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Leichtbauweise mit Tiefgang ... Strauss’ ARABELLA-Musik und die Psychologie des Sentimentalen - Deutsche Oper Berlin

From the programme booklet

A Lightweight Construction with Depth … Strauss‘ Music for ARABELLA and the Psychology of Sentimentality

An Essay by Arne Stollberg

“One must be light”


When Arabella spies a bouquet of roses in the hotel room during her very first appearance, she hopes that the stranger she saw on the street sent them, as we later learn (“Such beautiful roses! Did a hussar bring them?”) – and Strauss does not let the opportunity pass: flutes and violins play an ornamental motif that is clearly reminiscent of the sonic emblem of the silver rose from DER ROSENKAVALIER – an “ancient perfume from fairy-tale times” wafts over the scene, to quote the last of the melodramas from Schoenberg’s PIERROT LUNAIRE. The enchantment, however, quickly dissipates. No sooner has Arabella learned that the roses were sent by Matteo than she replaces them resolutely in their vase, and the ROSENKAVALIER arabesque ends abruptly, having flared up again briefly. The artificial ritual of the presentation of the rose has had its day – it is replaced in the last scene of Act III with “the symbolic drink of pure water”, perhaps a sign of “awakening […] to a clearer, more human” world, as Theodor W. Adorno, himself by no means an uncritical admirer of Strauss, mused after the Frankfurt premiere of ARABELLA in December 1933.

Indeed, Strauss’ and Hofmannsthal’s ARABELLA project began with the composer’s wish to write  “a second ‘Rosenkavalier’, without its mistakes or lengths” (letter to Hofmannsthal, Sept. 8, 1923). Again and again, he and his librettist reverted to the older work, their most successful by far, and Hofmannsthal almost obsessively evoked the thought that “the devil would have his hand in it if […] this spieloper didn’t turn out better than ‘Der Rosenkavalier’, more unified in style, with text and music truly hand-in-glove” (letter to Strauss, Aug. 13, 1928). At the core of this striving to outdo oneself, which was also meant to rectify the weaknesses of DER ROSENKAVALIER, was the notion of readjusting the role of the music, giving it the discreet lightness which would already have been appropriate for DER ROSENKAVALIER, but had been missed – according to Hofmannsthal – due to Strauss’ overly symphonic composing. With verbosity and rhetorical tricks designed to assuage Strauss’ fears of slipping standards and descent to a Leháresque operetta style, Hofmannsthal tried to convey his essential ideas to his artistic partner (in letters dated July 26 and Sept. 14, 1928): the point was neither trivialization or a return to “more naïve art forms” such as Albert Lortzing’s singspiels – of course such matters could not simply be “revived” without resorting to dilettantism. And yet he thought it would be possible to implement the style cultivated there on a higher plane: by consciously reducing the richness of orchestral possibilities that had since been achieved. He envisioned a purposeful “reduction of the music” as the result of “increased artistic insight”, a self-limitation conscious of the abundance resulting from the “educated German musical spirit”, a reversal of what was “too much” therein. In concrete terms, this meant the shift of “characterization […] into singing”, which the orchestra was “only to accompany”, without symphonic flights of fancy. If a “truly mature master” were to “overcome his reservations a bit […] – then perhaps something downright enchanting might be gained”. He, Hofmannsthal, was certainly convinced that his ARABELLA text formed the basis for such an undertaking (letter of Dec. 22, 1927): “I see [the action] before my inner eye as a ship-builder sees a well-constructed ship before him, where draught, ballast and sail area are correctly balanced. The wind that must swell the sails is your music. However, if the ship was a good, lightweight construction, and you (God willing!) were to blow only with half power, it should still have a good journey.”


“Nervous Counterpoints” and “More Finely Differentiated Psychology”


Describing the libretto as a sailboat with “depth” but a lightweight construction, for which the music would only need “half power”: thus Hofmannsthal tried to convince Strauss to compose a score aiming for lightness and reticence, without ever running the danger of drifting into the shallow waters of operetta (apart from Lehár, whom Strauss detested, DIE FLEDERMAUS, which he esteemed, but considered inimitable, was an important point of reference in the discussions between him and Hofmannsthal). Strauss’ answer was quite laconic (letter of July 26, 1928): “Regarding your fundamental exhortations on musical style, I understand you completely. You are quite right! […] Even Goethe and Mozart knew that a German could never fully become an Italian!” It would never have occurred to Strauss to deny the “German musical spirit” as he understood it, namely as the heritage of Beethoven and Wagner. To him, that meant cleaving to those “nervous counterpoint[s]”, that subtle, polyphonic leitmotif technique in the orchestra, without which any “more finely differentiated psychology” was impossible to achieve (as he wrote in “Betrachtungen zu Joseph Gregors Weltgeschichte des Theaters” in 1945).

