Richard Strauss – A Most Mercurial Life
By: Brad Kronen**
Life for the Mercury ruled person is measured by degrees of mental stimulation. If something is seen as being one-dimensional, dogmatic, or even universally accepted or “time honored” the Mercurial personality will fail to muster any interest due to the near total absence of mental stimulation barely generating a pulse. Conversely, if something is perceived as having multiple dimensions, originality, and a sense of newness, the Mercury ruled person’s heightened state of mental stimulation will devour said thing in its entirety until his or her voracious mental curiosity is quelled.
I know this all too well given I was born on June 11th, a date when the Sun is in the mutably mental sign of Gemini. With what has been stated above, my most admired composer is not an artist whose body of work is deemed beautiful by everyone across the board or whose music is “loved by all”. That type of artistry is too mentally mind numbing for my Mercurial sensibilities. The composer whom I hold in the highest esteem lived a life that was truly controversial.
A life which served as a source of debate amongst even his own contemporaries. Not only was his art seen by many to be offensive and barbaric when first debuted to the public, but it’s been said on more than one occasion this composer’s work resulted in half the audience booing in horror with the other half simultaneously wildly applauding. Therefore should it be of any mentally stimulating surprise that this man, too, was born on the 11th of June as well?
Close to an exact century before my entrance onto this plane of existence, Richard Strauss was born in Munich on June 11th 1864; a most karmicly challenging time period for a European to be born, given their life span would more than likely experience two World Wars and numerous overthrows of government in between.
Strauss’ life IS truly Mercurial, quite literally, beginning with his birth in the Mercury ruled sign of Gemini to his death taking place in the other sign which the fastest planet of our Solar System oversees, Virgo, on September 8th, 1949.
Gemini is the first of the Air signs and Strauss mirrored his Airy astrological foundation with the composer both beginning and ending his remarkable career with pieces written solely for wind (or in more elemental terms, Air) instruments.
Many today are already familiar with Richard Strauss but most likely don’t realize he’s the source behind his most well known piece, “Also Sprach Zarathustra“, a composition used in many films, most notably as the opening music in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey“.
In order to properly observe the life of Richard Strauss, we must view it through a perspective which his ruling planet of Mercury revels in most and optimally functions in best – Duality.
Richard Strauss is seen by many music historians as one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century by virtue of his compositions of symphonic music, opera, tone poems, and lieder. Strauss’ musical contributions range from the ground breakingly shocking through his use of dissonance and morally defiant choice of subject matter to the most beautifully sublime.
Conversely, there are those who reduce the life of the German composer down to the actions of a man considered to be a blatant hypocrite and weak willed opportunist. A man who was willing to overlook overt displays of evil for the purposes of both convenience and self-promotion when Strauss was appointed the head of the “Reichsmusikkammer” or Music State Bureau for the Nazi Party’s Third Reich. The duality of Richard Strauss the artistic influence versus Strauss the morally anemic victim of circumstance was summarized best by his colleague and most skilled interpreter of his music, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, when he was quoted as dualistically stating the following:
“To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again!”
By far, my favorite composition by Richard Strauss is his 1912 masterpiece of an opera “Ariadne auf Naxos”. The work is Mercurial in every way by virtue of its cast of characters being dualistic foils of each other as well as its score being thoroughly mentally stimulating throughout its entirety.
The opera’s two leading ladies represent polar opposite approaches taken towards Romantic love. The character of Ariadne represents True Love at its purest in all of its high browed, idealized glory, whereas the character of Zerbinetta represents the playful, flirtatious side of the emotion that can’t get enough of variety in the form of as many suitors as possible.
Where Ariadne mourns her heartbroken love when it’s lost, Zerbinetta gets over hers by giving her heart immediately away to a new lover. Where Ariadne is steadfast and true, Zerbinetta is fickle and non-committal.
Zerbinetta effectively expresses her love sentiments in the aria, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin! Als ein Gott kam jeder gegangen”, “Great and noble Princess! Each man unto himself is a God”, a piece of vocal fireworks filled with thoughts and images of a dualistic nature:
I’m unfaithful and true – all in the same day.
