- Rounding Wagner's Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera by Bryan Gilliam
'In relation to all earlier creations for the theatre (setting aside Richard Wagner), my operas will maintain an honourable place at the end of the "rainbow", and if a new land in the area of opera is yet to be reached, a good foundation stone can be laid on this "alley of the sphinxes".' Such was the aged Richard Strauss's summative view of his fifteen operas, [End Page 308] expressed in a letter to his sometime collaborator Joseph Gregor on 4 February 1945 (Richard Strauss und Joseph Gregor: Briefwechsel 1934–1949, ed. Roland Tenschert (Salzburg, 1955), 271, my translation). The mixture of cautious pride in his operatic achievements, pessimism as regards the future of the art, and deference to the superiority of Wagner's works is highly characteristic of the octogenarian composer. It is the last of these attitudes that is reflected in the title of Bryan Gilliam's monograph on Strauss's sphinxlike operas. The pre-colon Rounding Wagner's Mountain is based on a remark Strauss made to Stefan Zweig, another of his librettists, to whom he confessed that Wagner's oeuvre was an impassable mountain for later composers; however, he (Strauss) had managed to make a detour around the mountain (p. xi).
It is therefore ironic and yet strangely fitting that this important study of Strauss's operatic output should begin with a title half-page where Wagner's name alone features at the top (as is customary, the book's subtitle, Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera, is omitted here). The same is true of the spine of the book. Throughout the volume Gilliam makes Wagner a frequent point of reference, to such an extent that an itemized list of Wagnerian references occupies about three-quarters of a column in the index. Wagner is recognized as an 'undeniable, dominant musical influence' (p. 7) on Strauss, but Gilliam frequently maintains that Strauss is 'debunking' (p. xiii) ideologies associated with Wagner. The notion that Strauss's relationship to Wagner is more than simple discipleship has been orthodoxy within Anglophone academic discourse for several decades: an important early contribution to mapping Strauss's divergence from the Wagnerian way was Charles Youmans's doctoral dissertation 'Richard Strauss's Guntram and the Dismantling of Wagnerian Musical Metaphysics' (Duke University, 1996), written under the supervision of Gilliam and frequently cited here. Guntram is the first work where one can easily discern a critical attitude to aspects of Wagner's Schopenhauer-influenced art, so that its perceived importance for the narrative of Strauss's career far exceeds its intrinsic merits qua opera. But even here Gilliam notes that 'parody need not be seen as an attempt to tear down its referent: Strauss clearly wanted to continue the Wagnerian musical discourse, but on his own terms' (p. 27).
And continue it he did, in varying ways. Even where Strauss seems most distant from Wagner, this is read as intentional dissimilarity; for instance, Strauss's use of 'bodily gesture of dance throughout his life [was] a response to Wagner, as the signifier of an artist free of metaphysics' (p. 43). Salome is seen as a rejection of the redemptive religiosity of Parsifal (p. 84), where the would-be redeemer is beheaded. Decades later, when Zweig and Straus collaborated on Die schweigsame Frau, they 'both envisioned ... the most anti-Wagnerian music imaginable' (p. 225). Continuity of technique could still be observed, although Strauss's most important librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal appealed to him several times to cast off the Wagnerian heavy armour. This advice was never entirely taken on board by the composer: the recasting of motifs in different harmonic-expressive contexts in Die Frau ohne Schatten is described as 'a procedure [Strauss] learned from Wagner, especially as evidenced in Parsifal' (p. 171). Even Intermezzo, one of the most un-Wagnerian works at first glance, 'responds to Wagner on two levels: thematically, through domestic marital comedy, and...