Richard Strauss: Friedenstag (1938)

Opera in one act. Running Time 1 hour 18 minutes.

And now a little bit of opera in history from Historian Phil!

Thank you to Itaprikanmaa2 for restoring the sound on this recording! It is not actually the 1938 premiere recording, but rather a recording of the 1939 Vienna production of the opera. Nevertheless, the sound correcting much have been a challenge to say the least.

This opera tells the story of the last day of the Thirty Years War on 24 October, 1648, which was basically when Christianity started to lose control of Europe. The result of the war was the end of any attempt to bring all of Western Christendom back under a single fold, and the institutionalization of the concept of religious freedom for Christians in the West.

The Thirty Years War was also devastating to Germany, politically, economically, and genetically. Germany was at the center of the war, which included invasions by the armies of Austria, Bohemia, France, Sweden, and Denmark. Most of its culture was wiped out, which is one of the reasons why opera was mostly a French and Italian imported form well into the 19th century. In parts of Germany, between 33 and 66% of the population was killed, and the rape of German women by soldiers of French, Swedish, Danish, Croatian, Flemish, Czech, Spanish, and Italian nationality all but annihilated historically German Y-Chromosomes (if such a thing existed earlier). In other words, the Thirty Years War was the death of any German claims to genetic purity or even national cohesion (don’t tell the Neo-Nazis!).

Fast forward three centuries and Richard Strauss, who was basically an Atheist although he came from a Bavarian Alt-Katolische, or Old Catholic, family, which rejected some of the new Catholic dogmas such as Papal Infallibility, is casting about for a new operatic subject. His last opera, Die Schweigsame Frau has been put under a ban by the Nazi government in Germany due to its libretto being written by the Jewish author Stefan Zweig. Zweig came up with the idea for this opera (although Strauss attempted to force an adulterous love story into the narrative between the Commander’s wife and one of his officers claiming that he needed something in the story to give him inspiration as the more abstract concepts of the story weren’t really working for him), although he personally suggested the non-Jewish Joseph Gregor to write the libretto. Gregor and Strauss would collaborate several times over the next nine year, although Strauss was never fully convinced of Gregor and his talent as a librettist, so many projects (such as three complete opera librettos and a revision of the Spohr opera Jessonda) came to not. Instead, Gregor wrote the the text for Daphne, Die Liebe der Danae, and parts of Capriccio. At one point, Gregor was also the director of the Austrian National Library. Although his works were highly praised by the Nazi regime, he was also accused of being Jewish (I guess because a goy could not possibly produce so much fine work), which he denied and there is little circumstantial evidence for, although he did get into mild trouble with the regime in 1936-37 for writing positively about Jewish people in the German theatre world. However, Friedenstag proved to be a massive triumph with the Nazis, of whom the major party leaders actually attended this 1939 Vienna production which can be heard in the video directly below.

(Video may take time to load)

This all being said, I want to confirm my analysis of Strauss the man. He was certainly not anti-Semitic, his successful actions to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law (who was also one of his greatest artistic supporters) and his grandsons alone should be enough to put these accusations to rest. I really do not think he cared anything about the ethnic or religious background of anyone. Richard Strauss made very plain in his writings, dating both before, during, and after the Nazi regime, that the only thing that mattered to him about a person was if or if not they had creative talent. He did not discriminate beyond this, which, as a world famous artist himself, I think he had license to do so, or at least had the skills to judge musical and theatrical talent. He was Richard Strauss after all. His actions during the Nazi era (which came to power when he was already 68 years old and fell when he was over 80) point to him prioritizing art (which was his life) over politics (which mattered little, if anything, to him). He wasn’t Mascagni currying favor with Mussolini. In fact, Strauss seems to have been fully aware of his status as an internationally known artist whom the regime would be wary to touch for fear of global outrage. In 1945, when the Strauss Villa was occupied by American and British troops, Strauss specifically identified himself, in French, as the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome, knowing that his reputation was such that someone would know who he was. This was an 80 year old man, and his argument to soldiers decades younger than himself was in essence: I am an artist. In 1948, Strauss was one of the first Germans of note to be cleared of any involvement with the regime by the denazification tribunal in Munich. This wasn’t a man who supported Nazism. Instead, we should be grateful that he managed to outlive the regime and survive, comparatively to other famous composers of similar notoriety, closer to our own era. My own father was born eleven months before Strauss died, which makes me feel almost as if he is a contemporary.

