There are few composers whose critical stock has roller-coastered as dramatically as that of Richard Strauss, both during his lifetime and in the five decades since his death in 1949. Once considered a dangerous firebrand of the avant-garde--his early masterpiece Salome
was given the equivalent of an X rating--Strauss remained an exceedingly prolific composer throughout his long career, yet lived to be "written off as an extinct volcano." The painful story of his involvement with the Third Reich further cast a pall over his final years. But in the past two decades, a gradual reassessment has been underway--along with a recuperation of his neglected later works--and the field is ripe for a critically insightful overview of Strauss's achievement.
Such is the goal of Michael Kennedy, a longtime advocate of Strauss, in his new biography, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Kennedy, the Sunday Telegraph's music critic and author of several other musical biographies--including an earlier study of the composer as well as illuminating articles and CD booklets on his music--here undertakes to penetrate the contradictions and see the man whole. Through his impressive access to diaries, letters, and living relatives, he posits an underlying consistency of attitude that made "art the reality in [Strauss's] life." The central enigma about the composer that fascinates Kennedy is the "disparity between man and musician," the paradox that this fundamentally aloof and reserved person, dedicated to bourgeois stability, could produce music of such overpowering passion.
While steering clear of Freudian reductionism, Kennedy reveals the crucial significance of Strauss's mother's nervous instability--she was eventually committed to various sanatoriums--and the centrality of the work ethic inherited from his father. The result was to make music "Strauss's means of escape ... and in much of his music he wore a mask." Yet for all his aloofness, Strauss "let [the mask] slip"--another aspect of the enigma surrounding him--in such compositions as Don Quixote ("the most profound" of his orchestral works) or the pervasively autobiographical Sinfonia Domestica, Intermezzo, and Capriccio, which Kennedy counts as Strauss's greatest achievement for the lyrical stage.
Kennedy is particularly persuasive in his high estimation of the post-Rosenkavalier output and the undiminished quest for artistic innovation that they continued to exemplify--above all in Strauss's development of a fluently conversational style in his operas. Although commentary on individual works involves generally concise summations, many observations sparkle with insight, and Kennedy continually sheds light on neglected gems among Strauss's output. The rapport with Hofmannsthal and his other librettists is admirably clarified, and the remarkably well-read Strauss emerges as a more imposingly intellectual figure, steeped in literature and philosophy, than he is usually depicted. We learn of his obsession with the card game skat and of his disdainful attitude toward the new medium of film. Kennedy similarly demystifies much of the received opinion that has developed around the composer, particularly in his level-headed portrait of his wife, Pauline. The fundamental happiness of their lifelong relationship emerges as a context indispensable to Strauss's creative focus.
Kennedy devotes a significant portion of the book to the composer's position as president of the Reich Music Chamber and subsequent fall from grace both with the Nazis and in world opinion. Here the author aims to offer perspective by carefully detailing the facts and documentary evidence from the time. In his view, Strauss becomes a "tragic figure, symbolising the struggle to preserve beauty and style in Western European culture" against emerging barbarism. Yet, as throughout the book, Kennedy's abiding sympathy with Strauss at times veers close to a kind of special pleading that invites skepticism. For all that, his style is admirably lucid, and his biography largely succeeds in pointing to a greatness that "has not yet been fully understood and discovered." --Thomas May
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"The first large-scale biography of Strauss to be published in many years, this volume is beautifully written by one of the great writers on music in the English language." Choice
"...this is a lively 'Life' that redresses some balances in previous biographical excursions." The Times, London
"Kennedy has added fresh analyses and drawn on much unpublished material....Kennedy provides significant insights into the composer's personal life and complicated mindset throughout his career. While avoiding the clichés of so many of today's over-written psycho-biographies, Kennedy brings Strauss vividly alive and places him firmly in the context of his times." Opera News
"An excellent biography...." Booklist
"An engaging, straightforward biography that largely eschews extended musical analysis." Gazette
"...a coherent and convincing portrait of the composer that comes from years of study....a thoroughly engaging book that should prompt the reader to...return to the music..." James L. Zychowicz, Opera Quarterly
"Biographer Michael Kennedy Demonstrates that the many varying shades of criticism that have painted Richard Strauss in the past half century resemble the similar understandings and misunderstandings held by his contemporaries. He builds his analysis around the few constants in Strauss's life: his admiration for German culture, his dependence on his own family for guidance, and his ^Nietzschean total absorption in art." Kennedy also deals with Strauss's problematic relationship with Nazi authorities." Shofar
"Kennedy, in this well-written biography, offers many insights into the family an professional life of Strauss. Kennedy shos great interest in the intellect, the miracle that produced the sublime music of the composer's Lieder, tone poems and operas and implies the Lieder mayy well be the finest works, perhaps presenting yet another enigma for readers to consider." The Oper Jrnl MARCH 2001