On Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen

Friday, August 2, 2013

Stanley Corngold, Writer in Residence at Yellow Barn, offers this comment about Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen (1944-45), arr. for string septet by Rudolf Leopold (1995) 

This past week of Yellow Barn concerts has alerted us to the great topics of citation and metamorphosis in modernist and post-modernist music. Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 opens with the purest citations of Orlando Di Lasso’s Stabat Mater, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, and the D-S-C-H motif, pointing at once to Dimitri Shostakovich and to Alfred Schnittke. Matthias Pintscher’s Janusgesicht constructs a musical metamorphosis of apparently independent strings—a viola and a cello—into a single figure, as Pintscher notes: the strings do not merely correspond, they do not communicate; from "the elementary craving that unifies two figures,” the one voice is “resolved” into the other. Now, in Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, we have a major instance of significant citation embedded in an inexpressibly beautiful river of sound, in which that citation undergoes continual symphonic metamorphosis. Strauss cites, once again, Beethoven—the funeral march from the Beethoven’s Eroica, and notes in the score: “In Memoriam.”        

The funeral march is “in memoriam”...of what? The years of Strauss’s composition are 1944-45, on the verge of the Nazi collapse. Whom or what is he mourning? The history of the Eroica might provide a model: the Eroica was originally dedicated to Napoleon, but after Beethoven had learned that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, he rededicated it “to the memory of a great man” although Napoleon was still very much alive and in power. At best, then, Strauss’s citation of the Eroica, together with the phrase “in memoriam,” would imply his rejection of the Hitler he once served. Like Beethoven—thus the Strauss scholar Timothy L. Jackson—Strauss “buries” and memorializes the still-living tyrant. More jaundiced critics have concluded, with handwringing, that the work is a memorial, instead, to the now collapsing, and thus metamorphosed, once grandiose Nazi regime, Hitler included. But that interpretation makes little sense in light of the very vexatious and even bestial treatment that Strauss and his partly Jewish family received at the hands of the Nazis. This “bestiality” is finally explicit in Strauss’s diary entry in early 1945, “The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance, and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.”

The word and thing “bestiality” will take us some distance into the conceptual background of Metamorphosen. According to Jackson, the key text present to Strauss’s mind at the time of the composition of this piece was a short poem of Goethe titled “Niemand wird sich selber kennen” (No one will know himself):

Niemand wird sich selber kennen,
Sich von seinem Selbst-Ich trennen;
Doch probier er jeden Tag,
Was nach außen endlich, klar,
Was er ist und was er war,
Was er kann und was er mag.

(No one will know himself,
detach himself from the ego of his self;
still [let him] test everyday,
what outwardly, finally, clearly,
what he is and what he was,
what he can do and what he may do.)

The act of penetrating deep into oneself might be supposed to induce a metamorphosis in the nature of the ego that probes. True, but the pessimistic title of the poem suggests the elusiveness of the final metamorphosis. The negative reading leads to a view of the entire “argument” of Strauss’s Metamorphoses as negative: again, according to Jackson, the metamorphosis in the process of the piece conveys the idea of a downward spiral to bestiality. The Eroica quote is then a mournful comment on the human inclination to war, the eternal repetition of man’s metamorphosis, à la Ovid, into a beast. The piece ends in irresolution, in despair.

But just as the Goethe poem does not exclude the possibility of a redemptive self-knowledge, the wholly negative reading of Metamorphosen is one-sided and an imposition. The topic of redemptive metamorphosis appears repeatedly in the German intellectual tradition, especially in other poems of Goethe—arguments that flowed through the veins of this highly literate composer. If, in Ovid, conscious beings are transformed into plants and animals, in Goethe’s great elegy “The Metamorphosis of the Plants” and the epic fragment “The Metamorphosis of the Animals,” the growth of plants and animals shares in “the secret law” that brings about the fulfillment of mutual love and moral intelligence. The poem “No one will know himself” states the impossibility, for now, of self-transformation, but urges that one try! Other poems by Goethe—very many—celebrate its necessity, at its finest in Goethe’s famous “Selige Sehnsucht” (Blessed yearning). The last quatrain reads:

Und so lang du das nicht hast,
Dieses: Stirb und Werde!
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast
Auf der dunklen Erde.

(And so long as you do not have
This:  Die and be reborn!
You are but a gloomy guest
On the dismal earth.)

“Stirb und werde”—“Die and be reborn!” If Goethe’s dictum was well known to Strauss, so was Hofmannsthal’s general imperative in a letter sent during their collaboration on Ariadne. “Live on, get over it, transform yourself, surrender the unity of the soul, and still keep oneself intact in the metamorphosis, remain a human being and not sink to the level of the beast without memory.”

Greatly to Strauss’s credit, in 1935, he wrote to Stefan Zweig: “Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German?’ Do you suppose Mozart was consciously ‘Aryan’ when he composed? I recognize only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none.” It is nice to recall that early on, he spoke on behalf of the “bold harmonies and assurance of style” of the talented wunderkind Erich Wolfgang Korngold!

Metamorphosen is a product of the Late Style—as such less “the resolution of a lifetime’s artistic endeavor” than a work “rife with contradiction and almost impenetrable complexity.”  It is an immense privilege to hear it performed with illuminating precision by seven, indeed, impressively talented, impressively devoted scholar-musicians. 

Find out more about Yellow Barn's performance of Metamorphosen on August 3, 2013