Today is the anniversary of the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1929. As a writer of sorts myself, I’ve always had a special sympathy for the writer in the Strauss / Hofmannsthal partnership, and get fairly indignant when the composer is billed as sole creator of their joint operas (or – worse – when his name is mis-spelled: musicians are particularly bad at this).
Given the level of interest in fin-de-siècle Vienna I’m always surprised that there isn’t more interest in his writing in the English-speaking world – to say nothing of his role in the creation of the Salzburg Festival. Anyway, when I wrote a programme note for Andris Nelsons’ and the CBSO’s Rosenkavalier last year I did my best to make sure Hofmannsthal got his due. Here’s what I wrote.
Curious music lovers who open the score of Der Rosenkavalier for the first time are sometimes surprised by what they see on the title page: Comedy for Music by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Music by Richard Strauss.
The order of the wording is significant. Strauss may have written the score, but the characters and plot of Der Rosenkavalier were created by Hofmannsthal, and his vivid, wonderfully evocative words gave them life. Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) was arguably the greatest natural talent in fin de siècle Austrian literature, a poet and playwright of international repute whose influence on European culture can still be felt today. That’s why it’s wrong to talk about “Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier” – or to describe Hofmannsthal as no more than a librettist.
Not that he shunned the description – in fact, he embraced it. He never viewed his six libretti for Strauss – Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1911-16), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1917), Die Aegyptische Helena (1928) and Arabella (1929) – as hack-work; indeed, as he told Strauss, their collaboration was “something great and at the same time necessary to my life”. Hofmannsthal had begun his literary career at the age of 17, when, under the pseudonym “Loris”, his astonishingly mature lyrical poetry amazed Viennese café society. “We had never heard verses of such perfection, such flawless fluidity, such intense musical feeling from a living person – indeed, had hardly thought it possible since Goethe” recalled the playwright Arthur Schnitzler.
Prodigies rarely enter adulthood unscathed, and Hofmannsthal’s crisis came at the turn of the century in a sudden loss of creative confidence. In his Lord Chandos Letter (1902) he described how words themselves “disintegrated in my mouth like rotten mushrooms”. Turning from poetry, he began to look for new ways in which to bridge the gap between language and emotion. He looked to theatre, to ritual, and to antiquity, producing new adaptations of Sophocles: Elektra (1904) and Ödipus und die Sphinx (1906). Then he looked to music.
And while he accepted that in opera music inevitably dominates words, he was emphatic that this was a partnership of artistic equals. “I know the worth of my work” he wrote to Strauss during a particularly fraught discussion about Ariadne auf Naxos. “I know that for many generations past, no poet of the rank with which I may credit myself amongst the living has committed himself willingly and devotedly to the task of working for a musician”. Hofmannsthal’s example would inspire writers of the calibre of Bertolt Brecht, Jean Cocteau and W H Auden to work with major composers.
World War One affected Hofmannsthal profoundly, and after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy he devoted the last decade of his life to rescuing and renewing what he could of European culture. With the theatre director Max Reinhardt, he founded the Salzburg Festival in the hope that “we might do in a new way, in ancient, beautiful and meaningful places, what was always done there”. An open-air performance of his mystery-play Jedermann is still an annual Salzburg tradition. Hofmannsthal was working on Arabella when, in July 1929, his son Franz committed suicide. Devastated, he collapsed and died on the day of Franz’s funeral.
Thousands attended Hofmannsthal’s own funeral, though he never read Strauss’s final telegram complimenting him on the first act of Arabella. But he’d spoken frankly to Strauss about their partnership in 1924, on the composer’s 60th birthday, and the nature of their relationship was such that it wouldn’t have needed repeating: “You have rewarded me as richly as any artist can reward another. The rest, our works did for themselves, and I believe that they, not all, but nearly all of them, with their inseparable fusion of poetry and music, will continue to live and give pleasure”.