Behind Richard Strauss's Murky Relationship with the Nazis

Thursday, June 05, 2014

June 11 is the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss's birth—an occasion to celebrate and also to raise questions about the composer and his actions during the Nazi era.

In 1933, Strauss accepted a high-profile job from the Nazis, when propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels named him president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau. Strauss wrote pieces for the Nazis including "Das Bächlein," a song dedicated to Goebbels. And he even wrote at least one letter pledging his loyalty to Hitler.

But Strauss's defenders note that he eventually lost the Nazi post for insisting that Stefan Zweig – the Jewish librettist of his comic opera Die Schweigsame Frau – should appear in the program at the premiere in Dresden, in 1935. And Strauss may have helped save several Jewish lives later in the war. He emerged from his postwar de-Nazification hearing with no official taint.

So was Strauss a hero, a bad actor, or something else? In this week's episode, we’re joined by two Strauss experts to sort through these questions:

  • Erik Levi, author of Mozart and the Nazis and Music in the Third Reich, and a professor of music at Royal Holloway, University of London.
  • Bryan Gilliam, a professor of humanities at Duke University and author of several books on Strauss including Rounding Wagner's Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera.

Segment Highlights

On Strauss's relationship to the Nazis

Levi: Initially he was an enthusiastic advocate [of the Nazis]. Remember that we were experiencing in the 1920s a period of tremendous economic fluctuation and a lot of composers on the bread line. What Strauss wanted to do was bring stability to the composing profession, and this was what was promised to him.

Gilliam: I wouldn't say he was pro-Nazi ideology; he was pro-Richard Strauss ideology. He was an opportunist. I don't think he was excited ever about any government. He'd be excited over a government that gave him opportunities for work and commissions and the like. His ideology was Richard Strauss. There's an exception here: his son, Franz, was enthusiastic...


The Music That Strauss Composed for the Nazis

Levi on the Olympic Hymn of 1936: He didn't share much enthusiasm for the idea of writing something for the sporting event. But he was keen to promote himself and a big event like the Berlin Olympic games was an event where he could occupy center stage. It's a piece of jobbery really.

Gilliam: The Olympic Hymn poem was by a half-Jewish poet. He sat next to Hitler at the ceremony.


On the Moral Implications of the Music Strauss wrote under the Nazi regime

Levi: We have to divorce the music from the man. Some past composers in history have been terribly unpleasant people with unpleasant views. It is a thicket. We need to mention a piece like Metamorphosen, written at the end of the war, where you really sense the agony and the grief for the destruction of Germany. The destruction of Germany was wrought by Hitler and his gang, and this music really speaks to the heart that few other works of the 20th century do.

Gilliam: I don't find anything heroic about Strauss, but as a musician, I am absolutely mesmerized by one of the most brilliant artistic individuals of the 20th century.

Listen to the segment above and leave a comment below: Should Strauss have spoken out more forcefully against the Nazis? Do you find his Nazi-era works problematic?


More in:

Comments [10]

The question of what an 'artist' owes to political reality is still haunting us, isn't it? Just consider how we are still grappling with that question today in connection with the events of the Ukraine as well as the violent and bloody officially tolerated gay-bashing that goes on in Russia. To what extent do we expect singers, composers, musicians, sculptors, etc. to speak out publicly when their very lives could be placed in danger? Tough question, I'll grant you that. Richard Strauss ought to spoken out more forcefully than he did, but he may have helped himself become a useful fool for the Nazis and once he realized this fact, he was trapped.

Jun. 09 2014 03:32 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

I agree with Arden and Runa. If we choose to listen only to music by composers who meet some kind of exacting standard of morality, ethics, or political correctness, we probably would find very little to listen to, and we would miss out on a lot of great music. Music really does transcend the sometimes harsh aspects of human life.
Although I am not particularly fond of Richard Strauss' music, I can appreciate its value to those who do love it.

Hi Concetta - what do you think?

Jun. 08 2014 07:18 PM
Runa Schlaffer from Chestnut Ridge, NY

I suppose if we only played music by composers we 100% approved of, there would be no music at all, since nobody is perfect.

Jun. 08 2014 08:59 AM
Frank from UWS

One can't put politics to rest when they clearly shaped the music. I find it hard to listen to Wagner because of his views. Why didn't Strauss speak out against the Nazis instead of toeing a safe middle ground? Couldn't he have followed Schoenberg and company to LA? I know your guests point out that he was getting old but still - wouldn't he have been happier out of a war zone?

