Tilting at Windmills: Richard Strauss and Don Quixote

Richard Strauss' long life encompassed a remarkable span of history in music and otherwise(Photo: Portait by Max Liebermann)
Richard Strauss' long life encompassed a remarkable span of history in music and otherwise(Photo: Portait by Max Liebermann)

This past Tuesday marked the 60th anniversary of the passing of Richard Strauss, whose long life encompassed a remarkable span of history in music and otherwise.

He was born in 1864, when the Civil War was still raging in the U.S., and died in 1949,  four years after the end of the Second World War. He passed away peacefully at the age of 85 at his estate in Garmisch, in Germany, which had escaped destruction during the war.

Man of La Mancha

Don Quixote, in Cervantes’ great novel (published in 1605), is a retired Spanish country gentleman who, inspired by tales of romantic chivalry, decides to ride out into the world, righting wrongs and rescuing damsels in distress.

With his old lance and armor, his trusty steed, Rocinante, and his portly and loyal servant, Sancho Panza, the  gaunt and idealistic “Man of La Mancha” heads out to find new adventures worthy of a noble knight. The word “quixotic” has come to mean romantically chivalrous and idealistic in a noble but impractical or absurd way.

Strauss Tilting at Modernism

Late in his life, Strauss kept on writing music of great beauty in a romantic idiom at a time when modernism was at its height. He was going against the current of contemporary trends as exemplified by the 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg and others who followed his example.

Even Aaron Copland wrote some 12-tone works later in his life (they are not the pieces most people want to hear). I don’t want to belabor this point too much because it could also apply to other composers who came of age during the Romantic Era in music and lived long lives.  Some felt the world was changing too fast around them and couldn’t, or didn’t want to follow all the new trends.

And yet they wanted to continue developing their art and craft in a fashion that was true to their values and ideals, old as they may be. Sadly, Jean Sibelius, Finland’s greatest composer, didn’t write much more music after 1925. Born just a year after Richard Strauss, he lived until 1957.

But Strauss kept right on going till the end of his life. His ravishingly beautiful Four Last Songs for soprano and Orchestra were first performed the year after his death in 1950.

The Battle Between the Traditional and Modern

One of the most famous adventures of Don Quixote is his battle with windmills, which he believes are ferocious giants. It is his misconception that makes the episode humorous, but it is his courage in his endeavor that  evokes our admiration of his determination, with maybe a bit of pathos. The term “tilting at windmills” has come to mean attacking imaginary enemies (“tilting” refers to medieval knights jousting with lances).

This leads me to a personal thought on the battle lines that sometimes seem to exist between the traditional and modern in classical music.

Whether it’s period versus modern instruments in the debate on performance practices of older music, or modern compositional methods (think 12-tone, atonal, minimalism, or whatever else modern or post-modern) versus the 19th century and earlier, there is one sense in which “imaginary enemies” are battling each other.

The musical landscape is now divided into so many genres and sub-genres with niche audiences, that the old divisions don’t make as much sense. With such easy access to so much variety, composers and listeners can respond to each other easier than ever.

Listeners are exposed to more variety (thanks to the Internet) and can become more open to the new, or they can be more firmly assured of what they already like.  A quote I saw from the novel goes, “The journey is better than the inn. ”

If the journey is the exploration and creation of all the artists of the past and the present, there is plenty of room at the new, enlarged inn.

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