A Confidential Matter: The Letters of Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, 1931-1935

  Translated by Max Knight with a foreword by Edward E. Lowinsky; University of California Press


When his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal died in 1929, the heart went out of Strauss the opera-composer. The whole corpus of music testifies to his need for the vital impulse and sustenance that only words and ideas could give him. For such purposes Jewish blood had already proved ideal; as Stefan Zweig duly pointed out, the divine Mozart had chosen da Ponte. So of course Strauss was delighted when in 1931 Zweig sent him a Mozart memento and shyly proposed a musical project. But the time was sadly out of joint for a Jewish collaborator. The German musical establishment was in no position to raise a protesting voice; it was too busy kissing the fasces and licking the jackboot. Strauss also touched pitch, and was arguably not undefiled; but at least it was only relative pitch. Of course his attitude to the regime has been condemned by the zealots; and no doubt he was less concerned with government then royalties. But he must also be credited with his loyalties: to the art of music, to his own past and future masterpieces, to his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and to his Jewish friends, including his publishers and librettists. His genuine naiveté is either nakedly apparent or readily inferable from this correspondence. Stefan Zweig was rather unlikely to be reassured by learning that he had been under Nazi surveillance while in London; or that German opera was to be reformed with the help of Hans Hinkel, who at the time was busy removing Jews from musical life, and Dr Goebbels, whose responsibilities were already far greater.

     But what of Zweig’s own attitude? He was in his early fifties, 20 years younger than Strauss; and his opposition to Hitler consisted largely of remaining pointedly silent and aloof, first in Austria and later in exile. His text for Die schweigsame Frau, too freely adapted from Ben Johnson’s Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, seems to reflect his own hatred of noise or disturbance, whether domestic or political. It gave Strauss no real heart but at best a brisk pace-maker for a charming and chiming musical box of tricks. The background correspondence contains much material for study and speculation, especially about the craft of opera composition. But the foreword’s claim of parity in this respect with the Strauss-Hofmannsthal letters sounds to me too much like sales-talk. Such an approach may well be counter-productive. Prospective purchasers will have to study the small print very closely to discover that these over-priced 120 pages offer little more than a straight translation, editorial notes and all, of a text that has been widely available in German, and discussed in every European language, for over 20 years. The invented title seems more than a little misleading in the circumstances. Again, most of the foreword is just run up from existing material; but its bibliography fails to cover any of the relevant English Strauss scholarship (Mann, del Mar, Kennedy, et al). Much of it is mere quotation from the letters we are about to read, a procedure which seems wilfully designed to increase the price rather than the value. The translation itself presumably aims only at conveying a general drift – in the wrong direction, in my view. Even its first line manages to reduce a deliberately formal phrase to one single word.

     Nor is it only the economy that is false; so, I think, are several of the impressions given. For example Strauss’s famous and much-quoted complaint about Zweig’s intractability. “Da soll man nicht Antisemit werden!” is rendered as “Enough to make an anti-Semite of a man!”, which transposes the tone from the ruefully flat to the querulously sharp. In the very next sentence, six highly significant words have been silently omitted; and so on. There is far too much of this damaging tendency to replace strict and careful translation by loose and casual paraphrase, sometimes into oddly unidiomatic English, such as “I experienced a special and incredible trouble”. No such trouble has been experienced in preparing this book. There are too few editorial notes for English readers (e.g. correcting Strauss’s misattributions); there are too many misprints; there is no index. It is a book for those readers, if an, who are intensely interested in Strauss or Zweig, but have no German to speak of or read in, and who aren’t much bothered about niceties of style or sense.


© the new statesman, 1978