And now, enough of my ranting, on with the opera review!

SETTING: The Citadel of a German Catholic town besieged by forces from Holstein on the final morning of the Thirty Years’ War. The unnamed Catholic Commandant (baritone) is determined to blow up his fortress rather than surrender to the Protestant enemy. His wife, Maria (soprano), does not share his views about dying gloriously in battle. When a peace treaty is announced, Maria saves the situation at the last minute when her husband insults the Protestant commander who announces the end of the decades long conflict.

LOOK OUT FOR:

SETTING: The Citadel of a Catholic town, the morning of 24 October, 1648.

0: The opera opens with a seven note whole-tone passage which acts as the basic leitmotif of the work *. This is followed by a slow march tune which closely resembles Kurt Weill (this might be subtle hint from Strauss). We are then off into a conversation between a baritone Sergeant and a tenor Rifleman who describe the scene: desolation and famine plague the land, a farm has just been set fire to by the Holsteins as the sun rises. Many of the soldiers are too young to have known peace, and yet they have faith in the Commandant.

3: La rosa, che un bel fiore The Song of the Piedmontese Messenger *** is possibly the best thing in the opera for the male voice as he arrives with a message from the Emperor. Strauss contrasts the brightness of the Italian tenor line (a song about peace and love which must, as an Italian song, have some sort of underlying symbolism) with the comparatively dark and even guttural musings of the German soldiers (who mildly poke fun of the Italian). It is also the only point in the first half of the opera in which Strauss lightens anything up. Five minutes further in, Strauss makes a reference to the Lutheran hymn Ein Feste Burg (which returns later in the opera). The whole-tone passage reoccurs as well for the first (of many) times.

10: Hunger! Brot! Strauss pulls off a ferocious, even funerary, march * in for the townspeople. The mayor and a priest are to have audience with the Commandant, begging for the surrender of the city before the populace starves to death. They are refused by the Commandant, who declares that as a soldier, his duty is to the Emperor first. An officer (baritone) arrives and tells the Commandant that the ammunition under the citadel must be released if the city is to not fall to the Holsteins. The Commandant refuses, but eventually announces that he will give a sign at noon in order to disperse the townspeople, who depart to a more middle agreeable chorus which borders on a hymn. This sign, however, will be to use the ammunition to blow up the citadel at midday, rather than surrender. The scene plods along. It does not drag, but Strauss, in his rather successful way of putting across just how miserable the townspeople are, does not attempt to be melodically adventurous here.

25: Zu Magdeburg The Commandant tells the Sergeant what will happen at noon and offers him the opportunity to flee before the explosion (going into a backstory about how the Sergeant once saved his life during a battle at Magdeburg **, so he is returning on a debt). The Sergeant refuses to leave. There is one more bright passage as the Piedmontese messenger is dismissed by the Commandant, who then orders everyone out. The sun is given time to shine upon the mostly empty stage to some Strauss horn work.

33: Wie? Niemand hier? Maria, the only character given a personal name, arrives in the most musically unassuming way and she meanders about for the longest time *. Although her love for her husband is stedfast, she does not share his views of death before defeat and the glories of war; commenting on the townspeople she has seen while on her way to the Citadel, which she finds seemingly deserted. In her first aria, she compares the horrors of war to the joys of peace in a Straussian, if mechanical, way. It starts to get rousing nine minutes in, but this is seconds before it ends.

