Saturday, 1 December 2012

Richard Strauss and the gay sensibility

What? Strauss is a composer known for his devotion to the female voice and a who used his own family life as the subject for his work. So where does gay sensibility come in? In 1897 Strauss wrote Vier Lieder Op. 27 as a wedding gift for his wife. The songs include Morgen and Heimlich Aufforderung, songs which have been beloved of sopranos ever since. The opening of Morgen with its long violin melody which is taken up by the soprano is just about perfect. Except of course that Strauss originally wrote it for piano, and when he recorded it himself (which he did twice) he used a male voice. Now, I once heard Dietrich Fischer Dieskau sing the song and frankly, was not completely convinced. So what is going on?


Well, for a start the words of  Morgen and Heimlich Aufforderung  are by John Henry Mackay. A poet and writer who was born in Scotland of a Scots father and German mother but from the age of two was taken back to Germany by his mother. Mackay was what we would call nowadays a gay activist, but such terms are anachronistic. He was an anarchist, but also wrote important early gay texts under his own name and under his pseudonym. His early lyric poems, written under his own name, have important gay references in them. His main interest was in fact younger men and had strong links to the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen which could be described as a sort of gay scouting movement and rejected the theories of Magnus Hirschfeld. But the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen was not founded till 1903, well after Mackay wrote his lyric poems.

You can hear Strauss's 1941 recording of Morgen with tenor Julius Patzack on YouTube.

It was two of these that Strauss chose to set. If you read an English translation then the hints become clear:-

Morgen
And tomorrow the sun will shine again
And on the way which I shall follow
She will again unite us lucky ones
As all around us the earth breathes in the sun
Slowly, silently, we will climb down
To the wide beach and the blue waves
In silence, we will look in each other's eyes
And the mute stillness of happiness will sink upon us

Heimlich Aufforderung
Up, raise the sparkling cup to your lips,
And drink your heart's fill at the joyous feast.
And when you raise it, so wink secretly at me,
Then I'll smile and drink quietly, as you...

And quietly as I, look around at the crowd
Of drunken revelers -- don't think too ill of them.
No, lift the twinkling cup, filled with wine,
And let them be happy at the noisy meal.

But when you've savoured the meal, your thirst quenched,
Then quit the loud gathering's joyful feast,
And wander out into the garden, to the rosebush,
There shall I await you, as often of old.

And ere you know it shall I sink upon your breast,
And drink your kisses, as so often before,
And twine the rose's splendour into your hair.
Oh, come, you wondrous, longed-for night!

Of course, the poems can be read a number of ways, which is very much the way with gay literature of the period. And we don't know what Strauss really thought. But he did know Mackay. His interest in Mackay seems to have originally stemmed from the fact that Mackay had intended (in 1889) to write a biography of the philosopher Max Stirner (1806-1856) and it was this link to the philosopher of egoism that appealed to Strauss. Evidently the two of them had a passionate discussion about Mackay's book The Anarchists and then two weeks later Strauss set these two Mackay lyrics. Contact between the two men stopped by 1902.

You only have to listen to Jonas Kaufmann's recording of Morgen to find all sorts of interesting resonances in it. And, yes, Kaufmann has convinced me that having the song sung by a male voice is not just possible, but works wonderfully well.

You can find Kaufmann's performance on Youtube.
There is more information about Richard Strauss and John Henry Mackay in Hubert Kennedy's article in Thamyris 2.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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