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Ein Ehe-Selfie, gepostet 1924: „Intermezzo“ von Richard Strauss oder Oper als Beziehungsspiegel - Deutsche Oper Berlin

A Marriage Selfie Posted in 1924: “Intermezzo” by Richard Strauss, or Opera as a Relationship Mirror

An essay by Richard Erkens

“One must have the right to remain a private person”: this assumption was put into the stage character Christine’s mouth by Richard Strauss, who was acting as his own librettist for the first time since GUNTRAM, and writing his first “bourgeois comedy”. Christine is the wife of the famous Court Kapellmeister Robert Storch, who has just left their house on Lake Grundlsee in the Styrian part of the Salzkammergut with routine bustle, in order to meet his conducting obligations in Vienna for the next two months. His “better half”, as – to Christine’s displeasure – a critic once called her, remains behind with their 8-year-old son within the private realm of a grand-bourgeois household, which she runs with ambition and energy. Maids, parlour maids and the cook need supervision. The fact that the new Strauss opera was a family self-portrait, or more precisely an autobiographically verified episode from his now 30-year marriage to the singer Pauline Strauss-de Ahna, was known not only to close confidantes when it was first performed in Dresden in 1924 under the baton of the young Fritz Busch. Hiding its biographical references was never the point of this work.

Quite the opposite: the marriage selfie avant la lettre as musical theatre was not an opera of hidden allusions or cryptic subtexts, and that was what its author-composer intended. The transformation of his own marriage into an opera was to be obvious. Masquerading and camouflage were foreign to Strauss, in life and in his work. The crisis into which this relationship briefly fell was based on the mix-ups and failed communication so typical for comedy – in real life and in fiction. The story culminates in concrete divorce plans, abandoned only when coincidence finally resolves the irritations and the couple can reencounter one another with the mutual trust they previously enjoyed. Thus, this is an intermezzo with a certain anecdotal value, a funny episode in hindsight, but nothing against the decades of closest alliance which this 55-year, lifelong partnership truly was. The stage Pauline has the final word, formulated as a rhetorical question: “Right, my dear Robert, this is what one truly calls a happy marriage?” This has at least as many facets as the right of his wife to “remain a private person”, which the librettist Strauss discussed, but also violated by writing the opera, and it refers to the complex reality of their relationship. Presumably, the composer did not ask for Pauline’s permission regarding his use of her image before he “posted” his “marriage selfie” in 1924.

Interestingly enough, Karl Holl, a representative of the younger generation who reviewed the world premiere for the “Frankfurter Zeitung”, explained this “self-disclosure” by Strauss – exceptional not only in terms of opera history – with his belonging to the Wilhelminian epoch as one of its prominent representatives. Holl, however, claimed that the era of “exaggerated gestures of personality, of manic outward projection” was over. This statement is surprising, given the modernisms dominating and profoundly influencing the crisis-plagued post-war years of the Weimar Republic: the emancipations of role images and social hierarchies, new and pulsating physical, life and work rhythms – the incipient golden age of a new understanding of modernism was by no means less individualistic and extrovert. And yet, this assessment rings with scepticism. It seemed somehow inappropriate to concede that the 60-year-old Strauss could stage his own life in such an objective, unvarnished manner. Especially when his subject was the suitability of a conservative relationship model which was publicly advertised and subtly affirmed by his marriage, when society at large no longer accepted it uncritically. How did this somewhat antiquated portrait of a relationship jibe with the composer of erstwhile scandals, whose SALOME in 1905 had brought out the entire music world and the guardians of morals against him, not only at the Prussian censor’s office, catapulting the already-acclaimed conductor and instrumental composer Strauss to the spearhead of opera’s avant-garde? Now, in 1924, he surprised the world again, but with a pre-war home-story aesthetic that had been previously unknown in musical theatre and was also a bit fussy and stodgy, infusing even the visual dimension of the first production in Dresden. Stylistically, its sets were inspired by the interior of the Strauss villa in Garmisch, and the baritone Josef Correck in the role of Robert wore a curly wig with a widow’s peak in order to resemble the Richard sitting in the audience as closely as possible.  

