Wayne Heisler Jr : The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss (Hardback)

University of Rochester Press, 2009 (345pp)

11 March 2010 2 and a half stars

The Ballet Collaborations of
Richard StraussBallet is not the first genre you think about when you consider Richard Strauss. The master of the orchestral tone poem, the prolific opera composer of the first half of the twentieth century, the artful setter of many a Lied – but Strauss and ballet? Well, it may come as a surprise to some Strauss lovers that ballet projects of one sort or another were a theme in Strauss's life as a composer, starting with the musical sketches for Die Insel Kythere, a three act ballet project conceived by Strauss while on a visit to Paris in 1900 (but never completed), and finishing with Verklungene Feste: Tanzvisionen aus Zwei Jahrhunderten of 1941, described by one of its choreographers Mlakar as "not a ballet d’action, that is, not a dance work with a lot of action and dramatic development, but rather a gallery of selected images of dance from the real baroque, and the transformation of this style as it begins to ossify into the new, romantic style." In the forty years between these two poles, Strauss wrote three other ballet scores: that of Die Josephslegende (1914), Ballettsoiree (1923) and Schlagobers (1924). Each of these occupies a substantial portion of this book, although Ballettsoiree contains relatively little original Strauss (it would be more accurate in a way to say that Strauss arranged the music for the evening).

The fact that Strauss had an interest in ballet and was open to collaborative project suggestions ought not to be that surprising if one thinks of the abundance of dance forms that occur in Strauss operas. Wayne Heisler enumerates all of these in the admirably concise introduction to his book and goes on to consider Strauss and the dance form in greater detail, work by work. He draws attention to the number of German authors and dramatists in the 1890s who had hopes that Strauss might set their respective ballet scenarios to music. These included Richard Dehmel, Frank Wedekind, Otto Julius Bierbaum, Paul Scheerbart and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It was the latter who perhaps came nearest to a ballet collaboration with Strauss in this period with his scenario Der Triumph der Zeit, but when it came to decision time Strauss was already working on Die Insel Kythere (for which he had written his own scenario) and it was eventually Alexander von Zemlinsky who set Hofmannsthal’s scenario to music. It was not a success and the authors struggled to have it performed at all.

Those who have read the standard books on the life and works of Richard Strauss by authors such as Norman del Mar or Michael Kennedy will have found relatively little consideration of Strauss and the ballet form. This book more than makes up for it! Heisler has read widely and pertinently on the stage works of the period, and succeeds in putting Strauss's ballet collaborations in the context of their respective times. So there is much of interest in his thorough accounts of how each work came together, how (and by whom) it was performed and what critical reception each ballet enjoyed, both at the time and subsequently. But, as the author admits, none of the Strauss ballet collaborations has entered the standard repertoire and it is still a difficult task to establish with absolute certainty the full performance score of, for example, Ballettsoiree and of Verklungene Feste.So Heisler has to resort to intelligent conjecture at times – backed up by the sources he cites – which can leave the reader with a slightly unsatisfactory impression. The central thesis – that Strauss had a lifelong engagement with dance, one (as the author says) "that was sporadic and (characteristically) varied, to be sure, but nonetheless invested, even adoring" – is undermined in part by the fact that so many Strauss ballet projects remained unfinished. And – Heisler does not shy away from this fact – quite a lot of Strauss ballet music was in fact recycled. So Strauss's actual achievements in his various ballet collaborations all need to be kept in healthy perspective.

StraussThe book began life as a PhD thesis: sharper editing might have led to removal of a number of repetitions and, at times, a clearer narrative thread. But there is absolutely no doubt that Heisler has covered the ground, and his chapter endnotes are a substantial read in themselves. He correctly emphasises the importance to Strauss of Heinrich Kroeller, the dancer-turned-choreographer who had mounted the first German performance of Die Josephslegende in Berlin (1921), and whom Strauss then persuaded to join him to become ballet master at the Vienna State Opera. The first fruits of their renewed collaboration was the 1923 Ballettsoiree, four ballet divertissements set to music by Couperin (arranged and orchestrated by Strauss), Ravel, Rameau and Johann Strauss Jr. The organising principles of this evening of ballet had been expounded by Kroeller in his 1922 essay Moderne Choreographie, in which he stressed the importance of an organic relationship between the musical and dance gestures: as Heisler puts it, "Thus, rather than reconstructing baroque pas from a period dance source… Kroeller used this music as his primary guide to create modern-day courtly dances." The title of the opening Couperin/Strauss number, Gesellschafts- und Theatertaenze im Stile Ludwigs XV, indicates what was involved: fourteen dance couples engaged in a form of tableau vivant, recreating a bygone age. If it sounds old-fashioned now, it also clearly seemed so at the time: as Heisler admits, the original Ballettsoiree was only ever repeated once in Vienna, in 1929, and plans to take it on an international tour came to nothing. One section of the evening was rescued and recycled however: renamed Couperin-Suite, the opening tableau with Strauss’s orchestration of Couperin melodies became a staple item in the Vienna ballet repertoire during the 1920s and was performed one hundred times or so.

