Monday, 24 August 2009

Mr Mlakar and Richard Strauss

Think of Richard Strauss and it’s the operas that spring to mind, or the tone poems, perhaps even the concertos. Strauss’s ballet music, now the subject of a fascinating new book by Wayne Heisler Jr., The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss, is something of a forgotten treasure. Here Professor Heisler describes how he discovered this music, and a historic meeting in Slovenia with two of the composer's original choreographers.

My earliest serious encounters with Richard Strauss’s music were as an undergraduate at DePaul University in Chicago (1989–1994). First, there were the many opportunities to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—Orchestra Hall is just a short “L” ride away from DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus and the School of Music. I recall, too, many informal listening sessions with my music-major friends, including my hall- and roommate Oto Carrillo, who is now a horn player with the Chicago Symphony and a member of DePaul’s horn faculty. As a pianist, I had a collection of recordings that was dominated by piano music; not surprisingly, as a horn player Oto had a wealth of recordings of late-nineteenth-century orchestral music: Mahler, Bruckner, and, of course, Richard Strauss. My first experiences hearing and studying scores for such works as Tod und Verklärung or Till Eulenspiegel were “after hours” in the dorms.

Like most undergraduate music programs to this day, mine offered non-vocalists very little formal exposure to opera, much less ballet music. (The 'why’s' for this situation are too complex to unpack here, but suffice it to say that an almost exclusive focus on instrumental compositions in music history and theory clouds the perspectives of many audiences, performers, and composers throughout history.) It was not until I entered a master’s program in musicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that I began to research, study, and love music for the stage, including works by Richard Strauss. During my first year at Madison I took a work-study gig under Karlos Moser, then the Program Director of the University Opera. As it turned out, the big production that season was an English-language version of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Through researching the production history of Rosenkavalier, including staging, cuts, and translations, I came to know the opera intimately. More transformative, however, were the lessons I learned about the non-linearity of history through that opera. Although I was a bit overwhelmed at the time, it was fruitful for a budding musicologist to become engaged with opera history, including Rossini and Wagner, via Rosenkavalier, and through the ears and worldviews of Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss’s ballet scores (who knew?) initially came to my attention in Professor Susan Cook’s stimulating interdisciplinary musicology seminary on dance and music in the twentieth century. Two of the topics I presented on that semester were the Ziegfeld Follies and Strauss’s 1924 ballet Schlagobers—readers of my book will see that these seemingly disparate interests turned out to be complementary!

While I was a Ph.D. student in musicology at Princeton University, I received grants from the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD) and Germanistic Society of America/Fulbright, respectively, to live and study in Germany. The latter residency, when I was a research fellow at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, proved to be formative for my life and work. While I was in Munich, I had many experiences that would impact my study of Strauss and his ballets, both directly and indirectly: receiving guidance from Strauss specialists Dr. Reinhold Schlötterer and Dr. Roswitha Schlötterer-Traimer, who were extremely generous with their knowledge and time; spending days at the Richard-Strauss-Institut in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where my chosen work space in the institute library overlooked the composer’s beloved Zugspitze; purchasing a cheap Bayernkarte or a Schönes-Wochenende ticket and traveling to nowhere-specific on local and regional trains; taking time out to visit as many churches as possible decorated by the Asam brothers—Cosmas Damian Asam (1686–1739) and Egid Quirin Asam (1692–1750)—whose puffed up German rococo sensitized my palate for Strauss’s unfinished ballet Die Insel Kythere (1900), as well as his late ballet Verklungene Feste (1941); and, along with other scholars, getting an informal tour of Strauss’s Garmisch villa with his grandson, Dr. Christian Strauss - the unplanned capstone of a weekend-long seminar on rhythm and meter in Strauss’s music, hosted by the Strauss-Institute. This opportunity was eye-opening for me: because the Strauss villa is not open to the public, it has resisted for the most part an idealized representation of the composer, quite unlike Wagner’s Wahnfried in Bayreuth. The presence of 'everyday' objects (at least to a Bavarian of Strauss’s generation)—carved and decorated wooden crosses or mounted stag heads—alongside more ‘sublime’ Nippsachen (knick-knackery), such as eighteenth-century porcelain figurines, is quite consonant with Strauss’s musical art, I think.

Acknowledging the many people, places, and events in Germany that contributed to my research for and eventual writing of the book, the most inspirational experience during my residency there was actually a weekend in the spring of 2001 that I spent in Ljubljana, Slovenia, working in the home of Pino Mlakar (1907–2006), the last surviving collaborator of Richard Strauss. Mr. Mlakar and his wife Pia (1910–2000) were the choreographers of Verklungene Feste. Having solicited information on that largely unknown ballet via a letter, I received a warm response from Mr. Mlakar inviting me to Ljubljana. Materially, the reason for the trip was to study his personal copy of the Kinetogramm (dance score) for Verklungene Feste, notated in Labannotation. More consequential, however, was the opportunity to go over the extant materials with Mr. Mlakar himself, and learn of the many, many aspects of performance(s) that no written record can capture.
I was welcomed at the door by Veronika Mlakar, Pino and Pia’s daughter who is also a dancer. If my memory serves me correctly, she offered me coffee and got me situated at a table in the parlor with the Kinetogramm. Immediately I discovered that critical details of the musical arrangements and plot had been lost to history—as I posit in the book, this cannily follows the allegory of the ballet itself. After working for about ½ hour or so, I heard a slow shuffling coming from a hallway off the room, and after several minutes Mr. Mlakar greeted me as ‘Herr Heisler aus München’. (Although I am an American, the fact that I was visiting from Munich meant a lot to Mr. Mlakar, who had served as ballet master at the Staatsoper there for most of the 1930s, and from 1952–1954.) Although he was already in his 90s, Mr. Mlakar spent several hours with me over the next two days, even clarifying—embodying!—aspects of the dance notation with his feet, arms, and hands. In between our talks, when Mr. Mlakar disappeared once again down that hallway, Veronika assisted me and offered deep insights as she had danced in Verklungene Feste when it was revived in the 1950s. Also memorable was an impassioned conversation Mr. Mlakar, Veronika, and I had over a delicious homemade lunch about George W. Bush’s ‘election’ the previous fall. (But that would have to be the subject of a separate blog…) Ultimately, through my visit with the Mlakars I came closer to knowing the ‘heart’ behind the strange, problematic, and beautiful Verklungene Feste—and, I believe, in all of Strauss’s ballet collaborations.

The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss is available now. In coming weeks we will post a short excerpt from the book.

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