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The A-Z of Richard Strauss: Z is for Stefan Zweig

The Austrian author's operatic collaboration with Strauss was one of his final works created in Germany, before fleeing from the Nazis to Brazil.

By Gavin Plumley (Classical music blogger)

4 August 2014 at 12.42pm | 2 Comments

Stefan Zweig was an Austrian writer.

At the height of his literary fame in the 1920s and 30s, Zweig was one of Europe's most popular writers. Though not as well known by modern audiences, his work has seen a resurgence of interest of late as the inspiration for Wes Anderson's film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which starred Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton, among others.

Following the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1929, Richard Strauss was seeking a new librettist. Zweig was the ideal candidate, well-established and with an ability to move between fiction, non-fiction and drama.

Due to the political situation in Germany at the time, they were only able to complete one opera together, beginning work on Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) in the early 1930s. By the time that Hitler came to power in January 1933, the piano score and the orchestration of the first of the opera's three acts was ‘as good as finished’. As a Jew, however, Zweig was not welcome within Reich culture. But the Nazis were stuck:  could they possibly ban an opera written by Richard Strauss, the president of the Reichsmusikkammer? Eventually the decision came from Hitler himself, who noted what he perceived as a ‘slur’ against the Reich, but allowed the performances to go ahead.

It was, however, to be Zweig’s last stand. A letter from Strauss to him was intercepted by the Gestapo, in which the composer asked Zweig to begin work on a second opera. Seeing this as a clear affront to their authority, the Nazis condemned Die schweigsame Frau and terminated Strauss and Zweig’s collaboration. In 1934, Zweig fled to Britain, living first in London and then in Bath, before moving to New York in 1940 and finally, later that year, to Rio de Janeiro, where he and his wife killed themselves by taking a barbiturate overdose.

‘Something else was beginning’, Zweig had written in his autobiography Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday), ‘a new time, and who knew how many hells and purgatories we still had to go through to reach it?’ But on the last pages of his memoir, Zweig had also offered a note of hope, not unlike the sunset described in the last of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. ‘Every shadow’, he offered, ‘is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives’.

2014 sees the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth. The composer has been celebrated at the ROH with stagings of Die Frau ohne Schatten (which ran until 2 April 2014) and Ariadne auf Naxos (which ran until 13 July).

This article has 2 comments

  1. JUDITH KING BINNEY responded on 19 August 2014 at 1:14am Reply

    I read both George Prochnik's terrific book and Zweig's "The World of Yesterday" - on my Kindle, as well a the hard copy. Do know if there are any recordings of Zweig's lectures that he delivered in the U.S.? I'd love to hear what he sounded like -- an amazing multifaceted man.

    • Anna Miell responded on 4 April 2018 at 10:13pm

      I heard his voice on recordings. Once in an exhibition on Stefan Zweig in Bath (in the late? 1990's) and the second time in an exhibition in Vienna (reading a poem) a few years ago, about Stefan Zweig's years in exile.

      I also loved George Prochnik's book!

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