Mood music from the past

A confidential matter: the letters of Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, 1931-1935


This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

One of the commonest presumptions is that we know how we would have behaved in history. The fallacy comes, of course, from the fact that we know how history went. That is one reason why it is so salutary to be reminded what even the clearest events were like for people going through them. Such a reminder comes from reading A Confidential Matter: The letters of Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, 1931-1935 published by the University of California Press in 1977.

Strauss had been searching for a new librettist since the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with whom he had created such masterpieces as Elektra, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Der Rosenkavalier. In most ways Zweig was the perfect successor. Like Hofmannsthal he was steeped in music, poetry and drama; he and Strauss already admired each other’s work. After some respectful early exchanges they agreed to work together on an adaptation of Ben Jonson’s play The Silent Woman, set in the household of Sir John Morosus.

What takes the correspondence beyond simply musical interest is the fact that between the start of their exchanges and the first performances of Die schweigsame Frau, events in Germany interposed themselves. But it is the differences between their attitudes and the morally complicated (not to say compromised) responses of Strauss that make the correspondence so absorbing and horrifying.

For example, in January 1934 Strauss tells Zweig he has completed the first act of their opera, with 140 pages of the score done: “Although my appointment as Reich Music Chamber President produces a lot of extra work, I believe I should not refuse this task because the goodwill of the new German government in promoting music and theatre can really produce a lot of good; and I have, in fact, been able to accomplish some fruitful things and prevent some misfortune.” 

By this stage, Zweig’s books have been burned, he has been publicly insulted by his German publisher and has heeded the warning of his friend, Joseph Roth: “One has to flee a burning house.” With Strauss, however, he maintains a façade.

In February Zweig tells Strauss he is searching for a German adaptation of the plays of Goldoni and believes London is the place to find it: “In Vienna an artillery barrage blared into the beautiful days; it was revolting to awake to the horrible reality after experiencing the philharmonic orchestra with Backhaus as Beethoven soloist.” Zweig’s next letters come from Portland Place.

Yet around Strauss the world is different. In May, after the premiere of the final Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration (Arabella) he writes from Bad Kissingen to tell Zweig he has begun the second act of their opera, which be able to be launched in 1935 “for sure”. In an apparent attempt to amuse his collaborator he relates a common mistake of the time: “The Ministry of Propaganda inquired the other day whether it was true that I am setting to music a text by [socialist author] Arnold Zweig.”

Strauss seems to believe the Nazis will only be in power for a short while

Strauss adds: “I recently referred to the subject when talking with Dr Goebbels, and my son commented that as early as last fall you complained to the [Nazi party paper] Völkischer Beobachter that you keep getting mixed up with Arnold Zweig who is not even a relative of yours. I then asked Dr Goebbels whether there are any ‘political objections’ against you, to which the minister answered no.”

While both men are aware of the difficulties that come from having a Jewish librettist, Strauss is determinedly upbeat, pushing for more ideas for operas even as he admits that “all efforts to relax the stipulation against Jews here are frustrated by the answer: impossible as long as the outside world continues its lying propaganda against Hitler.” 

In an apparent effort to reassure Zweig, Strauss urges him to collaborate on a second opera, even if it necessitates working in secret. This Zweig will not do, saying with infinite politeness: “Even if I were to refrain from ever mentioning that I am writing something for you, later it would come out that I had done so secretly. And this, I feel, would be beneath you.” Insisting that he is thinking only of his friend’s artistic freedom, Zweig adds: “I am aware of the difficulties that would confront a new work if I were to write the text; it would be considered a provocation.” But Zweig says that he would be happy to assist any librettist who wishes to write a new work with Strauss. Praising Strauss for having created from Die schweigsame Frau “a work of art for the world” he stresses that he will work with anybody the composer cares to name “without credit or reward”.

Strauss rejects this proposal (“Your letter saddened me deeply”) and attempts to quell Zweig’s fears, semi-jokingly: “If you abandon me, too, I’ll have to lead from now on the life of an ailing, unemployed retiree.” He goes on, “I have repeatedly told Minister Goebbels and also Göring that I have been searching for a librettist for 50 years.” The composer ploughs on, explaining that after the death of Hofmannsthal “I thought I would have to resign myself forever. Then by chance (is that the right word?) I found you. And I will not give up on you just because we happen to have an antisemitic government now.”

 Strauss seems to believe the Nazis will only be in power for a short while, and in any case, “I am confident this government would place no obstacles in the way of a second Zweig opera and would not feel challenged by it if I were to talk about it with Dr Goebbels, who is very cordial with me.”

