Richard Strauss on the cover of Time Magazine, 1927
A Most Mercurial Life
Life for the Mercury ruled person is measured by degrees of mental stimulation. If something is seen as being one-dimensional, dogmatic, or even universally accepted or “time honored” the Mercurial personality will be hard pressed to investigate further due to the lack of interest registered by their rational mind. Conversely, if something is perceived as having multiple dimensions, originality, and a sense of being mentally fresh, the Mercury ruled person’s heightened state of mental stimulation energizes them into devouring said “thing” in its entirety.
I know this all too well given I was born on June 11th, a date when the Sun was positioned in the mutably mental sign of Gemini. With what has already been stated, the composer whom I admire most isn’t an artist whose body of work is considered “beautiful” by everyone across the board or whose music is unanimously “loved by all”. Artistry of the universally liked kind is too mind numbing for my Mercurial sensibilities. The composer whom I hold in the highest esteem made music and even more so, lived a life that was controversial in a most Mercurial way.
A life which served as a source of debate even among his own contemporaries and artistic peers. Not only was this man’s art often seen as offensively obscene when first debuted to the public, it’s been said on more than one occasion his music left audiences both booing in horror while also simultaneously applauding with wild abandon. (At the premiere of his musical rendition of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” the cast was asked to take 38 curtain calls while fellow composer Gustav Mahler described the event as “a live volcano“.) Intriguingly, this controversial artist was like myself also born on the Mercury ruled date of the 11th of June as well.
Nearly an exact century before making my entrance onto this plane of existence, Richard Strauss was born in Bavaria’s capital of Munich in Southern Germany on June 11th, 1864; a most karmicly challenging time for a European to join the world, given their life span bore the strong likelihood of having to face two World Wars with more than a few upheavals of government in between.
Strauss’ life is Mercurial in nearly every way beginning with his birth in the Mercury ruled sign of Gemini to his death taking place during the other sign which the fastest moving planet oversees, the Mercury ruled sign of Virgo, on September 8th, 1949.
Gemini is the first of the communication based Air signs and Richard Strauss mirrored his Airy astrological foundation by beginning as well as ending his remarkable career with pieces written solely for wind, or said in a more elemental way, “Air” instruments.
Many today may already be familiar with Strauss’ music, but may not be sure who the actual composer is. The most audibly well known of Strauss’ body of work unarguably would be “Also Sprach Zarathustra“, a composition which conductor Marin Alsop describes as “one of the most recognizable musical excerpts in history“. The piece is best remembered for its use in film, most notably as the opening music in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey“.
In order to better understand the controversial life of Richard Strauss and his music, we must observe it through a particular lens which the energies of the Gemini optimally function in best – Duality.
Richard Strauss is considered by most music historians to be one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century by virtue of his compositions of symphonic music, opera, tone poems, and lieder/art songs. His musical contributions have been interpreted as both ground breakingly shocking through his use of dissonance and morally defiant choices of subject matter to the most beautifully sublime.
However, there are those who greatly downplay the influence of the German composer’s work based on actions he took which many interpret on the surface to have been made by a blatant hypocrite and/or weak willed opportunist. Among the musical elite of the present day there are a choice few in Strauss’ field that cannot reconcile the Mercurial composer’s actions with his art. Their argument being deeply rooted in the following moral dilemma:
Should a person’s art be praised and appreciated unto itself despite that person’s actions being interpreted as a willingness to overlook the overt displays of evil which took place within their environment over the course of his or her lifetime?
The actions in question being Richard Strauss’ appointment as “Reichsmusikkammer” or Head of the Music State Bureau for Germany’s Nazi Party during their initial years of formation. The question of Strauss the artistic influence versus Strauss the morally anemic victim of circumstance was dualistically presented before the public when the great conductor Arturo Toscanini was quoted as saying:
“To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again!”
But as with everything else which held high significance in the composer’s life, nothing can be taken at face value nor analyzed from strictly a surface level. The man’s mercurial life is best observed only when viewed through the lens of dualism.
Richard Strauss was 68 when the Nazis first seized power in January of 1933. Ten months after their overtaking the Reichstag by fire and their leader being made Chancellor of Germany, the composer wrote the following in his journal:
“The minister (of Propaganda) Goebbels nominated me president of the Reichsmusikkammer without obtaining my prior agreement. I was not consulted. I accepted this honorary office because I hoped that I would be able to do some good and prevent worse misfortunes, if from now onwards German musical life were going to be, as it was said, “reorganized” by amateurs and ignorant place-seekers.”