The overall context of the world premiere did its best to force intimacy into the open: the first opera premiere Strauss had amidst the turbulent climate of the young Weimar Republic also meant a return to the theatre where his operatic hits SALOME, ELEKTRA and DER ROSENKAVALIER had premiered. He could rest assured of the personal benevolence and outstanding artistic rank of the former Court Theatre of Saxony, now the State Opera. At the same time, this production was the programmatic finale of the celebrations of his 60th birthday – the Semper Opera first advertised a Richard Strauss Festival and then presented the world premiere at the “smaller” Schauspielhaus, taking into account the more “intimate” nature of the new work. Inevitably, Lotte Lehmann, who sang the role of Christine/Pauline at the composer’s request, spoke after the premiere in the couple’s presence of a “wonderful gift” which Strauss had made his wife with INTERMEZZO. Pauline’s harsh answer – “Wurscht!” (I couldn’t care less!), if anecdote is to be believed – and what she might have felt, being confronted coram publico with her stage alter-ego, marks the line between the protective sphere of private feelings and an intimacy dragged into the limelight of public opinion and bereft of its right to privacy. The “famous man” was mainly giving himself a gift – not to Pauline, who was about a year and a half his senior, a former singer with an international career and as unencumbered by publicity-shyness as her husband, but saw no reason to applaud this opera’s birth festivities in Dresden.


Back Stories

Turning assumed (marital) infidelity and jealousy into intrigue-happy opera stories had been part of the basic toolkit of music dramaturgy, at the latest when the comic opera genres began their steep trajectory towards success in the first half of the 18th century. Well-read and with an impressive grasp of history, Strauss referred to this not least by his chosen title, INTERMEZZO. Likewise, the Shakespeare quote “Have you prayed tonight, Desdemona?”, with which the singer resoundingly announces his certain triumph during the card-playing, or skat, scene at the beginning of Act II, points to the deadly and tragic dimension of jealousy, with which opera audiences were well familiar since Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 OTELLO. The type of the marital relations comedy, however, also kept abreast of current events during the long turn of the century and was updated in the spirit of realistic and current theatre. After all, it was also the heir to earlier Neapolitan dialect comedies, which are often forgotten today, but were the first evening-length musical comedies. Another work almost forgotten today is an “intermezzo” by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, SUSANNENS GEHEIMNIS, which had its world premiere at the Munich Court Theatre in 1909 and remained an evergreen hit on German-language stages well into the 1950s. Here, the husband’s suspicion about the fidelity of his significantly younger wife is sparked by a foreign smell inside the house; his feigned departure and sudden return is meant to reveal the lover and Susanne’s erotic secret – while the mundane truth is: she has taken up smoking, out of boredom in her partnership. Compared to such traditional intrigue dramaturgies, Strauss was following a different track, for his INTERMEZZO is actually free of intrigue. None of the characters pretends, or participates in a comedy of disguises, either by force or voluntarily – unlike in DER ROSENKAVALIER in 1911 – in order to bring to light a supposed moral misstep or a libidinous, invasive philanderer – in short: a truth that was believed hidden, in order to transform the insults suffered into an accusation of the “guilty partner”, or – again, a sign of the times – to steer developments towards separation.

In Strauss’ case, the emotional, happiness-threatening turbulences of the characters in INTERMEZZO result from coincidental mix-ups and affective overreactions. The suspicion of infidelity does not lead to the conventional, dramaturgical rhythm of events of a finely-honed intrigue with a well-placed final punchline, but instead to a refusal to communicate: Christine/Pauline refuses to read the explanatory telegrams Robert/Richard sends from Vienna, believes his infidelity proven and sees escaping their joint life as the only viable way out. This leads to trepidation and fear. Overcoming their mutual isolation takes place en passant, while the actual, emotional drama takes place mainly in the symphonic interludes. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, to whom Strauss enthusiastically submitted his plans for such a “thoroughly modern, absolutely realistic comedy of characters and nerves” in 1916, refused to collaborate. The fairy-tale-like, symbol-laden DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN, with which the ingenious pair of artists was still tinkering at this point, was, thus Jürgen Schläder, still beholden to the poet’s “retrospective dramatic aesthetic”. The latter failed to recognize a tale with dramatic effects in a prosaic, quotidian intermezzo, but considered it a mere “character painting” without the ability to draw us “into the action”, as Hofmannsthal later wrote in a letter dated 1928.