Kroeller was also the choreographer for the ballet that followed in 1924, Schlagobers (Viennese dialect for whipped cream). Unlike Ballettsoiree, this work did have an original score (for large orchestra) by Strauss and its premiere, inaugurating Strauss's own sixtieth birthday celebrations, was a lavish and hugely expensive affair. It was also, as Michael Kennedy puts it, "a ghastly flop". Kennedy has succinct reasons for this failure: "A gay and witty confection set in a confectioner's shop, with characters like Princess Pralinee, Prince Cocoa and Mlle Marianne Chartreuse, was not the dish of whipped cream to set before starving, bankrupt Vienna." And this production led swiftly to Strauss's enforced resignation from his post at the Vienna State Opera – his relationship with his co-equal at the House, Schalk, had never been easy and in the manoeuvrings that followed the failure of Schlagobers, Schalk came out on top and Strauss had to go.

Richard StraussHeisler treats Schlagobers in a curious way, entitling his chapter on it "Kitsch and Schlagobers" and going on to develop an argument that Strauss knowingly used kitsch subversively in the work, almost as an affirmation of his own bad taste. Heisler's argumentation however is obscure and often unconvincing and this chapter of the book seems to me to be the least successful. Without seeking to summarise the various elements adduced by Heisler, I might simply reproduce his conclusion in full – it stands or falls as follows. "In light of Schlagobers, however, the concept of a "first-class second rate composer" suggests that Strauss's compositions were knowingly endowed with a knack for kitsch, and with the daring to raise artisticity to the level of an art form.Schlagobers is perhaps best viewed not as the low point of Strauss's career but as his masterpiece in the blending of high and low, one that he could not have achieved without the inspiration of Vienna, the contributions of Kroeller and Mozart, and, of course, the Viennese dancers at the hallowed Staatsoper." The Strauss lover might refer to the blending of high and low in Ariadne auf Naxos as masterly, but Schlagobers as a masterpiece? I think not, with or without 'artisticity'.

The other major Strauss ballet to be assessed by Heisler is the much earlier (1914) Die Josephslegende. This was created for the Ballets Russes with Nijinsky in mind for the figure of Joseph: alas, Nijinsky's marriage to Romola de Pulszky and subsequent quarrel with Diaghilev led to the dancer's departure from the company and the appointment of Fokine (as choreographer) and of Leonid Massine in the role of Joseph. The premiere at the Paris Opera on 14 May 1914 was distinguished in two ways: the first premiere in Paris of a German work since 1870, and the last great ballet occasion in the house before the onset of the First World War. It transferred swiftly to London (where Thomas Beecham conducted) but its subsequent inclusion in the repertoire of major German and Austrian companies had to wait until the 1920s, when it was frequently performed.

Heisler provides a clear narrative account of the genesis of Die Josephslegende and highlights the creative tensions between the various authors involved: Strauss of course for the music (and Heisler identifies the pieces from Die Insel Kythere that are assimilated into the later work) and Harry Kessler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal for the scenario and the libretto. There is however a yawning gap in Heisler's Bibliography here: he quotes aptly from the single volume of correspondence between Kessler and von Hofmannsthal, from Kessler’s letters to his sister Wilma and from the catalogue that accompanied an exhibition on Kessler's life and works, mounted by the DLA (German Literature Archive) in 1988 (Tagebuch eines Weltmannes). However, Heisler seems unaware that there is precious material – that answers some of the very questions he poses – in Volume 4 of the Kessler Diaries, covering the period 1906 – 1914 (published by Klett-Cotta in 2005). His own mentions of, and references to Kessler's Diaries are restricted to the single volume covering the years 1918 – 1937, long available in German and in English under the title Memoirs of a Cosmopolitan.However, as source material for the genesis of Die Josephslegende, they have been eclipsed by the later publication.

So overall, I find this book a bit of a curate's egg – certainly good in parts, of definite interest to lovers of Richard Strauss and containing some original research, sometimes clumsily expressed. I am glad to have read it, but think it could have been a great deal better with a clearer and more consistent narrative line and with sharper editing.

By Mike Reynolds

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