INTERMEZZO – Richard Strauss



Inter­mezzo is based on an actual — and very upset­ting — inci­dent in Richard Strauss’s life. In 1903 an Ital­ian opera com­pany was appear­ing at Berlin’s Kroll The­ater. One night after a per­for­mance the con­duc­tor, Josef Stran­sky, the star tenor, Emilio De Marchi, (who had been Puccini’s first Cavara­dossi in Tosca just three years ear­lier), and his man­ager, an Amer­i­can named Edgar Strakosch, went to the bar at the Bris­tol Hotel to unwind.

A mag­a­zine arti­cle that appeared shortly before the pre­mier of Inter­mezzo describes what hap­pened next: “[The three men] were sit­ting there with great enjoy­ment and not the least mis­giv­ings, when sud­denly a female came and sat next to them. Hear­ing De Marchi and Strakosch talk­ing Ital­ian, this crea­ture — a real Berlin tart — at once jumped to it that they came from the opera and with­out the slight­est embar­rass­ment asked for a ticket for the next per­for­mance. At this, De Marchi in his German-Italian double-dutch, remarked, ‘Oh, Herr Strausky will look after that.’ He always said ‘Strausky’ for ‘Stran­sky’ and the lat­ter never thought any more about it. He sent her nothing.

Brazen as she was, she looked him up in the tele­phone direc­tory, and there found a ‘Kapellmeis­ter Strauss, Joachim­sthaler­strasse Nr. 17’ and took it for granted that the con­duc­tor she had seen in the Bris­tol Bar, the ‘ky’ in whose name she either for­got or over­looked, must be the ‘Joachim­sthaler­strasse’ one.”

She promptly wrote him a note: “Dar­ling love! Do get me the tick­ets. Your faith­ful Mitze. P.S. My address is Mitze Mücke, 5 Lüneburgerstrasse.”

Unfor­tu­nately, the con­duc­tor who lived at 17 Joachim­sthaler­strasse was not Josef Stran­sky, but Richard Strauss, and the errant note was opened by his wife, Pauline. While Strauss was away on tour Pauline started divorce pro­ceed­ings, refused even to open his fran­tic telegrams and let­ters, and it was only with the great­est dif­fi­culty that she finally was per­suaded of his innocence.

Strauss used the mis­un­der­stand­ing, along with an inci­dent when Pauline had a mild flir­ta­tion with a young aris­to­crat who then tried to get money from her, to cre­ate what he called, not an opera, but “a bour­geois com­edy with sym­phonic interludes.”

When Strauss approached his libret­tist, Hugo von Hof­mannsthal, with the idea, the hor­ri­fied poet wanted noth­ing to do with the project and sug­gested Her­mann Bahr, a critic and author of a some­what sim­i­lar work called Das Konz­ert. But despite Bahr’s best efforts, the results were not what Strauss had in mind, so when Bahr sug­gested that Strauss was obvi­ously the best per­son to deal with a work based on Strauss’s own pri­vate life, the com­poser went to work and wrote his own libretto.

In the opera, Richard Strauss, com­poser and con­duc­tor, became Robert Storch, com­poser and con­duc­tor. Pauline became Chris­tine. The family’s maid, Anna, appeared under her own name on stage (a fact that so enraged the real-life Anna at the pre­mier that she dis­ap­peared for two days and was only coaxed back with the great­est dif­fi­culty.)  Mitze Mücke, author of the noto­ri­ous note, became Mitzi Mayer. Strauss even included his beloved card game “skat” in the opera (he often claimed play­ing skat was the only time he was not think­ing of music), as well as numer­ous ver­bal phrases typ­i­cal of his and his wife’s way of speaking.

Though few opera goers would agree with biog­ra­pher Michael Kennedy’s assess­ment that Inter­mezzo is one of Strauss’s three great­est operas, it is, with­out a doubt, an unend­ingly fas­ci­nat­ing work — first purely as an evening in the the­ater, but also as an exam­ple of a great com­poser play­ing with dif­fer­ent ways of set­ting words to music, as well as being (from all accounts) an unblink­ing, hon­est view of the noto­ri­ous mar­riage between the Richard and Pauline.

When I read the libretto, I real­ized it reads truly like a George Bernard Shaw com­edy,” says Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “It has an early, or mid-20th Cen­tury, Sha­vian sort of wit to it. The eter­nal bat­tle of the sexes — all the Shaw themes are there. I know it’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, but it really reads like a George Bernard Shaw debate.”

No won­der Strauss was so proud of the com­ment made by the famous direc­tor Max Rein­hardt after he had read Inter­mezzo’s libretto. “He said it was so good he could pro­duce it as a play with­out alter­ing a line,” Strauss wrote.

