Here's a slight departure from the usual texture of the blog, but with Die Frau ohne Schatten's return to the Royal Opera House now less than a month away, I thought it might be a good opportunity to reprint here a piece I wrote for OPERA in 2011 (it appeared in the July 2011 issue, ahead of the unveiling of Christof Loy's new production at the Salzburg Festival). I've kept the mentions of that production (which proved to be a major cop-out, in my opinion at least), but hope that the article, drawn from the final chapter of my PhD thesis, might still be of interest. (A longer version will hopefully appear in an academic journal before too long, too.)
This Summer, the Salzburg Festival plays host to Christof Loy’s highly anticipated new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, the fourth operatic collaboration between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The new staging adds to Die Frau’s distinguished but hardly extensive history at Salzburg, the festival founded by Strauss, Hofmannsthal and producer Max Reinhardt. A glance through the annals reveals that there were only three performances in the festival’s first forty years (Clemens Krauss conducted the work, using Alfred Roller’s Vienna sets, in 1932-3), compared to forty of Rosenkavalier between 1929 and 1941. It did not appear in Salzburg after the World War II until Karl Böhm conducted it in 1974 and 1975, and the opera’s only subsequent appearance on the Salzburg stage before this summer was in 1992, when Georg Solti conducted Götz Friedrich’s production.
The meagreness of this history is perhaps doubly surprising, for Die Frau is both a festival opera par excellence and a work that seems particularly close to the spirit of the Salzburg Festival. On one level it is a vast humanist fairy tale, yet its apparent concern with fertility, and the spiritual dimension of sex as procreation rather than—God forbid!—recreation, has more than a whiff of Catholicism about it. And Catholicism was one important element of the complex spiritual cocktail that was to make the Salzburg Festival—eventually launched, in August 1920, with an open-air performance of Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann that used Salzburg Cathedral as a backdrop—such a force for cultural renewal after World War I.
The festival found an additional focus in the figure of Mozart, who was idealized as the product and embodiment of the city’s unique baroque spirit. As a work also regularly characterized as Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s answer to Die Zauberflöte, then, wouldn’t Die Frau find a natural home there? It was Vienna, however, that hosted the premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten in October 1919, and the troubled first years of the Festival meant that a Salzburg premiere for the opera was never even a possibility (Strauss and Hofmannsthal had decided to wait until the end of the war to perform their new opera, which had been finished in 1917, and briefly toyed with Munich as an option). Loy’s new production promises to explore another important stage in the opera’s relationship with the Austrian capital, when, in 1955, Karl Böhm conducted the opera at the newly re-opened Staatsoper and made a groundbreaking recording with Decca.
Let us start, however, with the city’s most famous son, Mozart, and examine the idea, regularly encountered in the literature, that Die Frau was conceived as a ‘second Magic Flute’, an ‘adaptation of The Magic Flute’, and Hofmannsthal’s ‘own Zauberflöte’. Mozart’s opera is cited in Hofmannsthal’s early notes, which encompass a multitude of sources ranging from the Bible to Wagner, and in a letter from an early stage in Die Frau’s protracted gestation (20 March 1911) the librettist explained to Strauss that ‘The whole idea would, roughly speaking, stand in the same relation to The Magic Flute as Rosenkavalier does to Figaro’. There would seem to be some justification, then, for the ‘second Magic Flute’ label, which is employed as a convenient entrance point in to Die Frau’s labyrinthine world. But any promise of clarification is, of course, illusory. Mozart and Schikaneder’s opera is cryptic enough, and delving into the sources shows that the elements that found their way into Die Frau had done so via Goethe—through a series of enigmatic works including Faust II, Wilhelm Meister, the ‘Fairy Tale’ of 1795 (recently published, in Mike Mitchell’s translation, as part of The German Refugees; Dedalus, 2006), as well as Goethe’s own fragmentary The Magic Flute Part Two (Eric Blom’s translation is printed as an appendix to Robert Spaethling’s Music and Mozart in the Life of Goethe; Camden House, 1987).
