The 'Preface' to Michael Reynolds's charming book begins with a pithy statement: 'This is a book about creation, authorship and relationships' (p. x). Thus, in a nutshell, he lays out succinctly the course his monograph takes from uncovering a largely overlooked backstory to the creation of one of the most successful operas of the twentieth century. He presents a detailed account of the nature and origins of its authorship via a considered and sensitively pitched examination of the artistic relationships that underpinned it.
With regard to the opera's rarefied literary and theatrical milieu—a '"half-imaginary, half-real" Vienna during the 1740s... the early years of the reign of Maria Theresa' (long thought to be chiefly the creation of Hofmannsthal's imagination)—the most revealing aspect of this book is the manner in which it describes that this was not entirely the case. While Count Harry Kessler's role in the opera's conception of Der Rosenkavalier (1911) had been credited (if not entirely investigated with any rigour heretofore), Reynolds persuasively decodes the intricacies of Kessler's professional (and, for a time, intensely personal) relationship with Hofmannsthal to reveal that the former had much more of a hand in its making than has previously been acknowledged.
Auden once described Kessler (1868–1937) as 'the most cosmopolitan man who had ever lived' (cited in Kessler, Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880–1918, ed. and trans. Laird M. Easton (New York, 2011), p. xii), and, while the tone may well have been half-joking, his comment was not too wide of the mark. As an inveterate traveller across Europe (and beyond) in the years prior to the First World War in both a personal and professional capacity, Kessler came to know the crème de la crème of society, art, and politics in the belle époque, and counted among his acquaintances figures as diverse as Herbert Asquith, Pierre Bonnard, Jean Cocteau, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Sergei Diaghilev, Albert Einstein, Gerhart Hauptmann, Max Liebermann, Thomas Mann, Edvard Munch, Max Reinhardt, and George Bernard Shaw. As a man of means with multiple residences, he was by the turn of the century a regular attendee at the opera houses and theatres of some of the major European cities, and had been to performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera, theatres in Tokyo and Shanghai, London's West End theatres, and Bayreuth.
Kessler's outlook and activities as a writer, patron, museum director, passionate advocate of contemporary art, soldier, diplomat, propagandist, secret agent, and, later, ardent Weimar Republic politician were remarkably consistent, as Germany and Austria made their parallel transitions from empire to fragile democracy to nascent (and then real) totalitarian regime in less than the space of a generation. But, while Kessler was deeply embedded in the fabric of both pre- and interwar European culture, the extent and detail of his involvement were not as transparent. Since the publication of the Kessler Diary from 2004 onwards, tracing that path has become easier, and this book homes in on his fascinating role in the inception of a work that arguably owed as much to his vision as it did to that of its acknowledged literary creator. [End Page 311]
Readers familiar with the Hofmannsthal–Strauss canon (and the scholarship based thereon) will undoubtedly be familiar with Josephslegende (The Legend of Joseph), Op. 63, the ballet written by Strauss to a libretto by Hofmannsthal and Kessler for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which premiered in 1914. Though it may have been brought with much fanfare from Paris to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London, during June and July of that year, it did not find lasting popularity or critical acclaim. Of far more consequence in terms of Kessler's involvement with the Hofmannsthal–Strauss collaboration was Der Rosenkavalier and, in particular, its gestational period in 1908–10; as Reynolds uncovers, Kessler's contribution to the project was much more than the patina retrospectively attributed to him by Hofmannsthal.