To Strauss, this obviously did not present a strong argument, for he himself was the action: the episode was his life reality, and the model characters mirrored his relationship with Pauline. Strauss’ “perhaps all-too-daring grasp of ‘full human life’,” as he – quoting Goethe’s Merry Person from “Faust” in the preface to INTERMEZZO – conceded, was his personal recollection of May 1902. At the time, he was court kapellmeister at Berlin’s Court Opera Unter den Linden and undertaking a concert tour of England. Pauline, who remained in the Berlin flat with their five-year-old son, read a letter mistakenly addressed to her husband and signed by one “Mieze Mücke”. The latter announced that she was going to wait for him as usual at the Union-Bar. Pauline flew into a rage and considered his infidelity proven, refused to communicate for three days and prepared for divorce in a blind fury, withdrawing a non-trivial sum of money from the bank in an impulse to escape. In the end, the problem was resolved: Kapellmeister Josef Stransky was the intended recipient, “Mieze Mücke” had misremembered his name. In INTERMEZZO, she becomes “Mieze Maier” who meant to write to Kapellmeister Stroh. When Christine on stage speaks of her “suffering” and “tormented soul” and Robert finally confesses that this has been “the worst time of my entire life”, one cannot help but be convinced – knowing of the decades of life partnership between Pauline and Richard –that underneath this linguistic surface, there is emotional depth, revealing an expressive truthfulness and the emotional impact hidden behind most comedies. In INTERMEZZO, the couples briefly encounter their existential limits, they are completely derailed: the tempest scene at Vienna’s Prater is a romantic, evocative natural symbol for this. This is what Strauss intended: the “harmless and meaningless” events of a story that was “trivial from the beginning” were to result in “the most extreme conflicts of the soul that a human heart could encounter”.

Such violent reactions from Pauline also had their background. Reading the letters of the spouses and young parents from the preceding years, it is obvious that a ribald, open, and often even hurtful tone between them was not rare. That the singer – then still active and internationally successful – envied her husband’s success, that she no longer loved him and was considering a separation was a constant complaint which almost wrote itself into the dialogues of INTERMEZZO: “You never acknowledged me, never understood me, always neglected me,” Christine is still complaining in the final dialogue. A second constant, however, forms a counterbalance, namely the wordless affection, the everyday care and strong inner bond holding the two together, which passed its final litmus test when the eagerness for separation sparked by the “Mieze Mücke” affair – the affair that wasn’t – was buried. According to biographical lore, this relationship had already begun with impulsive contests of wills and violent outbursts when Pauline, singing the role of Freihild in GUNTRAM in 1894, threw a piano score at Richard during rehearsals. To the great surprise of the musicians of the Weimar Court Orchestra, the composer did not fire the unruly singer. Instead – after a “talk” with her in private – he announced his betrothal to “Miss de Ahna”. This marriage had a public dimension, allowing outsiders to deduce the relationship’s state and character, from the very beginning. Which raises the question whether this public reflection of the relationship in 1924 then even revealed much that was new, thereby violating rights of privacy?