43, 52: Maria, du? The Commandant is surprised to see his wife, who extracts from him what will happen at noon (the citadel will be blown up and its inhabitants all killed). She chooses to die with him, however, when offered a chance to flee. Although Maria gets some good vocal effects here (the role is taxingly difficult), it is otherwise musically rather boring * (especially the Commandant) except for two passages: one five minutes in, the other eight minutes in, ending in a high D-flat for the soprano. Strauss pulls off a passionate orchestral intermezzo as the couple embraces ** which quickly dies as the soldiers return.

54: Erwunschtes Zeichen! A cannon is heard in the distance * (the whole-tone passage is heard in the lower strings, woodwinds, and brass). The Sargent gives the Commandant the fuses to light the underground ammunition, but he does not go through with it.

56: Nein, nicht Todesnebel The most poetic passage in the score *** as the city bells are rung (no one knows why, but Maria takes the opportunity to encourage peace).

59, 62: Der Feind, der Feind! The soldiers bring news *** that the Holsteiners are coming, but not dressed for battle, but rather ceremonially, with streamers and white peace flags. A march is heard steadily approaching with an underlying reference to Ein Feste Burg in the bass ***. The tenor Rifelman gets the best of this vocally during the intervening three minutes as the Commandant doesn’t believe any of this is actually happening, even after the Protestants show up.

64: Wo ist der Mann Their commander, a bass known in the libretto simply as “the Holsteiner”, arrives ** looking for the Commandant, declaring that a peace treaty has been signed (to the delight of Maria). The Commandant, who still looks at the man as the enemy, makes a slighting comment about Lutheranism, which causes both men to draw swords.

67: Geliebter, nicht das Schwert! Maria throws herself between the two men, embarking on a brief peace sermon, and defusing what could have become a worse situation ***. Strauss throws in rather a few brass and woodwind features to enhance the sequence as the Commandant and the Holsteiner embrace. The townspeople embrace (grateful that the war is over, finally) as Maria soars above them with a high soprano line.

72: Warum kämpften wir Jahre um Jahre? An odd, and brief, duet for the Kommandant and the Holsteiner * quickly gets hijacked by Maria, who improves it.

74: Wagt es zu denken The opera ends with an explosive (and rather reminiscent of Fidelio) unison chorus sequence with opportunities for the soloists (especially Maria) to embark on some last minute joy before the curtain ***.

COMMENTS:

The opera going public has always been divided on Friedenstag. Some think it contains some of the best music Richard Strauss ever wrote, others that it is deathly dull. Admittedly, the constraints of the plot mean that the best music falls within the last 25 minutes or so of the opera, which can make the first 50 come off as extremely boring. Prior to the Commandant’s Magdeburg monologue, the only light piece in the score is the well placed song of the Piedmontese messenger, which is sung in Italian.

However boring the opera might seem at first, this is really Strauss building up the dramaturgy of the work, which in the beginning is about starvation and the devastation of decades of war. Could this be made musically interesting by anyone? Probably not, in all honesty. Regardless, Strauss does convince us of that desolate atmosphere, even if it is not melodically inspiring, through music which is equally desolated.

Maria is an audience self-insert, and dominates the remainder of the score with her taxing Straussian soprano vocal effects. Although her first aria retains the same desolate tone as most of the music before it, it is during her duet with the Commandant that the score begins to fly and her presence improves the remainder of the opera both dramatically and melodically.

Strauss is interestingly kind to his tenors here, as they, along with Maria, get the best of the vocal music. This may possibly be because the opera is so male-centered and the vocal casting so low (all but five roles of the 14 soloist parts are assigned to baritones or basses, and three of the five are very small). The chorus is more used here than usual in Strauss, with probably only Feuersnot offering a more complex choral experience.

In the end, although it takes a long time to pack its punch, the last twenty minutes or so raise the situation to near blockbuster level and will probably give the listener satisfaction, in the end. An alpha.

SOURCES:

Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Strauss. Grange Books, London: 1992. Ch.12, p.194-200.

The New Penguin Opera Guide. Amanda Holden, ed. Penguin, London: 2001. p. 901-902.

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