If we return to the same letter, Hofmannsthal is notably cautious when he continues by qualifying the links between Figaro and Rosenkavalier, and Zauberflöte and Die Frau: ‘here as there, there would be no imitation, but a certain analogy. One cannot of course achieve the enchanting naïveté of many scenes in The Magic Flute’. A couple of weeks later, having discussed the plan with Hofmannsthal around the time of the Vienna premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss communicated his understanding of the new idea to his wife. Hofmannsthal’s plan, he wrote, is a ‘pure, very noble fairy-tale idea with marvellous symbols (from a distance reminding one a little of The Magic Flute, with whose continuation Goethe engaged himself, as is well known). Naturally there are no direct similarities with The Magic Flute, only in terms of genre, but with much greater meaning and depth’.
All these caveats will seem obvious to anyone familiar with The Magic Flute and Die Frau ohne Schatten, and if we jump forward several years to the time of the premiere of Die Frau, we find the ever-pragmatic Strauss continuing to evade unhelpful comparisons with his beloved Mozart. In an interview that appeared in the Neue Freie Presse late in September 1919, Strauss describes his new opera as, ‘if you like, a continuation of the Magic Flute […]. Let’s say the Magic Flute is a forerunner of Die Frau ohne Schatten. It can be understood’, he suggests finally, ‘as having a similar relationship to it as Lohengrin does to [Weber’s] Euryanthe’. Strauss’s early biographer Richard Specht was similarly cautious. He grudgingly concedes, in an article written for the premiere, that ‘doctoral students will find plenty of material for their dissertations’ in making the comparisons. Such an endeavour, though, would be essentially fruitless. (The literary scholar Gloria Ascher has undertaken this task in a short book that does indeed suggest the limits of such an approach).
Here, then, the link between the two operas is established as definitive and deep-rooted. In language typical of the pro-Salzburg propaganda that was circulating after the war, both works are positioned as central to the Salzburg project. Hofmannsthal had claimed that the festival should concentrate on ‘operas and plays simultaneously, since, in the highest sense, they cannot be separated’, and Pirker’s literary perspective dictates that actual music—and therefore the contributions of Mozart and Strauss—is more or less ignored throughout his book. Mozart’s role as embodiment of the Salzburg spirit, reflecting Hofmannsthal’s claim, saw him conveniently elevated to a position of grace beyond earthly concerns with medium and genre.
But what did Pirker mean by the term ‘baroque’, and how is this reconcilable with the quintessentially ‘classical’ Mozart? This might seem to be a question of semantics, but, as the historian Michael P. Steinberg has argued in his The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival (Cornell University Press, 1990), the idea of the baroque—or, rather, the ‘Ideology of the Baroque’—was essential to the whole Salzburg enterprise. One clue to its usage can be found in Bahr’s study of Vienna’s Burgtheater, which appeared in 1920 in the same series as Pirker’s book and carried a dedication ‘to Professor Josef Nadler, the “Schliemann” of our Baroque culture’. Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) was the archaeologist who unearthed the so-called Mask of Agamemnon, and Josef Nadler (1884-1963) was a hugely influential Austrian literary historian, who had started publishing his magnum opus, Die Literaturgeschichte der deutschen Stämme und Landschaften (Literary History of the German Tribes and Territories), in 1912.
Hofmannsthal latched on to the third volume of Nadler’s History, published in 1918, with particular enthusiasm, excitedly dispatching copies to friends. It was this volume that covered the ages of Mozart and Goethe, and in which the ‘Barock’ came to prominence. Unlike today’s standard definitions, Nadler’s conception of the term grew out of the main thesis of his History (later slightly adjusted to conform with the Nazi concept of Blut und Boden): that the literature of a nation was deeply rooted in its landscape and the movement of its ancient tribes. As such, Nadler argued that the ‘Austro-Bavarian baroque’ literally grew out of the magnificent landscape of Austria and southern Germany. It found a centre in Salzburg, he claimed, where it derived further pan-European value from the city’s historical position as stop-off on trans-alpine routes.
