kept trying to push Strauss toward forms of composition in which the word would take command, toward a conscious decision "to entrust the decisive role to the voices."

"Once a melody seeks to dominate the scene . . . that is invariably the beginning of the end." "If only it were possible to . . . reach a 'less-of-music,' to reach a point where the lead, the melody would be given rather more to the voice, where the orchestra . . . would be subordinated to the singers." In the case of Ariadne auf Naxos , in particular—the occasion of their most bitter conflicts—he insists that Strauss regard his role as nothing more than a "decorator" of his lines, as the author "not of the substance, but of the trimmings."

Hugo von Hofmannsthal is an important poet and playwright, if not perhaps the reborn Goethe he sometimes seemed to think himself—important, at least, in the context of German literature. He is a more important writer than most of the "men of letters" who have collaborated on operas. But his artistic arrogance, his ada-


mantine refusal (or inability) to understand the nature of his co-creator, or of opera as most of us experience it—which is to say, through the music and singing first—probably did as much to set limits to Strauss's achievements as an opera composer as the latter's own uncertain taste and antimodern instincts.



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