Inter­mezzo was not the first time Pauline had been the inspi­ra­tion for a char­ac­ter in one of her husband’s operas. “I have some­thing quite def­i­nite in mind which fas­ci­nates me very much,” Hugo von Hof­mannsthal had writ­ten to the com­poser on March 3, 1911. “It is a mag­i­cal fairy tale with two men con­fronting two women, and for one of the women your wife might well, in all dis­cre­tion, be taken as a model — that is of course wholly entre nous, and not of any great impor­tance. Any­way, she is a bizarre woman [the empha­sis is Hofmannsthal’s] with a very beau­ti­ful soul, au fond; strange, moody, dom­i­neer­ing and yet at the same time likeable.”

Describ­ing Pauline as “bizarre” was putting it mildly and say­ing she was “like­able” was sheer sug­ar­coat­ing on Hofmannsthal’s part. Like many peo­ple who knew Pauline Strauss the libret­tist dis­liked her intensely and seems to have been ter­ri­fied of her, which is one of the main rea­sons he and Strauss met so sel­dom dur­ing their work together. But Hof­mannsthal knew a riv­et­ing char­ac­ter when he encoun­tered one, and no one ever described Pauline as dull.

The “mag­i­cal fairy tale” became Die Frau ohne Schat­ten, and the Pauline Strauss char­ac­ter became known as sim­ply “the Dyer’s Wife.” The great soprano Lotte Lehmann was the first Dyer’s Wife, just as she also cre­ated the “other” Pauline role when she sang Chris­tine in Inter­mezzo at the work’s pre­mier in Dres­den on Novem­ber 4th, 1924.

Strauss met Pauline de Ahna, aris­to­cratic daugh­ter of a famous Bavar­ian gen­eral, in the sum­mer of 1887. He was 23 and roman­ti­cally occu­pied else­where; she was 24, an aspir­ing singer, and a mutual friend sug­gested Strauss give her some singing lessons. Three years later Pauline was engaged at the Weimar Court Opera where Strauss was con­duc­tor, singing roles as diverse as Pam­ina in The Magic Flute, Elis­a­beth in Tannhäuser (a role she also sang at Bayreuth) and even Isolde. She was sched­uled to sing the role of Hansel (under Strauss’s direc­tion) in what turned out to be the world pre­mier of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gre­tel, but she had injured her foot and could not go on.

An unusu­ally demure Pauline Strauss

Strauss was smit­ten and the cou­ple mar­ried on Sep­tem­ber 10, 1894. His wed­ding present to her was his Opus 27 songs “Ruhe, meine Selle,” “Cäcilie” which he had writ­ten just the day before, “Heim­liche Auf­forderung,” and “Mor­gen,” four of the best — and today best-known — songs he ever wrote. After their mar­riage Pauline con­tin­ued to sing, often appear­ing with Strauss and singing his music. “The model inter­preter of my songs,” was her husband’s opin­ion. The famous Vien­nese critic Eduard Hanslick wrote glow­ingly of her “excel­lently trained, rich, sweet soprano voice.” Not all Amer­i­can crit­ics were so admir­ing when the cou­ple toured the U.S. in early 1904.

Hanslick was not a fan of Strauss’s orches­tral music, and he ended a review of a con­cert Richard and Pauline gave in 1900 with the obser­va­tions that Pauline’s per­for­mance “earned enthu­si­as­tic applause. We may surely call her his bet­ter and more beau­ti­ful half.” For the rest of her life Pauline loved quot­ing that last sen­tence, and it made its way into the libretto of Inter­mezzo in the fifth scene of Act One: “ ‘His bet­ter half’ that’s what the famous critic called me once, the one who can­not bear his work…that really made him angry. Ha, ha, ha, ha!” Chris­tine sings.

Lotte Lehmann as Christine

Pauline’s bul­ly­ing of ser­vants — other people’s as well as her own — runs through­out Inter­mezzo, and Lotte Lehmann tells a story which eas­ily could be the pro­to­type for Act One, scene four, when Chris­tine is inspect­ing a room in the Notary’s house she is rent­ing for her young friend, Baron Lum­mar. Accord­ing to Lehmann, Pauline once went to visit her and, upon dis­cov­er­ing the singer was out, promptly marched into Lehmann’s home, threw upon every closet door and ter­ror­ized the ser­vants into clean­ing and rear­rang­ing all the con­tents to Pauline’s own exact­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Lehmann claimed when she found out about it, “I laughed till I was in tears.” One wonders.