ARABELLA offers a plethora of examples. One is the orchestral prelude to Act III, which has occasionally been dismissed as pornographic due to its depiction of what happens between Zdenka and Matteo in their hotel room, and of course is also related to the orchestral prelude to DER ROSENKAVALIER, but is also a psychogramme of the complex and complicated relationship between the figures. By hearkening back to the themes and motifs associated with them, the music illustrates this fact (Hofmannsthal would hardly have been enthusiastic about this symphonic eruption – “all that music-making while the curtain is down is abhorrent to me,” he had written to Strauss on December 22, 1927). Entire tracts could be written on the manner in which Strauss keeps weaving the memorable beginning of Arabella’s melody in Act I – “Aber der Richtige” – into the orchestral parts, not only where it is an obvious choice, but also in unexpected places. When Arabella recounts to her sister Zdenka that “a stranger was outside this morning” opposite the hotel, gazing at her “with large, serious, determined eyes”, and that she would not be surprised to receive flowers from him, the orchestra’s pianissimo interjections leave no doubt: Arabella believes that she has seen the “right one” (one could also say that her belief in the existence of this “right one”, which she previously expressed to Zdenka, has been inspired by that very encounter with the stranger). In this instance, the motif in question makes psychological sense; the beginning of the melody “Aber der Richtige”, however, also makes an odd appearance when Mandryka says to Waldner in Act I that “every breath you draw costs money” in Vienna (first horn and second violins, coinciding exactly with the word “money” in the phrase “tomorrow I am leaving for our Emperor’s capital, where every breath you draw costs money”). The music bathes this “right one” in a strange twilight: he assumes this function and role of the longed-for fairy-tale hero for Arabella’s financially ruined father as well. Love as a transaction, engagements as bartering – Mandryka plays the game Waldner has instigated virtuosically, and it is only by happenstance, and almost too good to be true, that matters of economy and those of the heart coincide so beautifully here, which saves the rather imperilled nimbus of Mandryka, that “rich paragon of virtue” (as Strauss described him), as the sympathetic hero.


Quoting Popular Hits


Thus, Strauss by no means forewent his trademark of psychologizing leitmotifs in ARABELLA, turning the orchestra into the medium of portraying the “relations of enchantment” Thomas Mann had already admired in Wagner.  However, he complied with Hofmannsthal’s intention of greater simplicity, lightness and comprehensibility by interpolating veritable “hits”, in which the orchestra takes second place to the unfolding of catchy vocal melodies. Especially as they were indeed published separately, these seem to imply the possibility of outtakes for recordings of excerpts (thus a theory put forth by Katharina Hottmann). Cases in point are the above-mentioned number “Aber der Richtige, wenn’s einen gibt für mich auf dieser Welt“, intoned by Arabella and then expanded into a duet with Zdenka, and the mesmerizing duet between Arabella and Mandryka in Act II (“Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein”): this is music almost too beautiful to be true, especially as it exaggerates the motif of love at first sight between two people who are complete strangers in an unreal manner. More precisely, Strauss and Hofmannsthal subtly stage the relationship between Arabella and Mandryka as if familiar opera scenes were brought to life: Mandryka has fallen in love with Arabella’s picture like Mozart’s Tamino, enchanted by a photograph depicting her in a “steel-blue ball gown with […] swan trimmings”. Both the emblematic colour blue and the “swan trimmings” correspond with the fact that Arabella has been to see Wagner’s LOHENGRIN, of all things, “ when she “attended the opera last night […] with Mama”. Her immediate affection for the stranger in the street, who immediately seems the “right one” to her, may be conditioned by a dreamy and naïve identification with Elsa, so that she views Mandryka like a Lohengrin brought to real life, coming to her from far-away, unknown “Slavonia” like the Knight of the Swan from the legendary castle Monsalvat, home to the Holy Grail.