Marriage Exhibitionism, Across Works

Pauline’s character traits were also striking to the outside world. Not only were they the stuff of legend, but they also offer a key to understanding many of the composer’s works. Comments from contemporaries abound. Count Harry Kessler, to name only one, wrote in his diary about Pauline’s “destructive tactlessness” and “half-hysterical attacks of naughtiness”, which made her a veritable risk factor in society. Pauline found her greatest advocate in her husband. This dimension is also reflected in INTERMEZZO, when the skat-playing male round (another fixture in the repertoire of biographical anecdotes about the composer) discusses the exposed traits of the composer’s “better half”: the Commercial Councillor calls her a “nasty piece of work” likely to land him “in the mental asylum”. Without indignation, the stage Richard defends her against these equally tactless utterances, explaining that he owes everything he is to her, to the “gentle, bashful nature […] under her rough skin”. Only when he receives her divorce telegram does he lose his inner poise and outward composure.

Pauline left obvious traces in Richard’s music: explicitly in the songs dedicated to her, including the wedding gift, the “Four Songs” Op. 27 of 1894, or hidden in the leitmotif construction of the companion in the tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” of 1898, or in the complex character study of the Dyer’s Wife in DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN. In his “Sinfonia domestica”, conceived almost at the same time as the real “Mieze Mücke” episode and first performed in New York in 1904, Strauss presented a large tone poem, portraying a day in his family life with wife and child in music. He considered himself “just as interesting as Napoleon and Alexander”, the composer retorted when Romain Rolland criticized the banality and self-referentiality of the subject – an evergreen accusation of triviality which Udo Bermbach reactivated in 2000 with regard to INTERMEZZO, accusing Strauss of having nothing to offer amidst the crises following World War I except the “banal problems of an artistic marriage on the opera stage”. In both these thematically closely related works, the situational marriage selfie – in other words, the image conjured here of a grand-bourgeois, rural family scene of pre-war society and its implementation on stage – blotted out the aesthetic innovations of the work’s concept and its orchestral workmanship. However, the radicality of the programmatic layer of meaning in the “Sinfonia domestica” – if one is to take it seriously – was hardly named. It comes to a head during the Adagio section, portraying a night of marital love after the son “Bubi” has been put to bed, in a description of two partners climaxing through motifs, gestures and harmonies – a pornographic dimension within the medium of instrumental music which amounts, in this context, to nothing less than exhibitionism regarding the erotic and sexual life of Richard and Pauline Strauss.

In INTERMEZZO, this sensual level is largely excluded. This “realistic […] Spielöperchen” (as the diminutive of Spieloper goes and as Strauss once called it during its composition), premiered twenty years after the “Sinfonia domestica”, reflects a daily reality in which the physical passion of younger years seems to have been lost. In INTERMEZZO, eroticism appears to have been moved to the threatening realm outside their marriage – and this is not a negligible fact, when surveying all of Strauss’ works. This is made abundantly clear by the “sympathy” Christine feels for Baron Lummer after having “bumped into him” on the toboggan course. “Finally, a young, fresh person,” she sings, animated by a waltz rhythm (a reminiscence of their dance together at the Grundlseewirt), having reported the acquaintance to her husband by letter. Lummer registers these emotional vibrations and tries to take advantage of them; the fact that Christine hereby proves herself capable of straying from the ever-same erotic tracks of their marriage ultimately becomes a welcome argument for Robert/Richard to parry her accusation of infidelity, which is as violent as it is unfounded. During the skat scene, the real composer Richard cannot help but write an allusion to the “allusion” into his music: when Storch reports on his wife’s “nice company”, we hear a repeated horn signal, a comment both on the erotic “chase” and the cuckolded husband [“gehörnt” or “horned” = German for cuckolded].

Given these sophisticated levels of differentiation regarding the reflection of marital relations, it becomes more understandable why Strauss’ marriage to Pauline gave him an almost infinite source of inspiration for his musical and theatrical art. Furthermore, as part of the renewal of conversational operas he had initiated with INTERMEZZO, he had been considering writing an entire cycle of comedies about “women, from different perspectives”. Who, however, was to travel this path with him as a librettist? Hofmannsthal had declared himself unavailable, and his referral to Hermann Bahr, who was also successful in the modern comedy genre, ultimately came to nothing. The Austrian playwright did write a scenario based on Strauss’ parameters in 1917, but he was far-sighted enough to realize that any outsider’s quill would have falsified the planned marriage selfie in its authenticity and unfiltered self-stylization. Encouraged by Bahr, Strauss finally sat down to write his own libretto. The sketch was completed in February 1919 – even before the world premiere of DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN in October of that year – yet work on the orchestral score dragged on until August 1923. Not at his dining-room table at home in Garmisch, but during his second South American tour with the Vienna Philharmonic in Buenos Aires did Strauss commit the last note of INTERMEZZO to paper.


