What Do Confederate Monuments and German Composer Richard Strauss Have in Common?

Readers of these occasional pieces will know that in addition to political issues, I also sometimes take a look at cultural questions, especially the role that film, music, and the arts play determining the direction of our civilization. The arts are both the natural product and the creative work of our culture, a kind of essential gloss which more than most anything else expresses our values, our innermost beliefs, and, yes if within the Christian tradition, our devotion and thanks to our Creator. Thus, mankind from the earliest times has demonstrated its innermost convictions and understanding of who it is in the scheme of things and its place in that creation by artistic activity.

But the arts are more than just an emanation, more than a creative outflowing which expresses what a culture means or represents. Just as the great cathedrals of the High Middle Ages in architecture and Gregorian chant in music illustrated the religious—as well as artistic—sensibility of that society, the environment created by such works of art redounded also to strengthen and support the beliefs and understanding of those in that society.

Years ago, when I was in grad school in Spain, I recall engaging in a long-running discussion with another grad student, from England, over the role that cultural environment—our cultural ambiance and what we hold dear in it—plays in buoying up and offering real sustenance to a population. A culture—a society—in which its symbols and public iconography offer a reflection of what that society holds dear and believes can also strengthen and confirm the weakest of its members.

The late philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen used the term “anneal,” in that a cultural environment bursting with symbols and reminders of its innermost beliefs acts similarly on a personal level to strengthen how friends with like views buttress each other: I am confirmed in my perspective by the fact that the friends surrounding me, who may be more precise and more adept in expression, give me encouragement, affirm me, and, in effect, make it easier for me to express myself without feeling isolated or perhaps doubting my own veracity.

In the older rural regions of France and Spain, dotted with ancient roadside crosses and small rural chapels and churches—or, in the landscape of the American South with its once very visible public display of the iconography and symbolism of monuments to its heroes and heroic epic, its Second War of Independence, 1861-1865—such public honor and significance indicated what that society held dear and important, but also reminded us, as the late Mel Bradford once wrote, “who we are” as a people and, indeed, as a civilization.

The unforgivable sin against Creation made by every Puritan reformer or iconoclast, whether a Cromwellian devil intent on uprooting the rich heritage of English culture in music and architecture, or a Communist commissar presiding over the despoliation of an ancient Russian Orthodox chapel, comes down essentially to the same thing: the destructive and anti-natural tendency that suppresses and separates man from His Creator and the creative inspiration implanted within man that enables him to both render honor to the Creator as well as express that divinely-granted gift through the arts.

The arts—music, painting, architecture, film, and other areas of human creativity—present publicly the essential symbols of civilization, what it esteems and holds dear, they give it a certain continuity, add to and enrich its traditions, while, as I have said, strengthening us and the weaker among us in our beliefs and understanding of ourselves.

It has been a major accomplishment of the progressivist social justice warriors—the “woke” demonic revolutionaries—to understand that to defeat and undo the hated West, our Western and Christian civilization, the most effective means was through education and the arts, through corrupting our cultural environment and our system of learning (and its transmission to our progeny). Not so much through head-on attacks politically, which as Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci admitted a century ago had been largely ineffective, but via a “long march” through our educational and cultural institutions, the artefacts of our culture, would victory come.

This is why, in effect, the supposed “opposition” of the establishment conservative movement—“Con Inc.”—and Republican Party to the progressivist revolution has not only been ineffective, but at times positively nugatory and disastrous to the defense of Western culture. You can’t win a battle…a war…by half-measures, by splitting hairs, by attempting to placate the ravenous Beast of Revolution by sacrificing, even tepidly, some principles which form part of the whole of that culture in hopes that other principles (and maybe your financial assets!) will somehow survive the assaults.

Thus the utter foolishness and insanity of “Con Inc.” in eagerly giving up and joining the maddened herd demanding the eradication of memorials and symbols of Southern heritage, those monuments to our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, to their courage, their suffering, and their resilience. That attempt we now see every night on Fox News or spouted from the mouths of a Senator Tim Scott or Senator Lindsey Graham.

In the words of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “If you do not live what you believe, you will end up believing what you live.” If we do not oppose the Revolution and the destruction of our culture root-and-branch to its face, we eventually become like the isolated and deserted Aleksandr Kerensky in the Winter Palace in late 1918 who, after disauthorizing and disarming real opposition to the Bolsheviks, hoping to somehow placate them, ended up with nothing and no one to halt their victorious take-over of power in Russia.

The modern progressivist Left understands this all too well; it is a truth that too many of our self-declared modern defenders of Western culture have either forgotten, or due to their fear of the Left, refuse to understand. It is why St. Pius X reminded us in 1910 that “…the true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries, nor innovators: they are traditionalists.”

Our battle, and it is a battle to the death, must encompass not just our faith but our art, music, literature, our entire culture, what we surround ourselves with, what we teach our children and expose them to, what we pass on, and, if possible, add to. And it is precisely why we must appreciate and praise those giants of our civilization who have preceded us and made our culture richer and more agreeable by their creativity.

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I pass on an essay I originally wrote back in late 2019; recently, I very slightly updated it, and it was published by The Unz Review. I offer it today, as a contribution to that battle.

Richard Strauss and the Survival of Western Culture

BOYD D. CATHEY • APRIL 26, 2021

For a number of years I’ve greatly admired and enjoyed the music of the German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). In his early years prior to the First World War, he was considered forward-looking, even musically avant-garde. Indeed, the aged defender of the German classical tradition—and another favorite—Max Bruch (d. 1920), found Strauss’ compositions too advanced and straying from that tradition.

