Strauss Oboe Concerto

Im Abendrot: Richard Strauss’ last active years

What happens to a composer when he reaches the end of his career and of his life? Gustav Mahler envisioned himself disappearing into an ethereal non-existence in which life, heaven, love and music were blended together into one blissful state — or at least so it is portrayed in his Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, the most beautiful of his Rückert-Lieder: “I have left the world behind me, where I wasted so much time; I rest now in a place of tranquillity. I live alone in my heaven, in my love, in my song!”

Richard Strauss, however, saw matters differently. In 1944 he was eighty years old and his career as a composer had begun at the age of six with his Schneiderpolka. He grew up to become one of the most respected and the most productive composers of Europe, the most important composer of tone poems — Macbeth, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Eine Alpensinfonie — and of a long series of extremely successful operas that began with Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. He also composed concertos, chamber music and works for special occasions.

Olga Scholten, 2015

photo Olga scholten, 2015

Small world

Richard Strauss had long adapted himself to the uneasy reality of the Third Reich: he may not have supported it openly or with enthusiasm, but neither did he distance himself from it. His fame was so great that the Nazi government put very few problems in his path; on the other hand, Strauss remained silent over the destruction of Jewish musical life and continued peacefully composing. Capriccio, his final opera, was first performed in Munich in 1942.

The musical world of the time became smaller and smaller as the Second World War continued and the fortunes of the German army were reversed. Musicians and stage technicians were sent into the army, concert halls could no longer be heated and theatres went up in flames. Strauss was more or less compelled by events to devote himself to simpler instrumental works, generally for smaller ensembles. These works included the Horn Concerto No. 2, two sonatinas for wind ensemble, the Metamorphosen for 23 strings and the Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon. He composed these work in the safety of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, an oasis of quiet high in the Bavarian Alps and far from the madness of the world. It is possible that Strauss intended, as Rückert wrote, to put the world behind him. The world, however, had by no means finished with Strauss.

Off limits

The American army reached Garmisch on 30 April 1945; the town had remained virtually untouched by the war. The German troops surrendered freely. American soldiers pounded on the door of Strauss’ villa, intending to requisition it as their headquarters. The composer came down the stairs and solemnly stated “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome.” He explained the troubles he had taken during the war to save Jewish members of his family. The lieutenant in command of the platoon, one Milton Weiss, himself a musician, bowed politely. The Americans chose another building as their headquarters and a sign marked Off Limits was placed on the lawn in front of Strauss’ house. This was no bad idea, as American troops had accidentally shot the composer Anton Webern dead elsewhere in the Alps.

The sign did not, however, protect Strauss from attacks on his reputation. One of the visitors to his villa was Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann and a reporter for the Stars and Stripes, the American army newspaper. Strauss knew his father, so Klaus Mann introduced himself as Mr Brown in order to remain incognito; he later wrote to his family that Strauss “was almost the most abject figure that you could imagine: unaware, self-satisfied, greedy, vain, deeply selfish and deprived of all such normal human impulses such as shame and decency.” Mann wrote with great bitterness about Strauss’ close connections to the Nazis in his article for Stars and Stripes and depicted him as an old opportunist.

John de Lancie

Strauss, however, got on remarkably well with the normal soldiers who were garrisoned in Garmisch. One of these was John de Lancie (1921-2002). He had entered the army at the age of 21 as a member of the army band but was by this time working for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. De Lancie had been principal oboe of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra before entering the army. After the war he was to become a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra and director of the Curtis Institute of Music. He too knocked on Strauss’ door, but out of admiration. De Lancie later wrote down his memories of that visit.

“My meeting with Strauss took place at his home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, a few days after the end of World War II... I spent three days in Garmisch and visited the Strauss home both in the afternoon and evening of each day. Strauss spoke excellent French so I was able to have direct conversations with him. During one such conversation I spoke of the glorious lyric solos for the oboe in many of his works and asked if he had ever thought of writing a concerto for oboe, to which he replied ‘no,’ and that appeared to be the end of the subject.

I was to learn three months later from an article in [...] the Stars and Stripes (the United States Armed Forces newspaper), sent to me by my brother who was then in the South Pacific in the Navy, that Strauss was in fact working on a concerto for oboe as result of ‘a suggestion from an American soldier from Chicago’ (this is in the inscription in his hand on the title page of the manuscript, a complete copy of which is in my possession).

In the fall of 1945 Strauss moved to Switzerland. In December I received a card from Strauss inviting me to the world premiere to take place in Zurich. I had been overseas since May of 1943 and was scheduled to return home in January. Any change in these orders would have caused an indeterminate delay. I was anxious to return home and to my career with the Pittsburgh Symphony, so I regretfully declined.”

Unexpected lightness

De Lancie remained in contact with the Strauss family even after his return to civilian life in the USA. Boosey and Hawkes, Strauss’ British publishers, passed on the message that Strauss offered him the possibility of the first American performance of the concerto. This was not possible, as by then De Lancie had moved to the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he was not first oboe. It was only in 1964 that he was finally able to perform the work with his own orchestra under Eugene Ormandy; he later recorded the concerto in 1988.

Alexei Ogrintchouk, first oboe of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra says in an interview elsewhere on this website how surprising it is that Strauss could compose a concerto that is so full of light at such an advanced age. The well-known critic Alex Ross states in his The Rest is Noise that “It was music of unexpected lightness, music that was reminiscent of the fluent and calculatedly Mendelssohnian scores that Strauss had composed in his youth before he fell under Wagner’s spell.”

Three years later Strauss was to bid farewell to his work and to life with the Vier letzte Lieder. Alex Ross states that “With Im Abendrot he rivals Mahler in the art of looking death in the face”. In 1944, however, the old opportunist had not yet reached that point. His eighty-year-old brain was still able to produce music as light and pure as birdsong. He had not yet left the world behind by any means.

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood
Quotes from Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise. Listening to the Twentieth Century. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007.