Preface and a “Dialogue Colour Scale” for Stylistic Innovation

Strauss saw the necessity – a remarkable and singular event in his oeuvre – to add a preface to the score, addressed to the performers rather than the audience. It touches upon the fundamental problem of composing opera after Wagner, namely the continuously endangered balance between orchestra and voices. The size and polyphony of the orchestras tended to become an instrumental sound barrier which was hard for vocalists to overcome while remaining intelligible – and this is where Strauss struggled with himself rather than his model Wagner, at the latest when writing his “over-instrumentalized” SALOME. The discontent composer pointed particularly to his ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, whose “reduced” orchestral apparatus demonstrated an innovative path of combining intelligibility of text and vocal nuancing from the singers with the familiar luxurious sound aesthetic of the orchestra as early as 1912. However, the “chamber orchestras” used in ARIADNE and INTERMEZZO might call for double winds, but are still larger than any standard opera orchestra from the era of the First Viennese School. Therefore, his appeal to conductors is to refrain from acting as “podium virtuosos” encouraging the brass players, to instrumentalists to heed the finely nuanced orchestral dynamics indicated by the score, even against their own aural impressions, and to vocalists to arm themselves against the “sonic floods” with the “thrusting weapon” of “consonants shaped according to the rules”. In short: “singing with a half-voice and clearly enunciating,” instead of triumphantly trying to break the overall aesthetic boundaries with forced, stentorian vocalism. In INTERMEZZO, thus the impish Strauss, there was no “aria applause” to be reaped anyway, and he prophesized that “the poor claque” would remain unemployed and hungry during performances of this work.

As Strauss emphasized in the preface, he also developed the compositional treatment of the dialogue-based action further, due to thematic necessity. Since the story was “inspired entirely by real life, replete with everyday prose of the soberest kind” and only allowed for “emotional singing” in a few places, it was necessary to enrich the palette of declamatory forms in order to keep the dialogue intelligible throughout, and compared to his other works, Strauss considered the dialogue the most important element here. It would be a mistake to interpret this as a slight to his librettists to date, Hofmannsthal first and foremost. Because the everyday occurrences depicted offered hardly a chance to develop “so-called cantilenas”, artistically shaped dialogue had to take the highest priority. As if compensating for this fact, Strauss, by his own confession, moved “the depiction of spiritual experiences” into the symphonic interludes. Therefore, the stylistic innovation is what he calls “dialogue colour scales” – a differentiation of all possibilities of combining singing and speaking, ranging from spoken dialogue to melodrama, secco and accompagnato recitatives to declamation in the arioso style. He describes it as a “conversational tone copied from and imitating daily life” – perhaps more precisely: a personal prosody of Pauline and Richard’s bourgeois private sphere. The extent to which the score fulfils this promise is illustrated immediately by the opera’s beginning. Christine’s calls for the chamber maid: “Anna! Anna!” – a short phrase of descending sevenths, unaccompanied by instruments – are repeated, reflex-like, by the orchestra, intensifying their sound. Divided strings with a sharp oboe third played fortissimo (a dynamic accent that is then saved for further use) are among the many mosaic-like colours of the dialogue scale, serving here to characterize Christine. As a subtle echo, it reappears in a modified form in the skat scene, when the bewildered Robert reads the news of her intention to divorce him, and the Commercial Councillor maliciously asks whether the “hedgehog” is up to its usual pricks.

