Article from the Metropolitan Opera’s web site.

Der Rosenkavalier

Father Owen Lee Discusses Richard Strauss and Der Rosenkavalier

As Aired on the Metropolitan Opera Broadcast – 2/20/93 – “Opera News on the Air”

Creative artists often find themselves in predicaments. But there can be few predicaments so sweetly blended of exhilaration and frustration as the writer’s, when one of his characters grows assertive, demands a role beyond that originally conceived for him, or her, and eventually takes over the imagination of the author completely. Such a character was, for Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. The composer and librettist first conceived their opera as “thoroughly comic, as bright and obvious as a pantomime.” They decided that there would be two major roles in their comedy – a “baritone buffo” and a “Cherubino;” Baron Ochs and young Octavian. But as they set to work, the Marschallin, a character created merely to define Ochs and Octavian, began to take over their imaginations, and their pens. She prompted the best lines and the best music. Hofmannsthal all but invented for her an aristocratic variety of Viennese to speak, and for her solo scenes Strauss scaled down his vast Wagnerian orchestra to modest Mozartian proportions. What is more, in asserting her importance, this wise and gracious lady saw to it that the very nature of the work was changed as well. No longer was it to be bright and obvious. She both darkened and illumined the comedy, adding a dimension that was profound if not altogether tragic. Der Rosenkavalier’s theme became nothing less than the differences effected in human lives by time, with its inexorable onward flow.

The Marschallin alone among the characters sees the future passing through the present into the past, and wonders what it means. Philosophers may say that time is only the measure of change. Poets may say carpe diem – grasp time while you can. But the Marschallin finds that, in fact, in a human life one cannot measure or grasp or hold. Each irreversible moment is already gone in the instant of becoming.

Most of this idea is expressed in three passages we have just heard in Act I. The Marschallin is left alone on the stage for the first time. She thinks ruefully that her oaf of a cousin will get himself a pretty young bride, and a nice fortune besides, and consider these as his by right, and all the time flatter himself that he is doing everyone a favor. Her mind runs back to the time, some sixteen years before, when she too – little Resi – was fetched from a convent school and sent lamblike into a loveless marriage.

Where, the Marschallin wonders, is that little girl now? Where, she quotes as she peers into her glass, are the snows of yester-year? She has just accused her hairdresser of making her into an old woman; can this person she sees mirrored before her be the same that was once little Resi, and before long will be “die alte Frau, die alte Marchallin – that old woman, the old Field Marshall’s wife?” Briefly she pictures herself in that bleak future, pointed at by jostling crowds as she passes in her carriage.

Surely, the Marschallin muses, this is one of the mysteries of life – how one feels oneself always the same person, yet knows that one is constantly changing, body and soul. How can God let this happen? If He must let it happen, why has He given her an understanding of it? Others seem to know nothing of this. Could He not have hidden it from her? It is too much to bear. And yet, she says, in how one bears it, “in that ‘how’ lies all the difference.” Here the orchestra lightly touches on the theme associated with her love for young Octavian – and hints that for her that all-important “how” – somehow lies in him.

Then Octavian bursts in on her, and in a few minutes both characters sense that, suddenly, somehow, everything between them has changed. Octavian is close, now to anger, now to tears. To convince him that it is not she who is forsaking him but he who must eventually leave her, the Marschallin sings a second little aria, and takes us to the heart of the matter, what Der Rosenkavalier is all about: “Time,” she says, “is a strange thing. When one lives for the moment, time means nothing at all. And then, of a sudden, one is aware of nothing else. It is all around us – inside us, even! It shifts in our faces, swirls in the mirror, flows” she says to him, “in my temples. It courses between you and me – silent, as in an hourglass. Oh, often I hear it flowing, irrevocably. Often I get up in the middle of the night and make all, all the clocks stand still.”

Strauss rises quietly to this wonderful occasion with subtle orchestral equivalents for his librettist’s images, and a vocal line delicately poised between aria and recitative. “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding.” “Time,” says the Marschallin “is a strange thing. But,” she concludes, “one needn’t be afraid of time. It too is a creation of the Father, who created us all.” How, we wonder, has she come across that neo-Platonic thought? Has her confessor given her St. Augustine to read? Octavian understandably complains that, this morning, she is “talking like a priest.” Because he is hurt and confused by the strangeness of her words, she explains that, in life, one must take what one takes lightly, “with light heart and light hands, hold and take, hold and let go.” Both life and God will have it so. And we come to her third little aria, in which her resignation is complete: she will go to Church, then she will visit “Uncle Greifenklau who is old and lame, and eat with him.” The strings play the musical theme that at the beginning of the act was all passion, and then accompanied the observation “in the ‘how’ lies all the difference.” Now that theme floats radiantly over the Marschallin’s words as if to say, “This is ‘how’ I shall accept the inevitable changes time brings...I shall let you go. I shall confess, and perform a charitable work, and then a firm resolve will make my life new."

