December 21, 2008

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), Op. 59
Kömodie für Musik in three acts
libretto by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (1874-1929)
composed: 1909-10 (age 45-46)
first performance: Königliches Opernhaus, Dresden, January 26, 1911 (Margarethe Siems (Marschallin), Karl Perron (Ochs), Eva van der Osten (Octavian), Minnie Nast (Sophie), Dresden Opera/Ernst von Schuch)

And there they are. If you can’t read those little captions, that’s Strauss seated at center, Hoffmannsthal with moustache behind him, Schuch seated at right, and then a bunch of other guys. Photo taken on the day of the dress rehearsal, I believe.

429. #10.

I have many many serious reservations about this work, but the fact must be faced that Richard Strauss was some kind of a genius. A genius of what, exactly? Hard to say. Not any of the things that people generally want to be geniuses of – but a genius of something.

Going through this score is like going through computer code. I marveled at the fluency of the programmer. Strauss once bragged that his skill at musical illustration was such that he could compose a knife and fork and differentiate them. I don’t doubt it. Representational conceits that for other composers would sustain whole works are here casually tossed off and discarded after a single use; he truly doesn’t care. He’s got a million more where that came from.

In another knife-related comment, Strauss said that setting the text of Rosenkavalier was for him “like spreading butter.” The very image of fluency – but what makes his spreading so amazing is how thick this butter is. Every bar in this massive score – and there are several thousand of them – is a display of cleverness. Not just of wit, but of an opulent, overabundant cleverness; of one cleverness wedded to another cleverness through a third feat of cleverness, and so on. Strauss’s scores are like dripping palaces of cleverness.

Which takes me to the flip side: what every bar of this opera is not a display of is taste. I’m not talking about the fact that the overture depicts the leads having sex, with remarkable specificity (one can, if one wishes, clearly tell the knife from the fork). That kind of breach of taste doesn’t bother me at all; I actually love that part. What I’m talking about is the lack of proportion and perspective. It seems clear to me that the libretto was constructed with ample consideration for pacing, for the subtleties of drama as they would be experienced on the audience’s time scale, but that the score wasn’t. Strauss seems to have worked his way through the text, spreading his lavish butter as he went, trusting that it would all add up. But even over the course of a single chunk of a single scene, it often doesn’t add up. Or rather, it adds up to too much. Too much business. Too many footnotes per page. High cholesterol, gotta cut back. That the opera is typically done with cuts – fairly hefty ones – reflects awareness of the problem on the part of opera-land, but the problem is too pervasive to be nip-and-tucked away.

Strauss is brilliant at the vertical, boorish about the horizontal. There, I figured it out. That’s what he is a genius at: the vertical. Every image is finessed to perfection, every character and relationship and nuance and color of a moment somehow condensed and turned into a neat little contraption. Unfortunately, listening to a performance is a bit like being barraged with neat little contraptions; one wants to protect one’s head.

Is all that cleverness supposed to be subliminal or front-and-center? There’s just no winning this one – if I’m expected to watch for the story and just be buoyed along on the music, it’s much too busy, aggressive, and distracting. If, on the other hand, I’m supposed to notice and appreciate all the intricacies, there’s just too much to take in at the speed of performance. One way or the other, the music has cleverness to spare, and it should have been spared.

As with a lot of Late Romantic music, much of the drama in the score sounds to me like silly putty being stretched gooily and then snapped clean, in violent and endless alternation. And a three-and-a-half hour listening experience of random silly putty is not a gratifying one. There’s nothing gooey on the page or in Herr Strauss’s magical contraption workshop, but it comes out awfully gooey in practice – it’s the sound of details that were composed on the wrong scale, being wrung out in real time.

Film composers tend to deprecate “Mickey-Mousing,” because it glorifies the surface rather than the substance, which, in all but the most comic-balletic cases, is unflattering and unhelpful. Strauss steamrolls his butter right over that principle. It’s all Mickey-Mousing. Even when he’s not Mickey-Mousing the action, he’s still Mickey-Mousing the thoughts, Mickey-Mousing the meaning. He obviously feels things and knows things about the world, and he can write music to jerk your tears, but the interface between those two capacities is pure Mouse.