The interlocking of vocal lines and the orchestra’s interweaving of motifs and polyphony, the latter indeed taking a backseat vis-à-vis the vocal dialogue in dynamics and interwoven lines, is the mark of Strauss’ technical and progressive craftsmanship in INTERMEZZO. It also contains everything that Strauss’ art of characterization through music was and continued to be able to achieve – yet tailored to the new realism, even if Ulrich Konrad points out that this appears “in the tone of the fin de siècle” and not of New Objectivity. Suffice it to point out the examples of the glissandi on the toboggan course, the persiflage of the fourth-heavy harmonics in which Baron Lummer sings his hit “Theresulein, Theresulein” in Scene 6 of Act I, or the motoric movement of the string and piano chords with which the shuffling of the cards at the beginning of the skat scene is illustrated as a musical event. In this showpiece, Strauss is no less virtuosic in shuffling the cards of musical quotations: the beginning of Mozart’s FIGARO overture resounds when Robert Storch walks in, pointing to the orchestral rehearsal he has just completed, just as an obviously placed Tristan chord alludes to the “recreation after music” made possible by the game of skat, which notably includes no women. The allusion to Wagner’s “metaphysics of art and of love” is thus “socially relativized” amidst the social change of the post-war years, thus Hermann Danuser for example. These examples may suffice to indicate the depth of interpretation and the richness of detail of the music-dramatical eloquence the composer created, even beneath the surface of his vocal “dialogue colour scale”.


An Intermezzo on the Road towards “Zeitoper”?

In 2000, Ulrich Schreiber could still pose the question whether Strauss hadn’t initiated 1920s “Zeitoper” (as the operas of New Objectivity were known in German) with “his Opera domestica INTERMEZZO”. This caution is astonishing when considering the experimental, self-denying character of this opera with all its aesthetic innovations, not least among them a visual technique of cuts with which “Strauss the dramaturge” conceived his 13 scenes as a quick sequence of cinematic images, some of them changing quite unexpectedly. Many people find it difficult to conceive of Strauss – undoubtedly a protagonist of musical modernism before World War I, but for his 1920s contemporaries already a man of the world of yesterday, to borrow Stefan Zweig’s phrase – as one of the impulse providers for operatic innovation during the 1920s. Certainly, the general path towards so-called “Zeitoper” passes INTERMEZZO on its way toward NEUES VOM TAGE by Paul Hindemith and VON HEUTE AUF MORGEN by Arnold Schoenberg. Yet drawing this historiographical line tends to marginalize the wholly idiosyncratic character of this 1924 marriage selfie. INTERMEZZO is far more than a stepping stone. The “ambivalent artistic monument” which Strauss built to his wife – to quote Danuser once more – may seem disconcerting when viewed with today’s sensibility for personality rights. However, the marriage-reflecting “self-disclosure” and the “rejection of the well-tried love and murder affairs” (thus the Preface) inherent in this work make it a rare gem, whose factual successors in radically autobiographical musical theatre, works which might command the same creative prowess in multi-faceted portrayals and complexity, are hard to discern to this day.

A few months before his death in September 1949, Strauss was pondering the question why “the novelty” of his works was not recognized. He considered “the confession in INTERMEZZO” a prime example, the manner in which “human beings visibly play into the work” in his dramatic output being quite unlike other operas in the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, the uncompromising depiction of his own individuality – reflected in his relationship with Pauline – requires a correction of INTERMEZZO’s position within Strauss’ overall oeuvre. Schoenberg recognized this: “I am not a friend of Richard Strauss, but even though I do not admire all his works, I believe that he will remain one of the characteristic and outstanding figures in music history. Works such as SALOME, ELEKTRA, INTERMEZZO and others will not fade.” One hundred years after its Dresden premiere and knowing how today’s dimensions of digital self-disclosure are elevating the everyday to the status of an event, the topicality and – as ambiguous as Strauss’ art in general – the timelessness of INTERMEZZO are due a reassessment.


Translation: Alexa Nieschlag

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