Hofmannsthal later referred to Nadler’s work as ‘a book for every German household’, and drew heavily on Nadler when summing up Salzburg’s special position: ‘The land around Salzburg is the heart of the heart of Europe. It lies half way between Switzerland and the Slav countries, half way between northern Germany and Lombardian Italy; it lies in the middle between south and north, between mountain and plain, between the heroic and the idyllic; its buildings balance the metropolitan and the rural, the ancient and the modern, the princely baroque and the charmingly eternal rustic’. The litany concludes that ‘Mozart is the expression of all this. Central Europe has no more beautiful region, and Mozart had to be born here’. For Die Frau ohne Schatten to find a place in the cultural agenda that, for Hofmannsthal, had Salzburg at its heart, its closeness to Mozart had to be emphasised.
Pirker made claims for Die Frau ohne Schatten as a work of impeccable Mozartian and baroque credentials that would find its proper home on the Salzburg stage; practicalities, as we have seen, dictated that the premiere took place in Vienna, a city that was increasingly side-lined from Hofmannsthal’s plans for the rebirth of Austrian culture. Strauss had been appointed director (with Franz Schalk) of the Vienna Opera on 1 May 1919, but he was taking joint charge of an institution in a state of great post-war uncertainty, stripped of the imperial prefix and associated security it had enjoyed as the K. und. K. Hofoperntheater. Even by the time of Die Frau’s premiere, exactly one month after the new Republic’s boundaries had been drawn up in the Treaty of St. Germain, the opera house relied on using tickets left over from the old regime, the imperial initials crudely blacked out.
While Strauss did talk of a ‘Vienna-Salzburg’ axis, his commitment to the Salzburg cause was hardly rooted in the sort of mythology embraced by Hofmannsthal, and his concern for self-promotion was never far away (despite Strauss’s involvement in the Festival possibly pre-dating Hofmannsthal’s, his commitment soon waned, and he resigned from the administration in 1924). His main aim in Vienna, meanwhile, was characteristically practical: to create an atmosphere suitable for the highest quality performances of existing works in the repertoire. There was reasonable speculation as to the reasons why this prolific opera composer, whose latest oeuvre waited unperformed in the wings, would be taking the helm of such an institution; and Strauss certainly seems to have been less than sympathetic to the plight of his Austrian Stammesgenossen when impatiently enquiring to Schalk about his new post in late October 1918. ‘Is it possible to close contracts anymore?’, he asks. ‘Is there still a Vienna Court Opera? Am I still from the autumn “director” of it? Is there still an Austria?’
Schalk was eventually entrusted with the premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten on 10 October 1919, with Strauss intimately and extensively involved with the preparations. Hofmannsthal helped develop, with the designer Alfred Roller, a detailed prompt book for the performance. He absented himself from rehearsals, however, and provided only sketchy materials for helping his audience through the complicated piece. He wrote a set of opaque ‘Reflexionen’ for a special volume of the Vienna Opera’s in-house Blätter des Operntheaters, produced a brief account of the opera’s gestation (published as ‘Zur Entstehungsgeschichte’), and provided a synopsis. Right up until the end of 1918, both Strauss and Hofmannsthal had anticipated that the Erzählung—Hofmannsthal’s short-story reworking of the opera’s ideas—would also be published well in advance of the opera’s premiere as an additional aid to the audience’s understanding. In the event, it was published around the time of the premiere, but there seems to have been no attempt to make the events coincide. Indeed, shortly after its appearance Hofmannsthal chastised the journalist Raoul Auernheimer for wishing to ‘to undertake a kind of comparison between these two things, the opera and the Erzählung’.
This seems perverse enough (reading the Erzählung does, inevitably, throw light on the opera), but a close examination of Hofmannsthal’s official account of the opera’s gestation also reveals subtle shifts of emphasis and not-so-subtle falsifications of chronology. He claimed that he had completed his libretto for the opera in ‘in July 1914, a few days before mobilization’ and that ‘In 1915 the composition was ready, then the opera lay for four years in Strauss’s desk’. In fact, Hofmannsthal had only completed the first two acts by the time war broke out, the usual cuts and adjustments notwithstanding, and finished his work on the third act not much more than a year later. Meanwhile, Strauss did not put the finishing touches to his score until 1917 (and the composer makes this clear in his Neue Freie Presse interview quoted earlier).*
It might seem unduly pernickety to highlight these inaccuracies, but there are several more apparently minor adjustments, which cohere into a strategic attempt to steer the opera’s early reception. First, Hofmannsthal claims that he did not start work on the Erzählung until after the opera was complete. However, he had actually started work on it in 1913, and it is impossible to put this new account down to faulty recollection: Hofmannsthal communicated his ‘official’ chronology while continuing, right up until late 1919, to inform those in his intimate circle of the actual order of events. Second, when Hofmannsthal quotes his very first notes for the work, what had originally been a ‘fantastic opera’ becomes a ‘fantastic play’. Third, he writes of the ‘similarity of the motifs of trial and purification with the fundamental ideas of the Magic Flute [that] occurred to us both’ (that is, to him and Strauss), but he omits mention of other important sources that were in his original notes: Gozzi and Goethe. Finally, Hofmannsthal tells us that ‘After the whole [idea] had taken some sort of shape, I recounted it to some friends, among them Strauss. I asked him if he could imagine this plot as an opera; or he himself, it seems to me, grasped it immediately as an opera plot’.
