Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen has one movement, is scored for 23 strings and lasts for only a few minutes longer, unless you are Otto Klemperer. He finished it weeks before the end of the Second World War. By then, much of Dresden, Munich, Hamburg and many other great German cities had been destroyed by Allied bombs.
Strauss wrote it in memory of a great artistic culture whose legacy had been first traduced by the Nazis and then blown to pieces by the Allies, and whose rebirth he could neither foresee nor perhaps even imagine. Few people knew or loved that culture better than he did. It must have been terrible to try to put its loss into music without falling into despair. He didn't, and the result is one of the noblest, most moving things I have ever heard.
For despite its subject, Metamorphosen is a positive work, never melancholic and never sentimental. Its sadness is great but is seeded with hope. The culture Strauss celebrates and the loss he laments are all of ours. Allied bombs and Nazi genocide; western culture devouring its innocent children: the grief is shared, not personal, and just as the tools for such destruction were immanent in the western tradition, so are the means for redemption. Strauss portrays neither the bombs nor the horror but a state of mind in the face of them.
Metamorphosen begins quietly, gently and elegiacally. There are allusions to Wagner and Beethoven. After the wild firestorm of the middle part the music calms but then swells again, gloriously reworking and re-layering earlier themes picked now from the rubble. It closes quietly, neither in anguish nor banal optimism, or even in repose, but as if Strauss had gently laid it down for us to pick up again - but only if we will. It is the sleep not of death but of Brünnhilde, or of Arthur.
This weak bridge carries me to thoughts about why I can't separate how I see Metamorphosen from how we see Strauss, ‘we’ being those other and often reluctant heirs to our wonderful European cultural heritage, the Brits. Assuming that we are bothered to think about Strauss and Metamorphosen at all these days, here is how our default cultural setting, which selectively seduces people across the political spectrum, might encourage us to see them:
Strauss is suspect; he makes for a good ‘Other’. He was German, bourgeois, liked money and wrote a lot of big, bombastic, often tiresome, almost Meatloafean, tone poems. He accepted the post of President of the Nazis' Reichsmusikkammer, even though he never joined the party and was always a bit contrary. He was, in short, ‘one of them’, or at best one of those Germans who kept quiet; and ‘they’ - all of them - got what they deserved, or at least what had to be done. This is losers’ art and, since losers don’t write history, as our greatest wartime leader said, why should they creep in through the back door with their music?
It’s time we moved on. This loser can teach us something and, as all good art should, Metamorphosen may make us look at ourselves too. Strauss was a good European. We could be better ones and should embrace the baby he laid on our doorstep.