There are numer­ous sto­ries of Pauline pub­licly belit­tling her hus­band and his music, declar­ing she much pre­ferred real music like Lehár and Massenet wrote, and lament­ing she had mar­ried beneath her. But much less well known were the times she went on the attack to defend him – like the time she wrote a scathing let­ter to the Vien­nese news­pa­per Neues Wiener Jour­nal roundly denounc­ing, even threat­en­ing, its music edi­tor who had ques­tioned some of Strauss’s appoint­ments as head of the Vienna State Opera.

In the 1930s, Strauss told con­duc­tor Karl Böhm, “Believe me, I really, really needed my wife. I actu­ally have a lethar­gic tem­pera­ment, and if it were not for Pauline, I shouldn’t have done it all.”  Böhm pointed out there was often a lov­ing under­ly­ing rea­son for some of Pauline’s prickly behav­ior. He was once vis­it­ing the Strausses when the com­poser said to Pauline, “I’d like a Fachinger,” to which she retorted, “Get it yourself.”

Böhm con­tin­ued the story: “When I went to move the table back to stand up, she said, ‘No, stay where you are, he can climb over the bench and get it for him­self.’ And then, when he was out­side, she said to me, ‘It does him good to move about, you know. He sits too much and that’s not good for him.’ ”

There are no oper­atic heroes in Inter­mezzo, but only crea­tures of flesh and blood,” Strauss wrote in the Pref­ace to the score.  In com­pos­ing the opera, he revis­ited the style of music he had devel­oped for the pro­logue to Ari­adne exper­i­ment­ing with a way to blend spo­ken word, with secco recita­tive, accom­pa­nied recita­tive, and bits of song.

In none of my other works is the dia­logue of greater impor­tance than it is in this bour­geois com­edy which offers so few oppor­tu­ni­ties for a proper can­tilena to develop,” Strauss wrote, adding he had worked and reworked the orches­tra­tion so it could not pre­vent “the nat­ural con­ver­sa­tional tone, culled and copied from every­day life, from being not only heard, but per­fectly under­stood, both in its over­all con­text and in terms of indi­vid­ual words. Only in the clos­ing scenes of the first and sec­ond acts is the singer given a chance to indulge in an extended cantilena.”

That is not to sug­gest in any way that in his pre­vi­ous operas Strauss had not been very aware of the words he was set­ting, and the task of mak­ing them under­stand­able to the audi­ence. For instance, after the war con­duc­tor Georg Solti vis­ited Strauss and asked about the proper tempo for some sec­tions of Rosenkava­lier. “I sent the text at the pace at which I would speak it, with a nat­ural speed and in a nat­ural rhythm. Just recite the text and you will find the right tempo,” Strauss said.

It is in the numer­ous Inter­ludes that sep­a­rate the short scenes (eight scenes in Act One, five in Act Two) where the famil­iar Strauss orches­tral magic is thrillingly unfet­tered. (The small orches­tra includes harp, piano, a large har­mo­nium — and sleigh bells.) Strauss often uses the orches­tral instru­ments more as soloists or chamber-music play­ers, but dur­ing some of the extended inter­ludes he can also make the orches­tra sound like it is more than dou­ble its actual size.  “It is gen­er­ally only in the longer orches­tral inter­ludes that the lyri­cal ele­ment and the account of the char­ac­ters’ psy­cho­log­i­cal lives are more fully devel­oped,” Strauss wrote in his Inter­mezzo Preface.

As a com­poser, Strauss was a very good friend to his libret­tists,” Edward Berke­ley points out. “The vocal style of Inter­mezzo is about com­mu­ni­cat­ing the text. And then he gets into the fan­tas­tic inter­ludes and he just goes whacko. It’s wonderful.”

Decades after the pre­mier of Inter­mezzo, Pauline Strauss mused to direc­tor Rudolf Hart­mann, “Who knows whether there wasn’t some­thing to that Mitze story after all?”

It is not cer­tain if she was jok­ing or not,” wrote biog­ra­pher Kurt Wil­helm, “because she then leaned over to Frau Hart­mann and said, ‘In that respect, all men are scoundrels. And I can tell you this: I would scratch the eyes out of any hussy who was after my Richard.’ She was then eighty years old, and he seventy-nine.”


The Strauss fam­ily has always insisted — though it seems almost impos­si­ble – that Pauline Strauss had no idea her hus­band had turned her into Inter­mezzo’s major char­ac­ter until she saw the work at its pre­mier in Dres­den on Novem­ber 4th, 1924.

