There can be little doubt that the Richard Strauss Festival held in St. James’s Hall, June 3–9, was among the most interesting events of the London musical season. Whether it was also to be reckoned among the most enjoyable depended very much upon the hearer’s degree of receptivity. There is much in Strauss’s music that runs counter to all one’s preconceptions, yet the slightest knowledge of musical history suffices to convince us that this is no valid reason for condemning the composer. Indeed, the reticence with which many of the London critics have written of Strauss suggests that they have a wholesome dread of imitating their predecessors who made themselves ridiculous for all time by their blind denunciation of Wagner, or the still earlier generation who declared that Beethoven’s influences upon the music of his time had been more or less pernicious. To think of this makes one careful, but of course it should not prevent a critic from foregoing all criticism.
Until this Festival we have had little opportunity of judging the work of Richard Strauss in its entirety. Even now his two operas are known to us, as Wagner’s chief works were up till 1882, merely through the medium of concert performances of extracts; but he differs from Wagner in that his most typical works are intended primarily for the concert‑room – the eight Symphonic Poems, all of which, save only a couple of movements of the early »Aus Italien,« were given at the Festival. It may therefore be said that the material now exists for forming a more or less comprehensive judgment on the composer’s work, though it must be allowed that in many cases a single hearing is by no means sufficient for forming an opinion on music which in complexity and elaboration exceeds anything that has gone before it. In endeavouring to record one’s impressions it is well to begin by making one’s standpoint clear. Of one thing I have for some time been clearly convinced, that Strauss possesses genius; he has not only an unsurpassed technique, but he has ideas which are original and beautiful, sometimes »beautiful« in the generally accepted sense of sensually pleasing, sometimes in the more modern sense of expressing character. This being the case, I approach his work in a different mood from that in which I should regard the efforts of a fluent utterer of things not worth saying, or even of a well‑meaning stammerer of things beyond his reach.
The witty compilers of a bogus Encyclopædia introduced into their skit a suggestive cross‑reference: »Wagner, the late Richard: see Strauss, Richard,« and there is no doubt that the younger composer does, in his thematic development, his glowing orchestral colouring, and his passionate climaxes, owe much to Wagner; yet I incline to think that his art is, if not so obviously, very essentially akin to Beethoven, and owes not a little to Bach. One is often reminded of the Beethoven whose determination to be characteristic, even at the expense of the beautiful, made him indulge in the strenuous and insistent discords in the first movement of the »Eroica,« and the premature return of the first subject which Sir George Grove loved, though he humorously said it was »as wrong as stealing or lying«; or again, the unmitigated cacophony which precedes the final movement of the Choral Symphony. These are, however, like the shadows in a picture, which take their proper relative place in the whole scheme of chiaroscuro, and though they afford precedent for even the discords in which Strauss indulges, the question of degree remains to be considered, and one has yet to determine whether these »shadows« bear the right artistic relation to their context.
In another point Strauss has gone beyond the limits laid down by Beethoven in his famous axiom that music should be an expression of the emotions rather than painting; but even here it must be remembered that Beethoven himself whimsically transgressed this rule in the very work in which he laid it down, while Strauss, where he has diverged into realism, has generally the excuse of a fantastic subject, and it must be admitted that there is a legitimate place in art for the grotesque. Of course Liszt, whose influence upon this generation will probably turn out to be greater than has hitherto been generally allowed, is the immediate artistic ancestor of Strauss, but I need hardly insist upon a point which will be evident to even the most casual hearer. As to Bach’s influence, it may be felt in the licence which Strauss allows himself in his counterpoint, in which the carrying out of a melodic idea to its logical conclusion is regarded as of far more importance than the jarring discords which are produced in its course. As a matter of fact, I think it is rather a mistake to make too much of discords. The discords of one generation are the concords of another, and it is hardly safe to say that an harmonic combination is wrong because it sounds strange to our unaccustomed ears. What seems to me to be a greater weakness is the composer’s inclination to make so much of details that the main lines of his music are neglected, a sort of pre‑Raphaelitism in music which, like its prototype in painting, one admires for its dexterity while feeling that the gain is overbalanced by the corresponding loss, for after all the whole is greater than any of its parts.