Exempli gratia. At the very beginning, after some confused sweet nothings in bed with the Field Marshal’s wife, our young hero Octavian whines that he doesn’t want it to be daytime yet, and shuts the blinds in protest. This little moment doesn’t mean anything more than that in itself – it’s just a part of the “morning after” scene. In reality, or in any movie or play, the line in question (“Why does there have to be day? In the day you belong to everyone, instead of just to me. That window needs to be closed”) would probably be delivered with an understated humor. Or it would be, at most, mock-whiny, mock-frustrated, a moment of playacting in the middle of the scene’s deeper flow. What then does Richard Strauss do? He sets this line as a series of high-pitched, trumpet-like outbursts for the singer (to remind us that this is our impetuous, childish young hero), over a complicated accompaniment made up of several layers of signifiers: a horn call sounding a note of dismay and agitation (i.e. Octavian’s displeasure); a phrase from the preceding love music (i.e. the intimate scene that is being interrupted); and a cacophony of literal birdcalls in the woodwinds (i.e. the undesired morning outside the window). At the moment that Octavian declares his intention to shut the window, there is a surprise harmonic shift, a sung high G, the sudden entrance of basses and bassoons, and a tremolo chord in the strings; in other words: big drama. For what, Richard? He is shutting the window! You picked all the wrong stuff. Everything you composed into the moment was not only already in the libretto but was already visible and audible on stage. It’s exactly the stuff we don’t need music about. This isn’t even music for the cartoon version — even Mickey Mouse was occasionally allowed to decide to close a window independently from the tyranny of the underscore — this is the music for the radio play version. For a radio play with no sound effects. And, if possible, no actors. This is music to complement nothing; it does not play well with others.

Strauss has composed everything but the drama. The kitchen sink he has. In fact the kitchen sink was his top priority.

He did subtitle it as a “Comedy for Music,” so maybe he was acknowledging his selfishness. It’s for music more than it’s for you.

As for the libretto: on the one hand, it’s a completely mannered display of pretentious nostalgic fondness for things I do not personally love – it is an inbred opera “about” Mozart operas, for rich people who like stories about richer people. It’s purposefully, knowingly full of all that 18th-century crap – wigs and slave boys and stockings and titles and so on and so on. In fact, Hoffmannsthal goes so far as to invent some 18th-century crap that never existed. The whole concept of the “Rosenkavalier” (a noble messenger who presents a bride-to-be with a traditional, ceremonial silver rose) – it’s something he concocted to be just as sissified and twee (and, to the intended audience, delicious) as all the historical crap. Also, apparently, the German of the libretto is fantasy-antiquated in a way that he invented. The opera is “retro,” but it is not a pastiche, and it’s not ironic, and it’s not simply nostalgic or kitschy, and it’s certainly not “post-modern” – Hoffmannsthal has some other kind of attitude toward all this stuff. And though that attitude is a little self-congratulatory and too-clever (like the music), I can’t deny that it is, at least, genuinely sophisticated and intelligent. It’s just not my silver-edged, gilded white china cup of tea.

Neither is it my cup of tea that the young hero is played by a woman wearing the proverbial trousers. This choice is either an affectation, linking us back to the grand tradition of ridiculous bent-gender stuff in operas, or an aesthetic choice made by people for whom the sound of several high female voices intertwining is so exquisite that they’re willing to suspend all sorts of disbelief to get it. I am not such a person. The transcendently beautiful finale yada yada yada doesn’t do a lot for me because, though the orchestra is playing something pretty, it’s sort of ruined by all those high voices going at once! Not the most pleasant sound. I don’t understand opera-land’s fixation on people singing high notes. To me, highness of sing doesn’t correspond in any way to intensity of emotion. If anything, the further from speaking tones a singer gets, the less it feels to me like the product of a human being. And I thought the whole point of putting them on stage acting out stories was because they’re human beings!

But I do have a good deal of respect for the way the libretto is written. Its ambitions in terms of psychological subtlety are admirable. Opera usually offers only the biggest, dumbest sort of emotions. Here the camera seems to be in a bit closer on the characters; the work tries to register real social relationships and not just plotted relationships. At least, when it’s convenient to do so. It’s a little erratic.

Also, as mentioned, no matter how open and sympathetic and grown-up you are, it’s very hard to watch the lovers interacting and not be constantly thinking, “but that’s not a man!” So that tends to takes some of the edge off it.

There are one or two reasonably catchy waltz melodies in there, which would seem to be the main reason that this opera is such a perennial favorite; rather silly considering the huge ratio of everything-else to catchy-waltz in the score. In 3 though the everything-else may be. For my part, I think Strauss’s leitmotifs are better material than his “tunes,” but he rarely puts them to really satisfying musical ends, so despite all the interesting melodies, you still end up waiting eagerly for the moment when a character sings two-fifths of an actual song. “Mit mir” is a pretty amusing little number, I’ll admit.

