(This was going to be a review of the Met broadcast of Der Rosenkavalier but, well, it turned to something else. I'll get to the broadcast tomorrow, along (I hope) with the rather lovely Xerxes which was on TV tonight.)
I've enjoyed sort of an odd relationship with Der Rosenkavalier, and with Richard Strauss in general. Before my devotion to opera was properly begun, I spent a summer in the company of The Radiant Voice of Barbara Bonney. From that resulted a conviction that 'Mir ist die Ehre widerdfahren' was one of the most beautiful pieces of music written; but nevertheless at that point I had little or no idea of its context or even its era. The name really meant nothing to me other than the composer of Rosenkavalier - and Rosenkavalier meant little to me other than the Presentation of the Rose, and the video starring Lucia Popp which was in our house, but which I'd never watched.
Eventually last year I decided it was time I watched the darn thing. I was prepared for inaccessability, because that's about all I'd picked up in the brief bits I'd read about Richard Strauss. And while you might be waiting for me to tell how surprisingly accessible I then found Rosenkavalier, the truth is quite the opposite. I found it hard going: I just didn't 'get' it. I didn't know why but I knew nevertheless that I didn't. I even posted a sort of plea on the blog for others to reassure me that they too found it less than easy to engage with. It seemed to me that I should have been captured immediately by it: I kept hearing about how Strauss loved the soprano voice and made it do such beautiful things, in Rosenkavalier particularly, but even when I heard the parts which I knew should have been examples of this, I somehow still couldn't find it as transcendant as so many reviewers apparently had. I loved Lucia to pieces, and adored every note she sang: but my bliss was in Lucia and not in Strauss, and much as I wished to understand the beauty of the opera, I felt acutely that I did not.
The same was true of Strauss more generally. There were a few of his songs on Kathleen Battle's Salzburg Recital, the other CD I spent that summer with, and I knew them so well that they weren't a problem, and I loved them. But the Vier Letzte Lieder were a challenge for me, and a guilty one too. Because everybody loved them. Everybody but me. I couldn't connect somehow. I read someone's suggestion that they might be some of the most beautiful music ever written by anybody and I just couldn't grasp how that might be so. And it all made me feel like a philistine of the first degree.
But time passed and somehow things changed. I hardly know how. But I think it was in great part necessity. The more sopranos I fell for - and the more sopranos of a certain kind - the more Strauss I found myself obliged to hear. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in particular. I fell head over heels for Elisabeth and the only CD in town was a collection of Strauss Lieder and arias. I didn't listen to them too many times, but they must have made an impression nevertheless. And just generally, my musical perspectives were changing. I was no longer so reliant on tunes, and found I could enjoy a beautiful sound on its own as much as a catchy melody: that helped. And there was something else too, now I come to think of it. Several years ago I bought a record of Elisabeth's Vier Letzte Lieder, mainly for my father and partly for the photo on the cover. I've still never played the record. But inside the cover was the previous owners sheet music for the songs. I play the piano - abysmally. I mean it's hardly playing at all. I learnt for seven years. In my second year I failed the Grade One exam and it all went downhill from there. But the more my interest in music grew, the more I felt the need to play the piano, because shockingly badly as I played, it was nevertheless the closest I could come to reproducing the sounds I was falling in love with. And so eventually I tackled the Vier Letzte Lieder. You'd shudder to hear it. And so did I - I started and gave up numerous times because I couldn't get my head around them. But one day I decided (having successfully got myself used to Aaron Copland's Emily Dickinson songs in a similar way) that the only way to do it was to force myself to bang them out again and again until I started to recognise them. It worked. These days I have no trouble agreeing that the Vier Letzte Lieder might just be among the most beautiful things ever written (and I don't just mean musical writing). When Howard Goodall used Lucia's 'Im Abendrot' as an illustration of the wondrousness of the notation system and the productions it allowed, I loved him for it. And even when it's me, messing up every possible aspect as I butcher the vocal line on the piano, there are bars which, no matter how many times I hear or play them, bring tears to my eyes. In fact, I only have to imagine the words "will in freien Flügen schweben" from 'Beim Schlafengehen' and I'm just about gone. Hearing these Lieder sung is just out of this world for me now, although just a year ago I'd never have predicted it.
And Der Rosenkavalier, my first full viewing of which was such a challenge, has undergone a similar transformation. By the time I bought my father the Deutsche Grammophon DVD of it for his birthday, I had fallen in love. I watched it and was carried away, not just by the Presentation of the Rose, which I'd always loved, but by every moment. And of course, I'd fallen irretrievably in love with the Marschallin. Doesn't everyone? 'Da geht er hin' ranks with 'Mir ist die Ehre' and that Trio as one of the opera's most sublime moments. And as for that Trio, well: it's heaven on earth. It's practically heaven in heaven. But it's not the opera's only moment of heaven - I love the whole thing, every inch of it.
So we end up here in the present day and the fact is this. Strauss, who was a mystery to me this time last year, whose inaccessibility to me made me feel like a bit of an operatic failure, now sits just below Mozart and Handel if you ask me to name a favourite composer (although really, like the bears in this book, I love them all). And sometimes I even think that in terms of emotional connection, a meeting of minds - ultimate accessibility really - he's one of the closest artists (of any kind) to my heart. It's all very strange; but I love him to pieces.