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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