Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Strauss, in fragments

Going to a performance of Der Rosenkavalier seemed like the right thing to do this last weekend. Although it's not the kind of recreation an experimental composer would seem likely to go in for, when done well, it reliably cheers me up and as this year — not personally, but generally — started out with wanting a good dose of cheer, recreate I did.   In a very good performance at the Frankfurt Opera under Sebastian Weigle, I was struck this time by how modern the 1911 piece is.  While typically reckoned as the beginning of the composer's romantic-conservative turn, it is still built so edgily on stylistic, or rather music-about-music, citations and fragmentation that the whole has a continuity more of a piece with Elektra (1909), his first collaboration with librettist Hofmannsthal*, than with the smoother operas to come, from Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) onward.  Although Strauss's score doesn't have Ives's contrapuntal mettle, with his fragments and citations linear, in series, rather than overlapped or parallel, and he's more for stylistic than exact quotes of tunes, it really does belong in the same modernist ballpark as Ives, with nostalgia playing a similar role (it's easy to forget that at the time of its premiere, the pseudo-Mozart and almost-Johann-Strauss-Waltzes in Rosenkavalier were not fashionable objects of nostalgia and Ives's citation corpus was, and was increasingly so, similarly out-of-the-moment. (I won't push Ives-Strauss much further, but can't help but note that both shared a similar device for hanging a shimmering and harmonically ambiguating cloud over nostalgic material — for example, here, Strauss with his use of celesta and flute and Ives with a separated group of five violins and harp in the first movement of the 4th Symphony.)  Strauss's fragmentation had a great resonance in its time, with, for example, Bartók's enthusiasm for the broken continuity of Also Sprach Zarathustra reflected directly in works from the tone poem Kossuth to the Dance Suite (1923.)

About the subject of the opera and its libretto, I'll just note that although this opera has the formal shape of the classical comedy, with thwarted young lovers asserting themselves with a prank against the — here, oxen — heavy, it is more like a late-Shakespearean dark comedy or romance, a meditation on aging, on fickle men and wise women, with a fairly realistic take on the various sub-classes of the Austrian (or any) aristocracy,  the servants and supplicants. Above and beyond the obvious attraction to Strauss of writing for three strong women's voices of distinct types, Hofmannsthal gave Strauss a extremely rich set of contrasts in characters to reinforce or play against musically and this meant, in the absence of the contained forms of classical arias and recitatives — which allow for a suspension of dramatic time for emotional consideration and repose — a surface of constant radical shifts in texture and time.
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*This, too: I should be writing something smart or clever about Hermann Broch's essay, "Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, Art and Its Non-style at the End of the Nineteenth Century", but smart and clever fail me here: just read the damn thing.

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