On a false scale I weigh the truth.
Then half willfully and half against my will,
I finally deceive him though I love him still.
Ariadne’s aria “Es Gibt Ein Reich” or “There is a Realm” is one the greatest expressions of the Mercurial mind, since it speaks of the dualistic nature which exists within each of us whenever we are forced to confront Love and its range of juxtaposing emotions. That, along with the aria’s lyrics literally mentioning the Greek god of Duality, Hermes, whose Roman counterpart is astrologically better known as Mercury, himself.
The aria is sung by a character who in her own right is archetypal since she comes directly from Greek mythology. Ariadne is the daughter of the King of Minos. She critically aids the hero Theseus in defeating the man eating monster of the Minotaur by supplying him with a golden thread he uses to stay on course as he searches for the bullish beast in the endless passages of its lair. In thanks for her life saving assistance, Theseus romantically bonds with Ariadne only to abandon her soon thereafter while she is sleeping on the deserted island of Naxos. Ariadne wakes up to find herself in a desolate place, utterly alone.
The Greek princess represents antiquity in the opera and this could be applied to the individual psyche whenever the rational mind looks at their world through a limited mental perspective of the past or in a solitary, one-dimensional way. Upon awaking and realizing that her hero has abandoned her, with the likelihood that he will be pursuing other king’s daughters, Ariadne’s mind sinks to the lowest depths possible when she sings the opening lines to her aria:
Es gibt ein Reich
Wo Alles Reinist
Es hat auch einen Namen
Or in other English words:
There is a Realm.
Where everything is pure.
And this place has a name.
Our heroine would rather die than face life without her man. How many of us have taken such a melodramatic stance after breaking up with someone, or like Ariadne, after being dumped, (quite literally)? The jilted girl bemoans her ties to the physical world by stating how pointless it is to remain alive. But much like a Mercurial mind changing thoughts, the music then juxtaposingly alters from a full orchestra to a solitary oboe, a pure and sailing sound that changes the dynamics of the piece when Ariadne sings:
Bald aber naht, ein Bote
Hermes! Heissen sie ihn!
Or in other Mercurial words:
But soon shall come, A Messenger.
Hermes! He is here!
The rest of the aria has Ariadne speaking of her salvation by the most agile of gods with the music building until it sails to a victorious crescendo on these words:
Dies Lastende Leben
Du nimm es von Mir!
Or in other non-German words:
This latest of lives,
You will take it from me!
Not a sentiment you would picture someone jumping for joy over at first glance. But if we look at the princess as a time honored representation of dogmatic thought (she IS a Greek myth, after all), Ariadne’s need to have the messenger god escort her to the realm of the Dead transforms both her along with the piece’s meaning as a whole when considering the creator of this dramatic scene is a son of Mercury.
When the mind holds on to certain concepts which are no longer useful, they have the potential to negatively affect our thought processes overall into becoming inflexible to change and unwilling to attempt anything new or untried. Ariadne’s focus on her love relationship with Theseus is so over idealized in a one dimensional way that when he leaves her high and dry, she has no other choice but to leave this world.
The same can be said of any way of thinking that is resistant to other perspectives, debate or even the changing times. The whole thing needs to die.
Ariadne gains not only hope but a renewed sense of life by letting go and succumbing to whom? The god of Thought, Rationality, and Mental Stimulation, itself. Many times if we simply change our mental perspective by letting go of assumptions or thoughts considered to be set in stone, the world itself can take on an entirely new light.
And how’s this for art and life mirroring Astrology?
The version I chose of “Es Gibt Ein Reich” is sung by my favorite interpreter of the role of Ariadne, Virgoan soprano, Jessye Norman.
“Es gibt Ein Reich” is an aria whose lyrics mention the god Mercury and was written by Richard Strauss, a Mercury ruled Gemini and is sung by Jessye Norman, a Mercury ruled Virgo.
Mercurial to the max, says this Mercury ruled astrologer!
**Brad Kronen’s latest book, “Love In The Stars” published by Llewelyn Worldwide, Inc. is now available for pre-order via Amazon.com.