Burning Our Wings
“Wenn wir in unserer Welt des Scheins der Natürlichkeit zu nahe kommen,
so ist die Kunst in Gefahr, sich die Flügel zu verbrennen.”
(When we, in our world of illusion, come too close to reality, art is in danger of burning its wings.)
—Clairon in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio (1942), from the libretto by Clemens Krauss
(English translation by Walter Legge)
Among the topics that seem to rile folks up the most is what should our relationship be to the zeitgeist, and its implied corollary, what actually constitutes our zeitgeist. I’ve heard our era described both gushingly and less-than-flatteringly as “The Information Age” (a.k.a. “The Information Overload Age”), “The No Rules Age” (a.k.a. “The No Standards Age”), and “The Easier Than Ever To Reach People Age” (a.k.a. “The They’re So Easy To Reach But Nobody Cares Age”).
Perhaps there is no way to perceive our own or any time until we are at a distance from it. Yet sometimes when we look at previous eras, we also realize that they are as full of contradictions as we seem to be, and that all eras have more in common, on some level, than differences. For every seeming musical conservative like a Palestrina or a Brahms, lurking not far away contemporaneously there’s always a kook like Claude Le Jeune or a Charles Valentin Alkan. And when we probe those seeming musical conservatives like Palestrina and Brahms more deeply, they can sometimes be extremely radical, just as those radicals can also have very traditionalist qualities.
Contrary to popular belief, the 20th century didn’t invent the avant-garde. In all eras creative types have both carefully established systems, and have rebelliously overthrown them. Sometimes there are those who feel compelled to do both, e.g. Claudio Monteverdi, Arnold Schoenberg. All of which brings me to Schoenberg’s one-time arch nemesis, Richard Strauss. Last Friday night I attended a performance of Strauss’s Capriccio at the Metropolitan Opera. Not my usual live performance fare, yet Strauss’s final opera is in many ways as radical as works created decades later. On the surface, his post-romantic music appears disarmingly retrogressive for the year it was premiered: 1942. For perspective, that’s seven years after Porgy and Bess and Lulu, a decade after Varèse’s Ionisation, two years after John Cage first prepared a piano, a year after Harry Partch’s 43-tone Barstow and when Thelonious Monk and Charlie Christian were jamming at Minton’s in a style that soon became known as be-bop, and the same year as Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic Piano Concerto. Perhaps more disturbingly, Strauss’s opera—a dramatization of a philosophical debate over the superiority of music or text that takes place at the residence of a countess in 18th-century France—seems completely oblivious of the world in which it was created: Nazi Germany during the onset of the Holocaust.
More closely examining the music (which I did over the weekend thanks to an extraordinary LP set featuring Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau, and Gedda, and conducted by Sawallisch who also makes a cameo singing appearance) reveals a densely layered score. Those layers are filled with allusions to earlier Strauss compositions as well as music by other composers, such as Christoph Gluck (who reformed opera in the 18th century), which serve as commentary on the words as they are sung. If you get the references, it is almost as post-modern as Public Enemy. But would Chuck D. ever have ignored what was immediately going on in the world around him so completely? Early on, in the line from the libretto I quoted at the onset of this post, Strauss has a character sing about how if art gets too close to reality it will be destroyed. To someone experiencing Capriccio in the early years of the 21st century, such an abrogation of the power of art to respond to and transform the world around it seems like a cop-out, but maybe it’s ultimately a hidden protest. Indeed, if Strauss wrote an opera exposing the regime he worked precariously under, more than his wings would have been burned. The time for an overt statement in any work of art is before it becomes impossible to create such statements. Art can perhaps help prevent us from losing our democratic discourse, by reminding us of the infinite varieties of points of view, but it too has its limits.