Unbeknownst to many, Strauss was motivated to prevent “worse misfortunes” from hitting any closer to home since his son had married a Jewish woman and his two grandsons were seen as such from the perspective of the Fascist government which now dominated over every facet of German society at that time.
Richard Strauss never registered as a member of Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party and refused to give allegiance to its leader Adolf Hitler by avoiding the required forms of Nazi greeting. While Reichsmusikkammer, he not only sought to reinstate works deemed by the Nazis to be “degenerate” such as composers Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, and Felix Mendelssohn, Strauss also blatantly defied Nazi ordinances by retaining the employment of all Jewish musicians that played and worked for him.
Juxtaposing the Mercurial composer’s aesthetic proclivities, works considered to be “art” by the Nazis were static, overtly literal, and creatively stilted. Despite the Minister of Propaganda and German Culture, Josef Goebbels, personally despising Strauss’ music, when the composer made the cover of Time Magazine of 1927 (seen in photo album listed above), Goebbels strategically viewed Strauss’ international notoriety as an effective tool to promote Nazi ideology to the outside world as evidenced with the following diary entry:
“Unfortunately we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic.”
To be unpolitical and a high status official within the Nazi government simply could not exist. Richard Strauss’ days as the head of Nazi Germany’s State Bureau of Music were numbered and short lived. A little after a year of being nominated into the position, the Gemini composer’s opera, “Die Schweigsame Frau” made its premiere in Dresden in the spring of 1935. The opera’s librettist was Strauss’ close friend, a Jew named Stefan Zweig. Strauss’ complete disregard of Nazi policy quickly came to the forefront when he adamantly refused that Zweig’s name be removed from the opera’s world premiere program. His ire drew so much attention, not only did Hitler and Goebbels refuse to attend the opera’s opening, the piece was shut down after just 3 performances and thereafter banned by the Nazis.
A week later in June of 1935, Strauss wrote the following to Zweig in a letter:
“Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German’? Do you suppose Mozart was consciously “Aryan” when he composed? I recognize only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none.”
A letter which was intercepted by the Gestapo and brought before Hitler himself leading to Richard Strauss’ immediate dismissal as the Nazi Party’s Reichsmusikkammer.
As controversial as his appointment to being a high ranking Nazi cultural official was, the “decadent neurotic” managed to use his political clout in preventing his daughter-in-law and grandsons from being sent to concentration camps throughout the duration of the War even after their being placed under arrest by the Gestapo.
Just as duality reigned supreme over Richard Strauss’ Mercurial life, it also served as his greatest Muse of artistic influence, most especially in his 1912 operatic masterpiece, “Ariadne auf Naxos“.
By far, Ariadne auf Naxos is my favorite Straussian work. The piece is Mercurial in every way by virtue of its cast of characters being dualistic foils of each other as well as its score being mentally stimulating throughout its entirety.
The opera’s two leading ladies represent polar opposite approaches taken towards Romantic love. The title character of Ariadne represents True Love in all of its high browed, idealistic glory, whereas the character of Zerbinetta dualistically represents the playful, flirtatious side of romance that can’t get enough variations of it with as many suitors as possible.
Where Ariadne descends into a bleak state of nihilistic devastation upon discovering the object of her romantic affection has abandoned her, Zerbinetta’s reaction to emotional pain is to give her heart immediately away to a new lover. Where Ariadne is steadfast and loyally true, Zerbinetta is fickle, flighty and flirtatious.
Zerbinetta expresses her Mercurial love sentiments in the aria, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin! Als ein Gott kam jeder gegangen”, “Great and noble Princess! Each man unto himself is a God”, a piece of vocal fireworks with lyrics of the most diametrically opposing kind:
I’m unfaithful and true, all in the same day.
On a false scale I weigh the truth.
Then half willfully and half against my will,
I finally deceive him though I love him still.
Ariadne’s showcase aria “Es Gibt Ein Reich” or “There is a Realm” is one the greatest artistic expressions of the Mercurial mind, since the piece speaks of the dualistic nature that exists within each of us whenever forced to confront the concept of Love and its range of juxtaposing emotions. That, along with the aria literally referring to the Greek god of Duality, Hermes, whose Roman counterpart is astrologically better known as Mercury, himself.
