Thomas von Steinaecker: Richard Strauss and His Heroines – review

Extraordinary DVD shows how much of the composer’s aesthetic was determined by his relationship with his wife, Pauline

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This is an extraordinary DVD. Released to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, it shows how much of Strauss’s aesthetic was determined by his relationship with his wife Pauline. Before they met, his music was dominated by strong-willed men or tragic-comic anti-heroes. Using interviews, performance clips and archive material, Steinaecker shows how daily life with Pauline was Strauss’s greatest inspiration – the key to understanding his achievements and contradictions, and his passion for complex and strong heroines.

Salome and the Marschallin are “erotic, exotic, the exact contrary to what a woman was supposed to be. These women have a strength, a desire to be in control of their lives, in a way society at that time [pre-1914] did not allow”. Elektra is “the hysterical virgin who rejects and hates what was seen as the feminine the norm at the time – motherhood, husband, family”. Strauss’s women broke the established mould and became a template for 20th-century psychoanalytical studies.

Thanks to Pauline, professional soprano as well as recalcitrant wife, Strauss became the darling of generations of female vocalists. Steinaecker traces their marriage through the composer’s avant-garde years, the collaboration with Hofmannsthal, the 1920s falling out of fashion and the dalliance with Nazism – and then, post-1945, the Four Last Songs, testament to 55 years of marital compatibility. Fassbaender and Fleming are really good at explaining the music’s appeal. The later operas are glossed over, but there is useful illumination of the role played by Strauss’s Jewish daughter-in-law Alice in preserving his archive at the family’s Garmisch villa, the inside of which we glimpse courtesy of the composer’s grandson. This enthralling 52-minute film is not a moment too long.

Thomas von Steinaecker

Richard Strauss and His Heroines

(Arthaus Musik)

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