Cleaning my office the other day, I rediscovered this photo, which was given to me by the oboist John de Lancie. It is of Richard Strauss in the summer of 1945, at his home in Garmisch. De Lancie, who asked Strauss to compose the work that became the Oboe Concerto, sent me an extremely generous letter after I wrote about Strauss in 1999. He commented that he had a hard time recognizing the alternately cold and vulgar figure who was depicted in many books, articles, and portraits; this snapshot, he said, caught the man he knew. De Lancie died in 2002. Opening that letter, and seeing that craggy smile, was one of the loveliest moments of my writing life; it was almost as if I'd had a message from Strauss himself.
The Rest Is Noise, my history of twentieth-century music, begins and ends with tales of Strauss — first, a scene of him presiding triumphantly over the Austrian premiere of his opera Salome in 1906; then, glimpses of him in his last weeks and days, as he muses wryly over his long, strange life. ("I have outlived even myself," he said.) I'm not sure why Strauss fascinates me so. When I wrote in my New Yorker essay that he was the "composer of the century," I did not intend to suggest that he was the greatest composer of the century; there are pieces of his — the ballet Schlagobers, the opera Friedenstag — that seem to gainsay greatness by their very existence. Actually, there is no "greatest composer of the century"; it's a condescending formulation that diminishes a fantastically rich period to a quaint village that one man could be the mayor of. Who would try to pick out the greatest composer of the eighteenth century, or the nineteenth? Yet I do feel there is something profoundly representative about Strauss' work, in all its strengths and flaws. Thomas Mann began his long essay on Wagner with the words: "Sorrowing and grand, like the nineteenth century of which he was the perfect expression, the spirit of Richard Wagner stands before my eyes." That's how Strauss appears to me, except that "sorrowing" and "grand" aren't the right words.
For several years, I have been gathering stories from American soldiers who met Strauss in Garmisch after the end of the war. For some reason I find these tales incredibly moving. If you or anyone you know met the composer in the period from 1945 to 1949, please write to Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 4 Times Square, NY NY 10036, or to alexrossny at gmail dot com. I would love to hear your story. The 10th Armored Division and the 103rd Infantry Division were in the area at the time. Also, I would like to know more about Maj. John Kramers, a military-government officer hailing from Philadelphia, who seems to have been the first American to talk to Strauss on April 30, 1945, the day of Hitler's suicide.