Of course, Zweig knows what Strauss does not and continues to recommend other writers to Strauss. “Once and for all, please stop urging new poets upon me,” the composer replies in the PS of a subsequent letter. 

 By May 1935 Zweig writes from Zurich: “What a pity that I cannot work for you freely and openly. But the official measures, instead of becoming milder or more conciliatory, have only grown harsher . . . You will discover yourself, I fear, that the cultural development will more and more go to the side of the extremists.

“As an individual one cannot resist the will or insanity of a whole world,” he tells Strauss. “Enough strength is needed to remain firm and self-respecting and to reject all feelings of bitterness and hatred. This alone has become a sort of accomplishment these days, and is almost harder than writing books.” Keen to encourage the composer, he offers again to “counsel one of your collaborators for it must not be, as Schiller says, that ‘such geniuses rest’. Who should create great music in our time, if your hand pauses!”

Again Strauss resists. Collaborating with any other librettist “makes my skin crawl … My librettist is Zweig; he needs no collaborators.” Die schweigsame Frau is now in rehearsal and “You can rest assured: that opera is a bull’s-eye, even if it has to wait until the twenty-first century.” Signing off, Strauss adds: “The rumour is making the rounds that you have assigned your royalties to the Jewish Emergency Fund. I have denied it.”

There is something fitting in the fact that the composer who saw none of it coming was the one who had to see it all

Zweig’s reply is missing, but its contents can be guessed from Strauss’s response. “Your letter of the 15th is driving me to distraction! This Jewish obstinacy! Enough to make an anti-Semite of a man! This pride of race, this feeling of solidarity! Do you believe that I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German’? Do you believe that Mozart composed as an ‘Aryan’? I know only two types of people: those with and those without talent.” The letter was intercepted by the Gestapo and never reached Zweig.

While the authorities are now suspicious of Strauss, the composer himself already fears a different stain on his reputation. “Who told that you that I have exposed myself politically?” he demands of Zweig. True, he has stood in for a number of Jewish and anti-Nazi conductors, but he insists that he only stepped in for Toscanini “for the sake of Bayreuth. That has nothing to do with politics.” And he only accepted his post as president of the Reich Music Chamber “to prevent greater disasters! I would have accepted this troublesome honorary position under any government, but neither Kaiser Wilhelm nor Herr Rathenau offered it to me.” He once again relays the praise for their joint work. “And with all this you ask me to forego you? Never ever!”

Five days later Strauss apologises, but says that if Zweig could only hear how well “our work” sounds “you would drop all race worries and political misgivings”. Zweig was not able to come to Dresden to hear their joint work. But Strauss tells him that after these performances there is talk of a guest performance in London. “Dr Goebbels, who will be here with his wife on Monday, will give a government subsidy for this. As you see, the nasty Third Reich has its good aspects, too.” He relays the news that minister of war Blomberg as well as seven foreign officers are expected at their opera, although “there is still silence about Hitler’s attending”. Strauss signs off, “With best wishes and grateful congratulations, loyally.”

But by now Strauss has come to learn something about the regime that Zweig has known for years. His letters to Zweig have been intercepted and sent to Hitler himself. A representative from Goebbels visits the composer, shows him the intercepted communications and asks him to resign his official position immediately “for reasons of health”. Strauss resigns on the spot. Further performances of Die schweigsame Frau are banned. A tiny fraction of the indignities inflicted on his librettist are now inflicted upon the composer.

By October, in their final exchanges, Strauss is in an autumnal mood. He writes only about art, adding: “For the last years of my life I would like to get some pleasure out of my work, even if I have to put it away in my desk quietly.” As he closes, he warns Zweig: “You had better not write to me across the German border because all mail is being opened. Please sign your name as Henry Mor; I will sign as Robert Storch.”

 Zweig’s final letter is from a hotel in Westminster around December 1935. He assures his friend of his discretion, signing himself “your devoted, Morosus”.

From his sanctuary in London Zweig tells another of his correspondents, Joseph Roth: “Every morning I thank the Lord that I am free, and in England.” But “I have an appetite for distant places again, and the desire to see this world in the round once more, before it burns.” 

The recipient of that letter will die before the war he always expected. Zweig will bow out from Brazil, halfway through it. But Strauss will live on until 1949, and there is something fitting in the fact that the composer who saw none of it coming was the one who had to see it all.

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