These “hits” – “Aber der Richtige“ and “Du wirst mein Gebieter sein“ – are thus already dramaturgical oddities. This also applies to the music, for Strauss derived the enchanting melodies of both numbers from “Southern Slavic folk tunes”, as he revealed by footnotes in the score, taken from an anthology compiled by Franjo Šaver Kuhač (Južno-slovjenske narodne popievke, 4 volumes, Zagreb 1878–1881). Remarkably, the sonic evocation of an exotic "other" therefore did not primarily serve the characterization of Mandryka, even if the latter – according to Hofmannsthal – comes "from a half-foreign world (Croatia)" and makes "quite a different air" "blow through this Viennese comedy" by evoking the "vastness of the huge, half-Slavic Austria". Strauss obviously heeded Hofmannsthal's warning that the "figure" must under no circumstances become an "automaton spewing Croatian folk tunes" (letter of December 22, 1927). At a point where nothing is known about Mandryka, the quoted, assumed tone marks Arabella's faith in the "right one" instead, thereby branding the associated feeling a quasi-artificial matter, engendered more by visits to the opera and (possibly) operetta than by life experience, vaguely spurred by the fact that Arabella has seen the "stranger" on the street accompanied by a "guard hussar", leading her to the conclusion that he must be "from Hungary or Wallachia".

Thus, Arabella's and Mandryka's love for each other seems a mere "dream image" (Adrian Kech) at first, and Strauss and Hofmannsthal make it collide ironically with the down-at-heel reality of the decadent Vienna of the 1860s. When Mandryka makes the bankrupt Waldner's mouth water in Act I with his open wallet ("Go on, help yourself!"), but then refuses the offer to meet Arabella immediately, since to him, this is "a sacred matter", Strauss illustrates the sentimentality of this mood in an ambivalent manner: the almost overpoweringly rich instrumentation with principal horn, trombones, bassoons and strings accompanying the hymnic vocal line in E-major, anticipating the engagement duet, practically explodes and vanishes at Waldner's laconic reply ("Ganz wie du willst" – "as you wish").

By forcefully and artificially exposing the sentimentality, even the "kitsch" he would later openly label his actual "talent" in letter to Stefan Zweig, counting the "Arabella duet" among this category, Strauss transforms it into something sentimentalist, inscribing it, if one will, with a consciousness that such things can no longer be naïvely manufactured, but only remembered, or quoted.

This, however, is not the opera's last word. When in the end Arabella commits to Mandryka with the engagement ceremony of presenting the glass of water, she does so knowing that he is by no means the ideal Prince Charming or Lohengrin she had conjured in her fantasies and taken him for, but instead a being of flesh and blood, with all the inherent drawbacks and weaknesses. The dream evoked by the unreal E-major duet in Act II may have evaporated, but perhaps it is followed, to quote Adorno one more time, by an "awakening […] to a clearer, more human" world. Once again, Strauss employs "Southern Slavic folk tunes"; here, the one he had used for "Aber der Richtige" even appears in the simple original version found in Kuhač – while in Act I, Strauss had artificially embellished it by prolonging and extending it ("Und so sind wir Verlobte und Verbundene auf Leid und Freud und Wehtun und Verzeihn!" – "And so we are betrothed and united in sorrow and joy, and injury and forgiveness!"). The means remain the same, but after the confusion and bait-and-switch of the action, Strauss here achieves an emotional depth touching upon the utopian, even to Adorno's ears – at least as an option. For where emotion threatens to become overwhelming, the salvation of irony looms. During Arabella's last sung phrase, Strauss makes an E-flat-major seventh chord in the orchestra swell ceremoniously into a fortissimo, as if the scene were now set for a lyrical ending comparable to the final trio in DER ROSENKAVALIER. This, however, is not to be: the tension evaporates, the chord suddenly falls by a minor third (into a C-major seventh chord) and while Arabella, having kissed Mandryka, makes her escape by hastening up the stairs, the end comes "very tempestuously" – with a brief orchestral epilogue confirming the key of Arabella's "Aber der Richtige", of all things (F-major). Has our heroine not learned her lesson, then? Or is this simply the admission, delivered with a wink, that it is, after all, not so easy to let go of sentimentalities, even if one knows them to be mere illusions? Arabella's apologetic demand of Mandryka would then also apply to the audience: " I cannot be anything else … Take me as I am!"


Translation: Alexa Nieschlag