A Look at the Whole Strauss

Bard College's festival, under Leon Botstein, tackles weighty issues surrounding composers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`WE don't do these Bard Music Festivals just to praise a particular composer," says Leon Botstein, "but to throw open controversies when necessary, con- troversies that are not only musical, but political and ethical and historical."

Indeed, since its debut three years ago, the Bard Festival, held on the picturesque Bard College campus 90 miles north of New York City, has not only presented dozens of concerts but also covered some unusual topics, such as: the sexuality of Johannes Brahms; the anti-Semitism that plagued the career of Felix Mendelssohn, and the sexism that derailed the career of his sister Fanny; and the implications of Richard Strauss's connection with the Nazi regime.

Next August, it will be Antonin Dvorak's turn. The festival's two-week event will focus on this Czech composer and his times.

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Much of the success of the Bard Festival must be laid at the door of its dynamic director, Leon Botstein. He is one of the most active, versatile, visible - and occasionally volatile - figures on the national arts scene. He is a triple-threat player - a media star (he is in constant demand on national television and radio), a prominent educator and administrator (he is the president of Bard College, one of the fastest growing and attractive campuses in the country), and a musician (he conducts the Bard F estival Orchestra and is the conductor of the American Symphony in New York City).

Unquestionably, the Bard Festival is Mr. Botstein's pet project; it provides him an opportunity to demonstrate ideas in musical education and performance that he has pursued all his life.

"In this country, musical education is virtually nonexistent," Botstein says in an interview at his home on the Bard campus. He has a deliberate but intense way of speaking. His brow seems perpetually furrowed, although a sly humor is never far away. He continues: "It's just a question of combining educational, interdisciplinary forums with the pleasure of the music itself. The composers we choose for our `Rediscoveries' - Brahms, the Mendelssohns, Strauss, next year Dvorak - are artists who were at the center of their worlds, who were intersections of the important issues in art, philosophy, social change, and world events of their time."

The festival on Richard Strauss was a case in point. "He lived a long time," says historian Bryan Gilliam of Duke University, who had been invited by Botstein to edit the festival's anthology of essays on Strauss. "Consider his dates - 1864 to 1949. He saw an Emperor come and go. He went through the trials and tribulations of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. He endured the period of National Socialism in the 1930s. He survived the Second World War. And he died during the time of a newly divided Germany. "

But finding the "real" Richard Strauss can be difficult. In his lifetime he was described as a "genius" by his friends and as a "decadent" and "leg-puller" by his enemies. He lived long enough to see the critics who, in his ardent youth, pronounced him an artistic visionary, condemn him in his stodgy middle age as a commercial sellout.

TODAY'S audiences know him primarily for a handful of the waltzes from his popular opera, "Der Rosenkavalier;" and for his late 19th-century orchestral tone poems, like "Also sprach Zarathustra" and "Death and Transfiguration," which have been adapted to movie soundtracks, respectively, "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Superman."

"You know," adds Botstein, "Strauss has until very recently been the odd man out. Although he lived 49 years into the 20th century, most people think he vanished from the musical scene after 1910 and `Der Rosenkavalier."' This neglect is not accidental. It has been part of a conscious rejection of things Strauss came to represent, some controversial things.

A centerpiece of the Bard Festival was Strauss's link to the Third Reich. Although he wasn't a Nazi, he occupied under Joseph Goebbels the post of Director of the Reich Music Chamber from 1933 to 1935. He seemed to support the National Socialist agendas for promoting a wholly "German" music - but then he was forced to resign because he worked with an opera librettist, Stefan Zweig, who was a Jew. Later he moved to Garmisch and, during the war years, he lived in Switzerland.

An art exhibition entitled "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate Art") complemented the Bard Festival's many discussions and music concerts concerning Strauss, the Nazis, and the politics of music in general. It documented the careers and fates of many prominent German composers, all colleagues of Strauss, who, like Hans Pfitzner, either cooperated with the Nazis, or, like Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, and Hanns Eisler eventually fled Nazi oppression to settle in the United States. In 1991 this e xhibition toured 26 cities in Europe and was shown in Los Angeles. The Bard College appearance was its first on the East Coast.

CURATOR Albrecht Dumling explains that by the mid-1930s Strauss had found himself in the middle of a quagmire of vicious racist and political agendas in Nazi Germany: "Goebbels was a very culture- loving man, and the Reich was spending a lot of money to support the arts - their version of the arts, that is. This exhibition was originally mounted in Dusseldorf to locate and attack the kinds of art that the Nazis thought `sick' and `perverted.' You see, the Nazis thought that music, particularly, could ha ve a very direct influence on the soul. It comes from the soul, and it influences the soul. You can form a man by listening to music. But if you listened to music thought to be corrupt, then you would not be a real German.... That is what they said."

Displayed in the exhibit was a poster from the original 1938 Dusseldorf exhibition. It depicted an African-American jazz performer whose features were grossly caricatured and whose coat lapel bore a Star of David. "Jewish music, American jazz, experiments in atonality - they were all lumped together as `unwholesome,' to Germany," continues Mr. Dumling. "Now Strauss, on the other hand, was not a Nazi, and I don't believe he was even sympathetic to them, but he saw good chances for his music with the Nazis . He was very egotistical, he thought only about himself."

Leon Botstein agrees. "Here was a man who, on the one hand, was very wise, very profound - a man who could write masterpieces like the `Metamorphosen' and the opera, `Frau ohne Schatten' [works performed at the festival] - but who chose at this point to put blinders on, not only in his personal life, but in his public life. He really sank to the lowest common denominator of behavior - greed, envy, and political collaboration."

"This controversy surrounding Strauss makes him seem very close to us today," Dumling asserts. "The lesson for us is that the government should never have influence on the styles and subjects of art. Of course, it can train teachers and offer support, but if it limits the kinds of arts to be available, that is very dangerous."

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