Jun. 08 2014 08:37 AM
Arden Broecking from Connecticut

Richard Strauss wrote some of the most sublime music ever composed. I fell in love with "Der Rosenkavalier" when I was in high school. Later as a singer,
I felt in a way transported when I sang the third act Trio, and many of his songs. Maybe it's the harmonic structure. Somehow, listening to music, when Strauss is played,it's clear within a few bars that it is Richard Strauss.
Can we not now just accept the music, accept that Richard Strauss was a
great composer of genius, and put the politics to rest?
Music is a universal language, and great music, like that of Strauss transcends,takes us out of the mundane, and heals.

Jun. 08 2014 07:00 AM
David from Flushing

Carl Orff is another composer whose activities in the Nazi era have been called into question.

Jun. 06 2014 06:22 PM
Lucian Dorian from New York, NY

As a coin [i.e., a mean of exchange] has two faces, any story/event has two opposite perspectives. If there is no justification for the barbaric holocaust of WWII, particularly the anti-Semitic one, what has been the reason for imposing extremely harsh penalties on the German people at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Because that "peace" was negotiated and concluded on French territory, it may easily be assumed that it had something to do with the old animosity - and maybe jealousy - between the descendants of the Germanic tribes' of the Franks -- the eponymic ancestors of the French, following a latinization process -- and the population which proceeded from other Germanic tribes which were the progenitors of the 1930s and 1940's Germany. ___Richard Strauss should be judged first of all as a musician -- his main career and preoccupation -- not as a political person. In a similar manner has to be considered Prokofiev, rather than as a communist!

Jun. 06 2014 04:59 PM
Paul Pelkonen from Brooklyn, NY

It's always been my understanding that Strauss (who resigned his post as Reichskammermusikdirektor following the Nazis striking librettist Stefan Zweig's name from the programme on the opening night of their lone opera Die Schweigsäme Frau) sought to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice Strauss--and her children!--from the Nazis. He even moved his family to Vienna to escape them and she was arrested anyway. After he secured her release, the family was allowed to move back to Garmisch and remain under house arrest. There's a reason he wrote Metamorphosen--he was a broken man in a broken country.

In any case, he was one of the most remarkable and talented composers of the 20th century and much of his largely ignored later catalogue (esp. Daphne and Die Liebe der Danäe are worthy of revival and performance.

Jun. 06 2014 01:14 PM
Juan Carlos Correa from Santiago, Chile

The more I consider the facts known, regarding Strauss during the nazi regime, the more critical I get about him. I just can't understand how he got away from the des nazification process and how he still is "celebrated", while so many artists, in the different fields of art, were forced to leave and/or were terribly persecuted.

Jun. 06 2014 12:17 PM
John Koster from North Jersey

People tend to forget how easy it was to get murdered during the Hitler administration. Hermann Ehrhardt, the leader of the German Right and the man who destroyed the Bolshevik take-overs of Berlin and Munich before the Weimar Republic jailed him, described Hitler as "an idiot," "absolutely unacceptable" and obliquely as "a psychopath and a vagabond." Hitler tried to have Ehrhardt murdered in 1934 but it was a near-miss. (Ehrhardt, a nationalist but a Christian and not an anti-Semite, was a hero to the anti-Nazi movement and the bomb that almost kiled Hitler in 1944 went off on Ehrhardt's wife's 50th birthday -- she was a Prussian royal and Hitler didn't like those folks either.) Paul Schulz, one of Ehrhardt's anti-Bolshevik assassins and a convicted and paroled political murderer, distastefully described the Nazi SA as replete with homosexuals. In 1934 the Nazi police shot Schulz in the back but -- incredibly -- he sprinted off into the woods when they went to find a blanket to wrap the body. Gustav von Kahr, who (like Ehrhardt) had refused to back Hitler's Munich Putsch of 1923, was murdered outright, along with his wife. People like Ehrhardt and Schulz stood up to Hitler at their peril. Thomas Mann and Erich Maria Remarque got out of Germany. Most people hoped things would get better....and some pulled strings to make them better for themselves.

Jun. 05 2014 11:13 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Conducting Business

WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

subscribe to Conducting Business

Listen to Stitcher