A cursory glance at the correspondence demonstrates that Hofmannsthal conceived Die Frau ohne Schatten as an opera from the very earliest point, but by the time of the opera’s premiere he had begun to see his Erzählung as the more important work. He therefore placed responsibility for the idea’s ending up on the operatic stage—where, by implication, it hardly belonged—squarely with Strauss. The added emphasis now given to the importance of The Magic Flute as a source, meanwhile, laid the foundations on which Pirker eagerly built his own arguments regarding the new opera.
That, at least, seems to have been Hofmannsthal’s idea, expressed in an introductory essay to Helena that includes an imagined conversation between him and Strauss. Here we see more of the blurring of mediums familiar from the Salzburg writings as Hofmannsthal describes the expressive power of Shakespeare’s language: ‘With him, the word always conveys expression, never information. In this sense, all of Shakespeare’s plays are operas’. Hofmannsthal goes on to explain that all these means are now also at his disposal. The response he imagines from Strauss, clearly feeling a little disenfranchised by this idea, has an air of desperation: ‘But these are my means; indeed, these are the artistic means of the musician!’.
Die Frau ohne Schatten brought an important stage in Hofmannsthal’s career to an end. The period following his renunciation of poetry (as expressed in the famous ‘Chandos Letter’ of 1902), saw him seek alliance with the other arts to recapture the power he felt his own words had lost. Die Frau was the culmination of this undertaking: the libretto sought to emulate Goethe’s attempts in the medium, which, as Hofmannsthal put it, ‘call out with outstretched hands for inspired and exalted music’. Bolstered by his own project for post-war cultural renewal, however, Hofmannsthal felt he had now started to recapture the musical qualities of his own language. As such, Strauss’s vast score for Die Frau ohne Schatten, designed to fill in the considerable gaps in Hofmannsthal’s text, was, in theory at least, made redundant by Hofmannsthal’s new-found self-sufficiency.
Die Frau ohne Schatten—what Strauss called his ‘child of sorrow’—had suffered at the hands of war, condemned to be first performed in a world unimaginably different from that in which it was conceived. But it was also drawn into the complex ideological vortex surrounding the Salzburg Festival. Complaints that Strauss’s score was an unwieldy embarrass de richesse were compounded by a shift in Hofmannsthal’s own conception of music’s role in opera, as well as a retrospective desire that it emulate Mozart. And when, for example, Peter Conrad writes that in Die Frau ohne Schatten ‘Mozart falls to earth and is deafened by Wagner’, he shows how the last of these ideas, at least, continued to resonate through later assessments of the work.
Strauss’s score, of course, does have its faults, many of which were acknowledged by the composer himself; and Hofmannsthal should perhaps not be blamed for joining a distinguished tradition of artists who sought to steer posterity’s view of their work. Nevertheless, it is important to remember how the ideological aspects of Die Frau’s early reception left traces on the way we view the work today. As it returns to Salzburg, then, let us bear in mind how this tradition has denied some of its richness. Indeed, we might find that Loy, in emphasising the work’s links to Vienna, will help free this ‘last Romantic opera’ of the ideological baggage it inadvertently accrued in the first years of the Austrian Republic.
* It is worth emphasising the opera’s chronology to point out that, at least in terms of Hofmannsthal’s libretto, Die Frau ohne Schatten can hardly be counted as the ‘war-time’ work it is often characterised as.