Henceforth she and Octavian will be together only in public. “This afternoon,” she says (addressing him, not as “you,” but as “he”), “this afternoon, if I go out, and he so pleases, he will come to the Prater, and ride beside my carriage.” Gentle but firm words and music of ravishing sweetness define what their changed relationship must be.

Octavian seems to understand. It is a clear case of noblesse oblige. He can be her lover no longer. He leaves quickly. Then, of a sudden, she realizes that she has seen him for the last time on intimate terms, and calls him back. Too late. He has slipped from her, like any lightly held object caught in the flux of time. When she sees him again, in Act III, he is utterly changed.

And so, through the rest of its course, is the opera. Nothing that happens through the next hours can make us forget the Marschallin. We wait, through much that is marvelous and through occasional longueurs, for her to reappear, to take the drama in hand, to direct it to its close.

Both Strauss and Hofmannsthal struggled to the end against the Marschallin, as if resenting the way she took over the drama and guided their pens. Strauss’ comments, made years later – that she had lovers before and after Octavian, that she should not be sentimentalized, that she was “only annoyed with the hairdresser” – these remarks seem almost churlish. Surely the composer doth protest too much to be fully believed, and for almost a century now audiences have not believed him. As for the librettist, fearing for his comedy, anxious that we not feel too sorry for the Marschallin, he suggested cuts in what he called her “perilously long” scene with Octavian. But surely she is the one character in Der Rosenkavalier that is of a piece with his finest creations elsewhere: again and again, in Hofmannsthal’s writing, some vision of eternity brings about a moral and spiritual change in a character and enables him, or her, to survive a present crisis: face to face with death, Hofmannsthal’s famous Jedermann accepts the challenge of living, and his Ariadne accepts mythic transformation, and the husbands and wives in his Frau ohne Schatten accept their various responsibilities – all with the realization that to change is to stay alive, to stand still is to die.

If Strauss and Hofmannsthal were like other artists, they were themselves all too conscious of their immersion in time, and were struggling to defeat it, not by attempting to forestall the advancing years, but by shaping their lives’ experience into something that would never die. With Der Rosenkavalier, thanks largely to the Marschallin, they succeeded. It is the most enduring of their creations, and may well prove the most enduring opera of this century. I doubt whether any strain from twentieth-century opera has settled so lovingly on the ear as this one.

So deeply has Der Rosenkavalier passed into our affections that Uncle Greifenklau, who is never seen and is mentioned only once, is more real to us than hundreds of characters in other operas. And the Marschallin, whose Christian names are Maria Theresa, has come to symbolize Vienna itself, both the earlier Vienna of Mozart’s “Dove Sono” and another Vienna with waltzes by other Strausses.

What is it that makes the Marschallin one of the great characters in opera? Surely it is her special awareness – of time. At first she wishes she were not so aware, through memory, of the past, and, through expectation, of the future. But with that awareness, she is able to come to terms with herself, and direct the comedy and the romance to their right conclusions. What enables her to adapt to change is the very thing she wished she had not been granted – that consciousness of how the past and the future impinge on the present. And, more than that, the sense of something that lies beyond time.

It is the purpose of art to show us that something does lie beyond time. Most of the action in Der Rosenkavalier is synchronous with clock time. But at the moment near the end when the Marschallin brings order out of chaos, when three radiant soprano voices rise in the suspended moment of “Heut’ oder Morgen oder den ubernächsten Tag” – “Today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow” – a moment greater than the others has at last been reached. The action is halted, the three characters stand fixed on stage and, in the time-honored tradition of opera, the music makes its own time.

Some thoughts lie too deep for words, but not for music. The transcendent trio of Der Rosenkavalier, the song of three people caught up in the most important moment of their lives, assures us that this is what makes us human – we alone among creatures have a consciousness that reaches beyond the present moment. We are able to conceive, beyond time, some notion of an eternal and immutable. The still point of the turning world. When the mind reaches to that eternity, a man, or a woman, can say to the moment, with Goethe’s Faust, “Linger on, thou art so fair.” In the trio of Der Rosenkavalier we reach such a moment – a moment beyond time. At a moment like that, when we sense what lies beyond our ordinary lives, all the clocks really are standing still.