Let us now turn to the actual compositions, taking them in chronological order. First there was the »Aus Italien« (Op. 16), the only one broken up into movements, after the pattern of the classical symphony. Of this two movements were played, one of which, the slow movement, »Sorrento,« shows a sense of delicate orchestral colour which is as fine in its way as anything Strauss has ever done. Much in advance of this is the »Don Juan« (Op. 20), a work which carries conviction with it. It glows with colour and passion, it is continuous and broad in its lines, and it is always musical. »Macbeth« (Op. 23) is not superficially attractive, but it is a profound study of character, rugged and barbaric, but not going beyond the hitherto recognised bounds of art. Its power is tremendous, and, as a matter of detail, there is a distinct flavour of the first few bars of the Choral Symphony in the opening. »Tod und Verklärung« (Op. 24) is more truly »musical,« especially in the really noble coda in which the work culminates, while the freakish »Till Eulenspiegel« (Op. 28) is equally happy as a musical grotesque, in which the touches of burlesque do not obscure the glimpses of real beauty. And here I may say that Strauss seems to me to have genuine melodic invention; his themes often have distinction, and are never vulgar or sentimental. The next symphonic poem is »Also sprach Zarathustra« (Op. 30), and here we come to much more debateable ground. The subject itself has been objected to, but it is not quite fair to style it »a system of philosophy set to music,« for it is rather a musical commentary on Nietzsche’s work bearing that title, which, as it has been said, is not so much »the building up of a system of thought as of a world of feeling.« At the same time it may be doubted whether Strauss has not attempted more than music can express without losing its ideal character. And here one certainly is inclined to doubt whether his anxiety to express each minute phase of his complex subject has not resulted in the pre‑Raphaelite insistence on details to which reference has already been made. The riddle of existence is, in a word, the gigantic theme of this wonderful production, and Strauss expresses its insolubility by ending his work with the alternated chords of C major and B major. It is done so deftly that the effect is not nearly so barbarously crude as might be expected, – not much worse than Schumann’s »Question« – but this serves to show how relentlessly Strauss follows out his »programme« to its logical conclusion. Still more realistic is »Don Quixote« (Op. 35), but here the composer has the excuse of a subject grotesque and fantastical in character. This is a most remarkable work, ingeniously and happily planned. In a prelude the character of the hero is built up, his native chivalry, his assiduous study of romances, and the growing aberration of his intellect are all depicted, and then out of these materials is formed the chief theme representing the Knight of the Doleful Visage, accompanied by his homely squire Sancho. On this a series of ten variations is based, each representing an adventure in which the protagonists take part, while the finale represents Don Quixote’s retirement and death. The realism culminates in the adventure with the flock of sheep, whose »baas« are as free from the trammels of rhythm and harmony as is Nature itself. Here again the question arises: Is this passage of imitation which in itself cannot by any stretch of courtesy be styled »music« admissible as a shadow in the picture? For my part I incline to think that it is too extended to be quite »in the picture,« though it serves to set off the unmistakable beauty of the next variation, in which Don Quixote expounds his ideas of chivalry. This is one of the glowing episodes, which glows all the more by contrast with the grotesque ugliness of what has gone before. Last of all comes the »Heldenleben« (Op. 40), which has been so much discussed of late that it need not be considered at length. Here again there is some unmitigated cacophony in the battle scene, yet as a whole the impression left is of tremendous power and brilliance. It has vitality, and this covers a multitude of sins.
The scheme also included a large number of songs, in which Strauss shows the truly lyrical charm of which he is capable. They were sung by Frau Strauss‑de Ahna and Mr. Ffrancgon‑Davies most sympathetically, and Mr. John Harrison sang two tenor scenes from »Guntram.« The early Burleske for Pianoforte and Orchestra, in which the influence of Brahms is very marked, was played with the utmost clearness and charm by Mr. Backhaus. The »Concertgebouw Symphonic Orchestra« from Amsterdam was engaged for the Festival, not from any want of confidence in the powers of English players, but because they happen to have made a speciality of Strauss’s music, which with a London band would have involved an impracticable amount of rehearsal. It is a fine, well‑disciplined band, not too refined in quality, but possessing a good ensemble. Mr. Zimmermann’s fine playing of the fantastic violin solo in the »Heldenleben« and Mr. Mossel’s execution of the corresponding violoncello part in »Don Quixote« deserve more than a conventional word of acknowledgment. The work of conducting was shared by the composer and Mr. Mengelberg, the conductor of the Amsterdam Orchestra, a very able artist, whose reading of the »Heldenleben« was most forceful and brilliant.