Oper in 1 act
Op. 81, TrV 271
Librettist: Joseph Gregor, after Stefan Zweig
First performed: Nationaltheater, Munich, 24 July 1838
The rarely performed, often maligned Friedenstag is one of Strauss’s most underrated works: a powerful testament to the horrors of war and a plea for peace, first performed in Nazi Germany.
The opera takes place on 22 October 1684, the last day of the Thirty Years’ War, the deadliest European religious war in history, pitting Catholics against Protestants. A Catholic town is besieged by the Protestant Holsteiner army. The Kommandant of the citadel has sworn never to surrender the town, and intends to blow up the citadel rather than let it fall into enemy hands. The Holstein army advances – but it turns out that they are not attacking. The armistice has been signed, and the decades-long war is over.
The powerful one-act work has some of Strauss’s most impressive choral and orchestral writing: the starving townsfolk demanding bread; the bells sounding for the first time in years, announcing peace; and the radiant C-major finale, Fidelio for a post-Mahlerian age.
Why, then, is Friedenstag so little known? One problem may be that it doesn’t what do Strauss’s operas are supposed to do. Most of his operas are either elegant, witty and wry, or hothouse shockers, as decadent and luxuriant as a Rafflesia. This serious, rather earnest, treatment of war is a far cry from the Rococo Vienna of Der Rosenkavalier and the metafictional Ariadne auf Naxos, or the nightmarish Salome and Elektra.
Some critics have also accused Strauss of trying to curry favour with the Nazis with this opera. It was the first major opera composed under National Socialism, and they point to the fact that the appeal to peace as a call to arms, the notion of a unified Germany, and the mythologizing of the Thirty Years’ War were all part of Hitlerian propaganda. This interpretation is unlikely.
Strauss (who detested the Nazis [see below]) and his librettists – the writer Stefan Zweig, a Jewish pacifist and internationalist, and, after Zweig fled to London, his replacement Joseph Gregor – considered the opera “a hymn to the reconciliation of nations” and “a work extolling the union of peoples” – a stance at odds with the Nazis, who banned the work from stage performance after 1939.
It shows the miseries of war, which, to the ordinary people, is “murder and hatred”. Their children die, and their grandchildren whine for bread. The townsfolk starve, and are forced to eat rats to survive. Churches are blown up, and houses burnt. War breeds suspicion and fear – but the enemy are suffering fellow human beings. “I have seen the foe,” says the town mayor; “they are men like us. They suffer distress in their trenches, just like us. When they are kicked, they groan like us – and when they pray, they pray to the same God!”
War is dehumanizing. “Was ist das: Friede?” asks a musketeer. The soldiers don’t know; they’ve been fighting since they were children. They have lost any compassion for the people they are meant to protect. Even when they see a farm set on fire, they only wonder what it means about the enemy’s movements – “nothing”. They don’t care about the peasant whose home and crops have been destroyed.
The Kommandant is a man of war. “I know nothing of peace! … The Emperor’s will ordered me to persevere, and achieve victory!” He would rather blow himself and his soldiers up than surrender – but he obeys orders. He is almost deaf to the appeal of love or compassion. “War, glorious idea, war, wherever your mighty head rises, then all low impulses/emotions bow down before obedience, and life itself becomes the prize of men’s honour.”
The heart of the opera is the Kommandant’s wife Maria. She obviously appealed to Strauss’s sympathy, and he wrote one of his typically lyrical soprano arias for her.
She is the only named character in the opera – but, like the Madonna, whose name she bears, she is a spiritual intercessor. She is the comforter of war’s sufferers and the poor people; and she intervenes when the commanders of the two armies are about to come to blows, launching the opera’s finale.
That choral finale is glorious.
All the people – Maria, the two commanders, their armies, the townspeople, the church – come together in one surging sea of humanity and sing an exultant hymn to peace, as the citadel tower sinks into the stage and sunlight floods the theatre.
STRAUSS AND THE NAZIS
No, Strauss wasn’t a Nazi, or a Nazi sympathizer. This old accusation still gets trotted out.
Yes, Strauss accepted the post of president of the Reichsmusikkammer, partly because he thought he could secure better copyright arrangements for composers, and he wanted to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He soon fell out of favor, and was ordered to resign when the Nazis intercepted a letter to Zweig criticizing the regime.
Zweig wrote the libretto for Strauss’s comic opera Die schweigsame Frau. The Nazis pulled the opera after three performances, when Strauss, to his credit, refused to remove the Jewish Zweig’s name from the programme.
Strauss later wrote, in a secret memorandum:
“I consider the Streicher-Goebbels Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honour, as evidence of incompetence, the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.”
Listen to: Wolfgang Sawallisch, 1988, with Bernd Weikl, Sabine Hass, Jaako Ryhänen, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering. EMI. A fine cast, clear orchestration, and apparently more complete than Giuseppe Sinopoli’s 1999 Deutsche Grammophon recording.
Fans of archival recordings may want to check out the 1939 Vienna recording, starring the original Kommandant (Hans Hotter) and Maria ( Viorica Ursuleac).