The Kennedy Center

Capriccio - Sextet

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Capriccio was Richard Strauss' last operatic venture, and, like the valedictory works of other great composers - Haydn's oratorios, Verdi's Falstaff, Elgar's Cello Concerto - it not only summarizes a lifetime of stylistic achievement, but also addresses concerns that the accumulation of years could not dim. For Strauss in this masterful opera, those concerns were two: one was the cataloging of his greatest musical loves; the other was a consideration of the essential dilemma of all vocal music - the relative importance of words and music. To demonstrate the music that he held in highest regard, Strauss quoted in the score snippets from the works of Mozart, Wagner, Gluck and Verdi, and he even included fragments from some of his own compositions. (One of the joys of this opera for the knowledgeable listener is the identification of the many musical allusions.) Regarding the words/music controversy, which is the true subject of the opera, Strauss wrote, "The battle between words and music has been the problem of my life from the beginning, and I leave it with Capriccio as a question mark."

In his New Encyclopedia of the Opera, David Ewen offered the following précis of Capriccio: "The almost actionless libretto [set in a chateau in late-18th-century France] is little more than a discussion as to which is more significant in opera, the words or the music. Flamand, the musician, becomes the spokesman for the music; Olivier, the poet, for the words. Both are emotionally involved with the Countess Madeleine. When LaRoche, a producer, plans a series of entertainments to celebrate the Countess' birthday, she suggests that Flamand and Olivier collaborate, using for their material the day's happenings and themselves as principal characters. When they leave to write their ‘entertainment,' the Countess (looking in a mirror) asks herself which man she prefers. She comes to the conclusion that both interest her equally. Her conclusion is Strauss' answer to the problem that opened the opera: in opera, the words and music have equal importance."

The libretto - probably the best Strauss ever had except for Der Rosenkavalier - was written by the conductor Clemens Krauss under the microscopic scrutiny of the composer, though several other writers, notably Stefan Zweig, also contributed ideas to the finished book. The plot was based on a libretto by Abbaté Giovanni Casti titled Prima la musica, poi le parole ("First the Music, Then the Words"), which had first been set by Antonio Salieri in 1786 as a one-act opera that was premiered as part of the double bill at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna with Mozart's The Impresario. Zweig suggested the topic to Strauss as early as 1934, but composition was not begun until 1939; the score was completed on August 3, 1941. The setting is an elegant palace near Paris in 1775, the time when the operatic reforms of Gluck had the words/music controversy consuming the city's intellectual circles. Strauss intended Capriccio (subtitled "A Conversation Piece for Music") to be a refined entertainment for his friends rather than a popular theater piece - "no work for the public, only a fine dish for connoisseurs," was his assessment. He was surprised therefore, and certainly pleased, at the excellent success that Capriccio enjoyed at its premiere in Munich on October 28, 1942 under Krauss' baton.

The lovely string Sextet that serves as the introduction to Capriccio was first heard six months before the work's official premiere. In 1942, Strauss and his wife moved to Vienna from their Bavarian home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Their refusal to hide their disgust with the Nazi leadership had made their position in Garmisch difficult when their Jewish daughter-in-law and her children were threatened with ostracism. The governor of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, assured Strauss that he would shelter the family if they would make no further public anti-Nazi remarks. In appreciation, Strauss allowed the Sextet to be performed privately at Schirach's house on May 7, 1942. Despite thAT particular kindness, Schirach was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment for war crimes by the Nuremberg Trials in 1946.

The Sextet brings Strauss' opulent harmonic palette and rich instrumental textures to his stylized recreation of elegant Rococo chamber music. In the opera, the music begins before the stage is revealed. As it continues, the curtain rises to show the characters listening to the music played by an off-stage ensemble as the musician Flamand's birthday offering to the Countess. The words of Michael Kennedy about the complete opera apply equally well to this beautiful Sextet: "Capriccio is Strauss' most enchanting opera. It is also the nearest he came to unflawed perfection in a work of art. It is an anthology or synthesis of all that he did best, and it is as if he put his creative process into a crucible, refining away coarseness, bombast and excess of vitality."