It was the famous soprano Lotte Lehmann who had the unen­vi­able task of play­ing Chris­tine (the char­ac­ter based on Pauline) while the real-life Pauline watched as a mem­ber of the audi­ence.  Years later Lehmann recalled, “After the per­for­mance we crowded into the hotel ele­va­tor, sur­rounded by a mass of peo­ple who all had been to the opera and were now ogling Pauline and her famous hus­band with undis­guised curios­ity. ‘This opera,’ I said, ‘is really a mar­velous present to you from your hus­band isn’t it?’

Tensely, every­body waited for her answer. She looked around, cast a quick glance at her hus­band, then said in a loud, clear voice: ‘I don’t give a damn.’ Embar­rassed silence. Strauss smiled.”

When Inter­mezzo was first given in Vienna, Alfred Jeger played Robert Storch, the char­ac­ter based on Strauss him­self.  “All evening I had to play, as the role pre­scribed, a peace­ful and good-natured hus­band,” he recalled. “Only once, toward the end of the opera, did my patience give way. I had to become very angry, bang the table vio­lently with my fist and storm wildly off the stage.

At the pub­lic dress rehearsal my bang­ing of the table was so expres­sive that the table top broke vis­i­bly in two and my stormy exit was greeted with laugh­ter and applause. After the rehearsal, Strauss came round to my dress­ing room, cheer­ful and elated. ‘My dear Jeger,’ he said, ‘you played me fright­fully well. That’s exactly how I imag­ined it. Na ja, but my wife has a tri­fling objec­tion. So what­ever you do, don’t let your­self be led astray. Play the role exactly as you have today.’ With which he left the room.

After a few min­utes Frau Pauline came in. ‘You did that very nicely Herr Jeger. But to my mind you have made the moment when you bang the table and storm out far too vio­let. My Richard would never dare bang the table so vio­lently in my presence!’ ”

Count Harry Kessler, who was not amused by Pauline’s politics.

A mar­velous snap­shot of Pauline is found the diaries of Count Harry Kessler, a man who moved eas­ily between the worlds of pol­i­tics and the arts. Known in some cir­cles as “The Red Count” for his lib­eral pol­i­tics, Kessler was a close friend of Hugo von Hof­mannsthal, and it was while vis­it­ing Kessler that the two men first came up with the idea for Der Rosenkava­lier.

In Jan­u­ary 1926, Kessler and the famous direc­tor Max Rein­hardt attended a per­for­mance of Strauss’s Elek­tra in Berlin. “In a box behind us were Richard Strauss, Pauline, and a fam­ily called Strauss with whom they are stay­ing,” Kessler recorded in his diary.  “Pauline invited us to sup­per after the per­for­mance. At table, Pauline showed her­self at her best and her worst. Moth­erly con­cern that all her guests should have enough to eat, espe­cially Max who sat next to her and whose plate she kept cram­ming with eggs, cold meat, and salad. But Woyzeck (Büchner’s play, not the opera) she spurns because she really can­not pre­oc­cupy her­self with the trou­bled soul of a squalid non-commissioned offi­cer.  What affair is it of hers (the impli­ca­tion being, ‘me, the daugh­ter of a gen­eral’)? Car­men is also the story of a non-commissioned offi­cer, I observe. Yes, but roman­tic, Span­ish, and a Mer­imée cre­ation, protests Pauline. A Ger­man non-commissioned offi­cer seems to me worth as much atten­tion as a Span­ish one, I retort.  Peo­ple do say, and Pauline bends for­ward to whis­per it stealth­ily, that Count Kessler has become quite a Red. Oh no, I answer, I am just a sim­ple demo­c­rat. Pauline: a demo­c­rat, you, who are a Count? In that case you are foul­ing your own nest. I: You will for­give me, but whether I am foul­ing my own nest or not is a mat­ter upon which I must reserve judg­ment to myself.

Strauss was becom­ing more and more uncom­fort­able. Now he inter­vened and, by declar­ing that his wife knows noth­ing about pol­i­tics and I should take no notice of her remarks, tried to put a stop to the talk. Later Pauline, aware that she had gone too far and obvi­ously some­what taken aback by my rap over the knuck­les, let me into the study to explain to me her polit­i­cal views.”

Kessler then ticked off, one by one, Pauline’s ideas, all of which were, of course, exactly the oppo­site to his own. “She seemed to antic­i­pate that the bril­liance of these con­cepts (which, she assured me, enjoyed the full bless­ing of the Bavar­ian Royal Fam­ily) would pro­pi­ti­ate me.” But he reserved what must have been for him the ulti­mate put-down for the par­en­thet­i­cal remark: “(all this deliv­ered in the broad­est Bavarian).”

These notes orig­i­nally appeared in the pro­gram for the Aspen Opera The­ater, 2008

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