Such is the goal of Michael Kennedy, a longtime advocate of Strauss, in his new biography, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Kennedy, the Sunday Telegraph's music critic and author of several other musical biographies--including an earlier study of the composer as well as illuminating articles and CD booklets on his music--here undertakes to penetrate the contradictions and see the man whole. Through his impressive access to diaries, letters, and living relatives, he posits an underlying consistency of attitude that made "art the reality in [Strauss's] life." The central enigma about the composer that fascinates Kennedy is the "disparity between man and musician," the paradox that this fundamentally aloof and reserved person, dedicated to bourgeois stability, could produce music of such overpowering passion.
While steering clear of Freudian reductionism, Kennedy reveals the crucial significance of Strauss's mother's nervous instability--she was eventually committed to various sanatoriums--and the centrality of the work ethic inherited from his father. The result was to make music "Strauss's means of escape ... and in much of his music he wore a mask." Yet for all his aloofness, Strauss "let [the mask] slip"--another aspect of the enigma surrounding him--in such compositions as Don Quixote ("the most profound" of his orchestral works) or the pervasively autobiographical Sinfonia Domestica, Intermezzo, and Capriccio, which Kennedy counts as Strauss's greatest achievement for the lyrical stage.
Kennedy is particularly persuasive in his high estimation of the post-Rosenkavalier output and the undiminished quest for artistic innovation that they continued to exemplify--above all in Strauss's development of a fluently conversational style in his operas. Although commentary on individual works involves generally concise summations, many observations sparkle with insight, and Kennedy continually sheds light on neglected gems among Strauss's output. The rapport with Hofmannsthal and his other librettists is admirably clarified, and the remarkably well-read Strauss emerges as a more imposingly intellectual figure, steeped in literature and philosophy, than he is usually depicted. We learn of his obsession with the card game skat and of his disdainful attitude toward the new medium of film. Kennedy similarly demystifies much of the received opinion that has developed around the composer, particularly in his level-headed portrait of his wife, Pauline. The fundamental happiness of their lifelong relationship emerges as a context indispensable to Strauss's creative focus.
Kennedy devotes a significant portion of the book to the composer's position as president of the Reich Music Chamber and subsequent fall from grace both with the Nazis and in world opinion. Here the author aims to offer perspective by carefully detailing the facts and documentary evidence from the time. In his view, Strauss becomes a "tragic figure, symbolising the struggle to preserve beauty and style in Western European culture" against emerging barbarism. Yet, as throughout the book, Kennedy's abiding sympathy with Strauss at times veers close to a kind of special pleading that invites skepticism. For all that, his style is admirably lucid, and his biography largely succeeds in pointing to a greatness that "has not yet been fully understood and discovered." --Thomas May --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.