I still have, pushed to a burner so far back that it may have fallen off the stove entirely, a potential entry about John Williams and movie music that I started writing three years ago. Listening to Rosenkavalier I was struck by how this is the source for so many aspects of the Hollywood school of composition; orchestrally, harmonically, motivically, and representationally. It has both the sound and the spirit, even superficially: Octavian’s theme is like Indiana Jones’s German cousin. I already knew that Strauss’s orchestra was a big part of the Hollywood sound, but previously I only knew his tone poems; what was most striking here is how his dramatic technique (which I was impugning above) was also carried over into film. Film scores, as with Rosenkavalier, are not made up of self-contained formal pieces of music – they are just butter spread over the length of a work, like a long mural. This technique creates its own characteristic sense of not-quite-form, which is what that other entry was going to be about, and which is what I recognized here.

There is genius in there, and there’s maybe a brilliant opera in there too, but it’s strutting around affectedly in a giant, nerdy, obnoxious marshmallow suit. If you can picture that.

Gonna break this up with some art. Here’s a link to a painting of the original production – looks like the end of Act II. And here below is a photo of the “presentation of the rose” scene in the original production. I bet it looked better than this in person.


Dubal’s recommended recordings were Karajan and Bernstein. I couldn’t find copies of the Bernstein, though I’d still be interested to hear it. The Karajan was fine, but it’s the top pick because of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, I think, and I’m not one of these people for whom singing voices are the principal consideration. Tempi matter more to me, in a way. The one I ended up putting in the most time with was the Solti recording, which is the 1001 Classical Recordings pick. I listened to it several times – well, acts one and two and the very end of act three. There’s a chunk in there, when the police show up, that I just couldn’t make myself care about, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I watched the Solti 1985 DVD all the way through; the Kleiber 1994 DVD I didn’t make time for more than the first 20 minutes before I had to return it to the library. In those 20 minutes, though, it seemed like it might be slightly better.

The piano-vocal score, online. The full score is more interesting but nobody seems to have posted it yet.

Enough with this entry! This has been rotting here forEVER. A year, I think. I know, it’s completely overgrown and dull. But if you think it’s tedious, think how I feel. Ugh. I really need to make the process of listening, writing, and posting much faster. Like, I should post my thoughts about a thing as soon as I have those thoughts, which usually are the day I encounter the thing. Not a year later, out of a sense of ingrown obligation, after it’s all had time to fester and get boring. Not even google cares at this point. Sorry, google robots, to make you read all this.

Kiri Te Kanawa (Marschallin), Aage Haugland (Ochs), Anne Howells (Octavian), Barbara Bonney (Sophie)
The Royal Opera, Covent Garden / Georg Solti. Stage production directed by John Schlesinger. Kultur 2029. 1985.

Felicity Lott (Marschallin), Kurt Moll (Ochs), Anne Sofie von Otter (Octavian), Barbara Bonney (Sophie)
Vienna State Opera / Carlos Kleiber. Based on a stage production by Otto Schenk. Deutsche Grammophon NTSC 073 0089. 1994.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Marschallin), Otto Edelmann (Ochs), Christa Ludwig (Octavian), Teresa Stich-Randall (Sophie)
Philharmonia Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan. EMI 5 56113 2. 1956.

Kiri Te Kanawa (Marschallin), Kurt Rydl (Ochs), Anne Sofie Von Otter (Octavian), Barbara Hendricks (Sophie)
Staatskapelle Dresden / Bernard Haitink. EMI 7 54259 2. 1990.

Regine Crespin (Marschallin), Manfred Jungwirth (Ochs), Yvonne Minton (Octavian), Helen Donath (Sophie)
Wiener Philharmoniker / Georg Solti. Decca 417 493-2. 1968.

Highlights (in English):
Yvonne Kenny (Marschallin), John Tomlinson (Ochs), Diana Montague (Octavian), Rosemary Joshua (Sophie).
London Philharmonic Orchestra / David Parry. Chandos CHAN 9302. 1998.

Wiener Philharmoniker / Christian Thielemann. Deutsche Grammophon 469 519-2. 2000.


  1. Ironically, I just read this entire entry aloud to my lover in bed as the morning sunlight pokes insistently through the window.

    Posted by Adam on |
  2. Good lord.

    Posted by broomlet on |

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