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Richard Strauss: A Musical Life by Raymond Holden (review)

From: Notes
Volume 69, Number 3, March 2013
pp. 541-544 | 10.1353/not.2013.0030

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Until quite recently—perhaps only the last two or three decades—the history of Western music has been viewed primarily through the prism of written, prescriptive composition. Composers who created the immortal canon that all students and admirers of classical art music have been taught to revere were privileged above all other sorts of musicians, even though it is almost impossible to find a canonical figure who did not act at some time or another as a performer, conductor, administrator, impresario, copyist, publisher, editor, critic, theorist, teacher, or anything else that might further a career, promote particular musical works, or improve one’s financial fortunes. Textbooks usually acknowledged that Josquin Desprez was also a singer, J. S. Bach an overworked church musician, Joseph Haydn a busy administrator of the Esterházy orchestra, W. A. Mozart an enterprising pianist and concert promoter, Robert Schumann a provocative writer and critic, and Gustav Mahler a demanding conductor, among many other possible examples, but notice of these and similar non-compositional activities by numerous other musicians was usually made with the implication that these tasks were somehow asides or even impediments to the “higher calling”—in the nineteenth century’s formulation—of composition. The typical view of Mahler’s career, for example, states that he “[took] up the baton from sheer necessity” (Deryck Cooke, Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to His Music [Cambridge: Cam bridge University Press, 1980], 8). It is only quite recently that his efforts as a conductor and opera administrator have received serious scholarly attention on their own merits, rather than being glossed over as mere obstacles to his “real work,” the composition of symphonic masterworks.

The career of Richard Strauss, Mahler’s contemporary, has been examined with similar emphases. Strauss’s biographers have naturally been drawn first to his handful of orchestral tone poems, more than a dozen operas, and several score of Lieder, all of which are cornerstones in their respective repertoires, and those compositions have regularly served as the framework for the recounting of his life. His long career also embraced performance on the podium and at the piano, the leadership and administration of at least a half-dozen significant musical organizations, and work as an advocate for concert music, composers’ rights, and copyright reform. These activities have been discussed to one degree or another in the many biographies of Strauss—including several excellent ones written for the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 1999—but the focus in all such studies has invariably remained on his compositional output.

Against that background, this new biography of Strauss is a significant addition to the literature. Its author, Raymond Holden, has written frequently in the past fifteen years about Strauss’s activities as a conductor, and this single volume brings together many of Holden’s studies in combination with a compact outline of Strauss’s life and a sizeable number of appendices. In fact, the supporting documentation amounts to well over a third of this book, with extensive (although not exhaustive) listings of Strauss’s regular appearances as a conductor (appendix 1) and facsimile extracts from a few of Strauss’s own marked scores (appendix 5) as the most important. Holden also includes his own translation of the Munich Intendant Ernst von Possart’s detailed description of Strauss’s important 1896 revival of Don Giovanni (appendix 2), a thoroughgoing explication of Strauss’s reworking of Mozart’s Idomeneo (appendix 3), and a list of Strauss’s primarily commercial recordings (appendix 4). Collectively, these supporting items are new and critically important resources for anyone interested in Strauss’s work as a conductor.

The biography, a prose narrative that fills just over half of the book, is somewhat pedestrian and is drawn from well-known standard sources (Willi Schuh, Franz Trenner, Kurt Wilhelm, Strauss’s own Recollections, his letters to his parents and others, etc.), with the weight shifted not surprisingly to Strauss’s development as a conductor and subsequent activities on the podium. The chapter titles and subheadings, e.g., “At the Summit: General-musikdirektor at Berlin (1908–1919) and Beethoven Style” (chap. 6), make clear that performance holds sway over composition. Also, nearly every chapter contains at least one or two...



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