- A Note from the Guest Editor
What [Strauss] signifies for music will only be completely understood by those who come after us.1—Richard Specht (1921)
What then must we do? What then must we do? What then must we do? Must we do—do—do?—Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (film, 1982)
Our epigraphs issue from two very different sources. The first is an emphatic moment in the two-part, interwar-era tome on Strauss by Richard Specht, whose pseudo-philosophical project to revalue the composer aspires to transcend its life-and-works skeleton. And the second is spoken—or urgently sputtered out, rather—by Billy Kwan, the Australian-Chinese dwarf-photographer who feverishly compiles dossiers on Westerners and non-Westerners alike in his Jakarta bungalow against the backdrop of the 1965 communist coup. (Billy’s words have, of course, been passed down from the Gospel of Luke, Tolstoy, and Lenin, among others.)
There are meaningful intersections, indeed, between Specht and Billy as concerns Richard Strauss. Strauss is the unambiguous focus of Specht’s study; “we” (inheritors of Specht’s “now”) are bequeathed with a future perspective that ostensibly allows “us” to grasp the composer, giving him (and Specht, too) validation at long last. Strauss’s famous presence on The Year of Living Dangerously soundtrack is also central, but requires a bit more unpacking. Via Kiri Te Kanawa and the London Symphony,2 we first hear Strauss’s “Beim Schlafengehen” from the Vier letzte Lieder when Billy is hosting Australian journalist Guy Hamilton at his bungalow. While filing dossiers, Billy turns up the stereo, saying, “Listen to this, Guy.” Guy, reclining in a chair, smoking, and staring at Billy’s photo-plastered wall, instantly focuses on a picture of Jill Bryant, an officer at the British Embassy who both men love. Guy’s gaze at Jill is locked by the strains of Te Kanawa’s singing “Und die Seele unbewacht. . .” Strauss’s song—and obviously Te Kanawa’s voice—is a source of deep inspiration for Billy: he assumes the role of the Marschallin (I know: different Strauss, but a role that Te Kanawa also envoiced many times), offering Guy the use of his bungalow while he is away as a self-sacrificing green light to Guy and Jill’s nascent affair. (The intriguing Billy, as portrayed en travesti—and yellow face, too—by actress Linda Hunt could be read as a mongrel Marschallin-Octavian.) That Billy actually spies on Guy and Jill to gather material evidence for their dossiers communicates that he is much more complicated than the Marschallin, and that the stakes are different in 1965 Jakarta than in Maria Theresa’s Vienna. It also reminds us that [End Page 195] the “Strauss problem”—is he worthy of serious scholarly attention?—is, at the end of the day, smaller, a first-world problem.
In C. J. Koch’s 1978 source novel, music delineates East and West, e.g., gamelan, Javanese and Japanese pop music for the former; Puccini, Verdi, Gilbert and Sullivan—the “pantheon” of the token decadent homosexual, veteran journalist Wally O’Sullivan—as well as The Beatles and Vaughn Williams for the latter. The Richard Strauss insertion in the film might be something of a Freudian slip. At Guy Hamilton’s first press conference at Sukarno’s palace, the “chandeliers and gilt chairs made you half-expect Strauss waltzes,”3 assumedly evoking the artifice of Johann Strauss’s imperial Vienna, although the faux artifice of Rosenkavalier might correlate more closely to Jakarta as “an instant world capital,” in which “Monuments rose, topped by ecstatically gesturing figures like ghosts from the Third Reich, or Stalin’s Russia”4—the former of which also haunted Strauss, and his “Beim Schlafengehen” specifically.
But it is the film’s second occurrence of “Beim Schlafengehen” that drives its climax, in which the personal and political are knotted. Disappointed that Guy is more limited than he had hoped (and thus unable to accept Guy’s pairing with the beloved Jill), as well as devastated by the disappearance (certain death) of his adopted family from Jakarta’s slums, Billy now stares at the photos of...