Complicated Strauss

My limited understanding of trends these days tells me Facebook is now way uncool. I still have a sort of nostalgic attachment to it for some reason though. Back in its heyday, before people posted pictures of food and before fake news ruined the United States of America, Facebook was a relatively harmless way of keeping people up to date with the latest happenings in your life. When it came to relationships, choosing your Facebook relationship status from the drop down menu was a legitimate measure of how serious things were. If you were in that undefinable grey zone, Facebook kindly provided you with the option of “It’s Complicated.”


Of course, “It’s Complicated” takes on a relatively light and breezy meaning when it’s in reference to some people’s tendency toward equivocation in their dating lives. But complicated can apply to so many of our relationships, some of them much more serious, with life-altering consequences. We could talk about the minefield relationships most of us have with our parents, our siblings or our bosses. But let’s not.


For many artists and creative types over the years, their work has forced them into complicated situations with people in power. Just think of poor old Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes. In more dangerous times and regimes, artists risked their own safety and that of their families by continuing to practice their art. If you don’t know the harrowing details of the relationship between the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and Stalin, it’s fascinating and terrifying stuff.


A complicated life was forced on the German composer Richard Strauss. He achieved near-celebrity status as a composer and conductor through the first half of the twentieth century. His works have undoubtedly withstood the test of time, appearing regularly in concert halls and opera houses the world over. Strauss was never the least bit interested in politics, but cataclysmic world events exerted forces on him and his family that he couldn’t ignore. When Hitler rose to power, Strauss, being who he was, had nowhere to hide. He was invited by the notorious Joseph Goebbels to take up the presidency of the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber). He secretly called Goebbels a “pipsqueak”, but he very publicly accepted the appointment. He worked in the employ of the Nazis, and yet at the end of the war, he wrote in his diary, “The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.”


Posterity has been rather been rather unkind to Strauss, describing him as a reluctant Nazi. He tried to maintain a perilous position on the fence in the darkest hours of the last century. The great Italian conductor Toscanini once said, ”To Richard Strauss, the composer, I take off my hat. To Richard Strauss, the man, I put it back on again.” His story raises difficult questions about art, politics and moral obligations in an age that still needs these questions to be asked. Complicated indeed.