Yet Strauss was formed in the richly productive culture of southern Germany, Bavaria and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and, even if he experimented with harmony and vocal lines in his operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), he never really departed from that early musical formation and an inspiration that he drew from his love of his native Bavaria and of imperial Vienna and the brilliant society that accompanied and informed it.[1] Son of noted musician and horn player in the Bavarian Court Opera Franz Strauss, from an early age, Richard received a thorough and complete musical education, demonstrating extraordinary talent in composition when only in his teens. By the late 1880s and 1890s, his symphonic tone poems, including Don Juan (1888), Death and Transfiguration (1889), and Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) had established his fame throughout Europe and the United States. But it was later, in opera, that his eventual and permanent renown and preeminence would be secured.

In many ways as I listen to Strauss, I hear a great champion of Western culture, standing athwart the onrushing decline of Western music and art during the first half of the twentieth century.

Recently, I went back to listen in detail to several of Strauss’s vocal works. Re-hearing them, I reflected on their significance and resonance as our society sinks deeper into cultural decay.

Undoubtedly, Strauss’ most famous operatic work is Der Rosenkavalier (Dresden, 1911)—The Cavalier of the Rose. With a superb libretto by the great German dramatist and essayist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who shared Strauss’ conservative convictions,[2]

 Der Rosenkavalier is a gloriously sentimental story of love and nobility, set in Vienna in the mid-18th century. Like some of Mozart’s stage works, it is essentially a comedy of manners, but one that pays deep and wistful honor to a bygone era and to a cultivated society that seemed to be disappearing even as Strauss was composing it. Indeed, through its comedic action runs, as well, a continuing, not so concealed sense of regret, a sense of loss of those customs, those standards and beliefs, those artistic traditions which made society worth fighting for.

The famous Act II waltz-sequence, with buffoonish character Baron Ochs dancing about, is justly famous. But even more so is the scintillating and wistful final scene, a trio, in which the Marschallin gives up her young lover Octavian to her rival Sophie, with both resignation and a special dignity that characterized the age.

The famous color film from the early 1960s with the legendary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf remains a remarkable work of art in itself.

“Im Abendrot,” with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; Georg Szell conducting the London Symphony

As in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the “Four Last Songs,” and in his operas Der Rosenkavalier and Arabella set in the glory days of Habsburg Vienna, Strauss evoked marvelously a past time of civility, high culture, and grace—a time in which the Christian faith annealed the culture, ironically reminding us in our barren age of just what we have thrown away and lost. And in so doing he joined the battle for our civilization and our future, a battle that continues and encompasses our cultural institutions and traditions, our art, our architecture, our film, our music, and so much more—integral elements that help shape and form us, and without which our lives are made barren and susceptible to disintegration and dissipation.

Too many times our contemporary society does not know how to compare and contrast the real achievements of our historic Western Christian civilization with the present cultural detritus that surrounds and threatens to inundate us.

Recall the great writer Hilaire Belloc’s statement about our civilization now surviving off the fumes of a once-great culture. Is this not where we are in 2021? Our challenge today is to preserve what is being lost, not only our precious faith under such severe assault, but the incomparable historic culture that it produced and in which it flourished. That task is multi-faceted and must encompass those noble and sublime accomplishments that form our true artistic legacy. Strauss, despite his wistful celebration of a golden past, never lost hope for the future. Nor can we.

Notes

[1] There is a superb, two-hour BBC documentary, “Richard Strauss Remembered” (1984), narrated by Sir John Gielgud, with numerous rare photographs and historical film clips of Strauss, his performances and events in his life. Although never released formally on DVD, the private Encore label issued it, and it has been available through the Berkshire Record Outlet.

[2] Dr. Paul Gottfried has written perceptively on Hugo von Hofmannstahl and his traditionalist and aristocratic vision of Europe, a vision reflected in his dramas and other literary works:

“After the First World War, this literary giant [Hofmannstahl] devoted the remainder of his short life to reviving a popular interest in medieval Austrian culture. His most famous contribution to this effort is the German version of Everyman (Jedermann), which he brought to the stage at Salzburg and which became an annual production there. Despite his outspokenness as an Austrian patriot, Hoffmannsthal called for a “new European ego” in an address in Berne in 1916. The problem of cultural and social dissolution that the War had unleashed seemed to the distinguished author to have affected the entire continent; and in the interwar period, Hoffmannsthal contributed to Karl Anton von Rohan’s “Europäischer Revue,” a leading advocacy publication for European unity, a process that the editor Rohan, an Austrian nobleman, hoped to see take place according to traditionalist and presumably pro-Habsburg principles. In a speech in Munich in January 1927, Hofmannsthal famously called for a “conservative revolution” aimed at bringing back a true European identity. This speech was specifically critical of the Germans for “their productive anarchy as a people.” Hoffmannsthal contrasted the sentimental outpouring to which his German cousins were prone to a “binding principle of form,” which he thought necessary for the restoration of a Europe of nations. Unlike T.S. Eliot, Hofmannsthal wrote as a close friend of royalty as well as someone who was an aesthetic and cultural reactionary.” [Paul Gottfried, “Puritans or Habsburgs,” The Unz Review, May 8, 2007.]

(Republished from New English Review by permission of author or representative)

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