A librettist and his composer: Stefan Zweig and Richard Strauss as seen through their letters (guest post by Kimberly Taylor)


Stefan Zweig, ca. 1935. Photographer unknown. Stefan Zweig Collection, Reed Library Archives & Special Collections.

In February 1935, Austrian Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), commonly regarded as the most translated German language author of his time, wrote to German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949), “One day, your letters, your decisions, will belong to all mankind.” (Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, A confidential matter: the letters of Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, 1935-1935, trans. Max Knight. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977, 67.) Having recently completed the libretto for Strauss’s opera Die schweigsame Frau, this solemn admonition was a response to Strauss’s suggestion that, due to political developments, the two might do well to continue their artistic collaborations in secret. Aware of the impending jeopardy in which his association with Zweig – a Jewish writer with a now-dangerously high profile – was sure to place him, Strauss, then head of Hitler’s Reichsmusikkammer, had entreated, “Should I have the good fortune to receive one or several new libretti from you, let us agree that nobody will ever know about it.” (Ibid., 67.) It was a policy to which Zweig could never adhere as artist or citizen, whether to the end of his own safety or in deference to a musical genius he considered to be the apotheosis of his generation. Beyond its case-specific context, Zweig’s caution to Strauss demonstrates the former’s belief in the potency of epistolary correspondence in fleshing out the historical record. Zweig himself composed thousands of letters in his lifetime, many of which have indeed survived to the great benefit of posterity, academic and otherwise. In another communication with Strauss, seen below, Zweig wrote, “… nur jetzt keine Uraufführung in Deutschland!”, concerned that Strauss’s insistence on the premiere of the opera in Germany would further enable both the work itself and its creator to be used as political pawns.


1st page of letter from Stefan Zweig to Richard Strauss, 13 December 1934. The Stefan Zweig Collection, Reed Library Archives & Special Collections.

The above exchange comprises only a snippet of the revealing missives sent between Strauss and Zweig in the early 1930s which will be the focus of an exhibition planned as part of an upcoming celebration of Stefan Zweig and his lifelong proclivity for music, Zweig at Fredonia 2016, a 3-day event offering lively discussion, a musical performance – including selections from the now infamous libretto which heralded Strauss’s resignation of his post on the Reichsmusikkammer, and the 4th Biennial Stefan Zweig Lecture, all to be held on the campus of The State University of New York at Fredonia in New York State.

The exhibition, Zweig and Strauss: Artistic Collaboration in a Time of War (3-27 October 2016), will emphasize selected correspondence alongside other manuscripts held by Fredonia’s Archives & Special Collections. Fredonia’s renowned Stefan Zweig Collection, the most significant and extensive archive of Zweig manuscripts in North America, was initiated in 1967 with a purchase of documents from Zweig’s first wife, Friderike, then living in the northeastern United States. Her selection of Fredonia as the permanent repository for the manuscript correspondence between herself and Zweig was encouraged in no small part by a longtime acquaintance of both hers and her first husband, Dr. Robert Rie, then a Professor of German Studies at Fredonia. Among the most precious items included in Friderike’s Nachlass was Zweig’s last letter to her, composed (in English, to avoid war-time censorship) in 1942 the day before he and his second wife, Lotte, were found dead – a double suicide – in their adopted home of Petrópolis, Brazil.



“Dear Friderike when you get this letter I shall feel much better than before …” Final letter from Stefan Zweig to Friderike Zweig, 22 February 1942. The Stefan Zweig Collection, Reed Library Archives & Special Collections.

Further accruals to the Zweig Collection at Fredonia would include the voluminous correspondence containing over 6,000 letters, postcards and other epistolary devices written to Zweig from some of the most pivotal writers, artists, musicians, composers and intellectuals of his age. Among the hundreds of correspondents – including the likes of Felix Braun, Max Brod, Georges Duhamel, Sergei Eisenstein, Benno Geiger, Pierre Jean Jouve, James Joyce, Frans Masereel, Joseph Roth, Albert Schweitzer, Fritz von Unruh and Virginia Woolf – Strauss himself was no mean contributor. His correspondence alone comprises over 75 items sent to Zweig between 1931 and 1935, for the latter a period of time fraught with, at best, uncertainty about the future and, at worst, the unambiguous realization that his livelihood, life, and limb lay within the ever-increasing reach of oblivion. Zweig himself, though perpetually and avowedly apolitical insofar as he could manage, endured constant pressure from many sides to use his authorial notoriety as a spokesperson against the rising Nazi influence. However, he consistently refused to play such a role, as seen in a letter he wrote to Strauss from Zurich, dated 19 May 1935: “As an individual one cannot resist the will or insanity of a whole world; enough strength is needed to remain firm and self-respecting and to reject all feelings of bitterness and hatred. This alone has become a sort of accomplishment these days, and is almost harder than writing books.” (Ibid., 93. This letter from Stefan Zweig to Richard Strauss is held by the Richard-Strauss-Institut in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.) Zweig seemed unwilling to allow the insanity of the world interfere with either his art or his humanity.

Although the focus of events for Zweig at Fredonia 2016 will concentrate on the author’s relationship with Strauss and music, the collection as a whole encompasses an interdisciplinary scope of immeasurable value to scholars everywhere, elucidating not only Zweig’s own aesthetic acumen but his unwavering support of and collaboration with the greatest thinkers and creators of his era. He was, in fact, a true man of letters.

Zweig at Fredonia 2016 details:

Dates: 3-5 October 2016
Location:  The State University of New York at Fredonia, Fredonia, NY
Organizers: Birger Vanwesenbeeck (vanweseb@fredonia.edu);
Kim Taylor (taylokr@fredonia.edu)

3 October 2016
15:30, Zweig and Strauss: A Continuing Conversation
Faculty panel led by musicologist Dr. Matthew Werley (Oxford).
17:00, Zweig and Strauss: Artistic Collaboration in a Time of War
Opening of manuscript exhibit featuring correspondence written by Strauss to Zweig from Fredonia’s Stefan Zweig Collection.

4 October 2016
20:00, Selected Songs and Arias of Richard Strauss
Fredonia School of Music faculty and students perform songs and arias of Richard Strauss, including excerpts from Die schweigsame Frau.

5 October 2016
18:00, 4th Biennial Stefan Zweig Lecture
Keynote lecture by George Prochnik, author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (2014).

Website: http://fredonia.libguides.com/archives/zweig
Blog: https://zweigatfredonia.com/
Twitter: @FREDarchives

Note on the author: Kimberly Taylor is Coordinator of Archives & Special Collections, Daniel A. Reed Library, The State University of New York at Fredonia




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