The aria is sung by a character who in her own right is archetypal since she comes directly from Greek myth. Ariadne was the daughter of the King of Minos who assists the hero Theseus in defeating the man-eating monster the Minotaur by supplying him with a golden thread to stay on course while searching for the bullish beast in the endless passages of its lair. In thanks for her life saving strategy of mental brilliance, Theseus romantially bonds with Ariadne only to abandon her soon thereafter. While in a state of sound sleep Theseus figuratively and literally dumps the Minoan princess onto the uninhabited island of Naxos. The girl awakes only to find herself abandoned and utterly alone on a desolate desert island.
Ariadne symbolizes antiquity which also can be applied to the individual psyche whenever the rational mind looks at the world through a limited mental perspective such as referencing everything in the present through the scope of the past or by being inflexibly dogmatic. Upon fully realizing the harsh reality that her hero has abandoned her along with the likelihood of his future pursuits of other king’s daughters, Ariadne’s mind sinks to the lowest depths when she sings the opening lines to her aria:
Es gibt ein Reich. Wo Alles Reinist. Es hat auch einen Namen – Totenreich.
Or in other English words:
There is a Realm. Where everything is pure. And this place has a name. Death.
Our leading lady would rather die than face life without her man. How many of us have taken such a melodramatic mental stance after breaking up with someone, or like Ariadne, after being broken up with? The jilted girl bemoans her ties to the physical world by stating how pointless it is to remain alive. But much like a Mercurial mind changing thoughts, the music juxtaposingly alters from a full orchestra to just a single woodwind instrument. The pure, sailing sound of a solitary oboe instantaneously transforms the dynamic of the piece when Ariadne sings:
Bald aber naht, ein Bote Hermes! Heissen sie ihn!
Or in other Mercurial words:
But soon shall come, A Messenger. Hermes! He is here!
As she speaks of her salvation by the messenger of the Gods, the music dramatically builds until it reaches an uplifting crescendo with the words:
Dies Lastende Leben Du nimm es von Mir!
Or said in non-German:
This latest of lives, You will take it from me!
Not a sentiment one would picture a person jumping for joy over at first glance. But if we look at the ancient princess as a time honored representation of dogmatic thought (she IS a Greek myth, after all), Ariadne’s need to have the wing-footed god escort her to the realm of the Dead transforms both her and the aria as a whole after taking into account the creator of this dramatic scene was a son of Mercury.
When the mind holds on to certain concepts that are no longer useful, they have the potential of negatively affecting one’s overall thought process to becoming inflexible to change and unwilling to attempt anything new or untried. Ariadne’s focus on her relationship with Theseus is so over-idealized in a one dimensional way that when he leaves her high and dry, she has no other choice but to leave this world.
The same can be said of any way of thinking that’s resistant to other people’s perspectives, debate, or even the changing times. The whole thing needs to die.
Ariadne gains not only hope but a renewed sense of life by letting go and succumbing to whom? The god of Duality and Mental Stimulation, himself, Mercury. Many times if we simply change our mental perspective by letting go of assumptions or thoughts considered to be set in stone, the world can take on an entirely new and motivating light.
And how’s this for Art and Life mirroring Astrology?
The version I chose of “Es Gibt Ein Reich” is sung by my favorite interpreter of the role of Ariadne, Virgoan soprano, Jessye Norman.
“Es gibt Ein Reich” is an aria which mentions the god Mercury that was written by Richard Strauss, a Mercury ruled Gemini and sung below by Jessye Norman, a Mercury ruled Virgo.
Magnificent in the most Mercurial of ways says this Mercury ruled astrologer.
The Mercury ruled Virgoan soprano Jessye Norman sings the role of Ariadne with her showcase aria, “Es Gibt ein Reich” at the Metropolitan Opera in their 1988 production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”. Below: Ariadne wasn’t left completely alone on the desert island of Naxos. The Greek princess was accompanied by three nymphs named Nyad, Dryad, and Echo seen here in the 2006 production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Metropolitan Opera with Deborah Voigt singing the title role. This scene stands as one of the most spellbinding experiences your author has ever witnessed on a live stage.