Richard Strauss returned to classical myth at regular intervals in his career as an opera composer: Elektra (1909), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Die aegyptische Helena (1928), Daphne (1938), and Die Liebe der Danae (performed posthumously in 1952).
In itself, Strauss' interest in classical myth is not particularly remarkable. It is one of the odd contradictions of 20th-century modernist art that it repeatedly returned to mythical themes and subjects (consider the role that classical myth plays in the work of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Stravinsky, or Picasso). This can perhaps be understood in relation to the aspirations of modernism to find a universal language of artistic communication, which led to the search for the primal roots of artistic expression in the work of Stravinsky and Picasso before the First World War. But equally prevalent, particularly after the barbaric outcome of the war, was the tendency toward neo-classicism, with its interest in objectivity, archetypal forms, and mythical subject matter.
Both of these tendencies are present in Strauss: what we might call the primitivist in Electra, and the neo-classical in Ariadne. But for Strauss, there was a much more pressing need to employ classical subject matter than any ideological adherence to a modernist aesthetic. Classical myth was what allowed him to escape from the lowering shadow of Wagner. Strauss' first two operas, Guntram and Feuersnot, had been written very much in the mold of Wagnerian drama based on Germanic myth and history. Wagner's immediate followers had attempted to emulate his formula, so for Strauss, Germany's most significant post-Wagnerian composer, the turn to classical drama enacted a typical Oedipal gesture to escape from what the literary critic Harold Bloom called "the anxiety of influence."
But Strauss's turn to Greek drama also reflects a more general polarity within German culture between classical and romantic Teutonic tendencies. The latter emerged in the later 18th century, when writers like Herder and Goethe had promoted Gothic art as authentically German against the French-inspired classicism that then dominated European culture. Although Goethe was to reject the excesses of romanticism and return to classical values in his own later work, German medieval culture and pre-medieval myth became rallying calls in the wars of liberation against Napoleon that first stirred the ideal of a united Germany. But even during that Romantic period, the commitment to the Germanic was never absolute. In Berlin in the 1820s, the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel painted imaginary reconstructions of classical cities as well as romantic visions of Gothic cathedrals towering over ideal medieval communities, and both elements are to be found in his architecture. In Bavaria, Klenze's monumental Walhalla (1842), the temple of the Teutonic gods that towers over the Rhine near Regensburg, is modeled on the Parthenon. Indeed, there were many artists and writers who claimed that Germany was the true heir to the great classical civilizations; it was, after all, the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, and there were scholars who argued that the Aryans had passed through Germany on their way to Greece, leaving the earliest traces of classical architecture in Germany rather than Greece or Italy. The idea of Germany as the heir to the classical empires found its apogee in the Nazi Third Reich, whose iconography was also more classical than Teutonic, despite Hitler's obsession with Wagner (although, truth be told, in private Hitler preferred to listen to Lehár).
This inheritance of classicism within German culture meant that for an artist like Richard Strauss, the return to classical subject matter had special significance. In 1909, his Elektra employed Greek myth to challenge the inflated heroics of post-Wagnerian art; Strauss' librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal was clearly influenced by both naturalism and Freudian theories of sexuality in his representation of the psychodrama of the House of Atreus, and in particular the (misogynist) portrayals of female neurosis. In Ariadne, one senses an anticipation of the neo-classicism that would come to dominate postwar European art‹an ironizing of the Expressionist gestures of prewar art.
What did myth mean to Strauss by the time he came to write Daphne in 1938? Here we can discern another strand in German classicism, less to do with the idealism of the classical age than with a kind of perennial nostalgia for a time of lost grace. Here the myths of classical Greece stand for an era in which man lived in harmony with both nature and the gods: the material and the spiritual held in perfect balance. One of the most potent sources for this idea is found in the fables of the Latin poet Ovid, from whom the tale of Daphne derives. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, humanity, gods, and nature are often transformed into each other (as happens in Daphne). Ovid's depiction of the Golden Age before the fall forms an important part of the poetic vision of Schiller and Hölderlin, who often lament the departure of the gods to Olympus and imagine their return, a desire to which the character Peneois gives expression in Daphne in his fervent premonition of the imminent descent of the gods from Olympus.
Fear that which you wish for‹for the god who emerges wreaks havoc. Daphne in fact brings us to two gods: Apollo, who appears in person, and Dionysus, whose festivities are being celebrated by Daphne's shepherd suitor Leukippos. The pairing of Apollo and Dionysus offers a pointer to Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, in which Apollo and Dionysus represent, respectively, the conflict between shining, dream-like idealism and full-blooded, ecstatic (and often tragic) acceptance of real life. Like many German artists of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, Strauss increasingly came to embrace an idealized, and essentially conservative, vision of the role of art and culture in bringing beauty and order to society‹to which his desperately refined Daphne gives voice when she reproaches her father for despoiling the garden of nature that she tends, a cry against the kind of crude cultural populism promoted by the Nazis:
"Why, dear father,
Do you call the people here‹
So their clumsy footsteps can trample the meadow…
How their savage singing offends my ear,
Rude is their language, coarse are their feelings.…"
By 1938, despite his compromises with the Nazi regime, Strauss could not fail to recognize that Nazism had appropriated and traduced both the Dionysian ecstatic and the Apollonian desire for order and purity. But Strauss' lack of political nous must be seen in relation to a much longer tradition of unpolitical thought in German culture. Indeed, German artists and intellectuals tended to be proud of their isolation from the tawdry activities of everyday politics. The "inward-emigration" that so many German artists adopted during the Nazi period was, in effect, a continuation of a long tradition of retreat from public life into spiritual self-cultivation. In an influential essay entitled "Confessions of an Unpolitical Man" (1918), the novelist Thomas Mann had written:
"I believe it to be the plain and unshakeable truth that the German concept of freedom will always be of an intellectual-spiritual nature… To ask [the German] to transfer his allegiances from inwardness to the objective, to politics, to what the peoples of Europe call freedom, would seem to him to demand that he do violence to his own nature."
Given the circumstances in which it was written, it is almost impossible not to allegorize a work like Daphne, and hence to see Daphne's refusal to grow up as a kind of inward immigration‹a passive refusal of the adult world offered by Leukippos while she tends the garden of German culture. This refusal is clearly an inadequate response, making Daphne open to the more dangerous seductions of Apollo. In his novel Dr. Faustus, written after World War II, Mann had described the failure of liberal humanist culture to recognize the force of the demonic. But Daphne is deceived by both the followers of Dionysus and by Apollo, whose shining beauty is deadly and destructive. In her refusal to enter into adult relations with either Leukippos or Apollo, Daphne is essentially narcissistic, turning everything and everyone into an image of her own regressive relation with nature. This is the narcissistic relation that psychologists of fascism argue that the German people entered into with Hitler, a collective identification that offered the possibility of not having to deal with otherness and difference, which ability is identified by psychologists as the sign of adult maturity. When Strauss and Gregor wrote Daphne, the terrible effect of that regressive narcissism was still not fully revealed. But the opera nonetheless seems to offer both a prescient warning and a final image of hope, of regeneration from amidst the rubble.
Nicholas Till is Director of the Centre for Research in Opera and Music Theatre at the University of Sussex, UK.