Strauss Lyricist's Family Sues for Opera Royalties

Relatives of the man who helped composer Richard Strauss create famous works are suing the heirs of the composer for royalties. Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote the words for nine Strauss works, including Der Rosenkavalier.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

When you love a song, what's more important: the words or the music? A legal spat over royalties between the heirs of Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal and German composer Richard Strauss revives this question, which Strauss himself addressed.

NPR's Emily Harris has more.

EMILY HARRIS: On the face of it, the lawsuit is about money, the cash that still flows from a great artistic partnership.

Mr. HENNING BOOZA(ph) (Lawyer for the Richard Strauss Estate): It all started with the collaboration of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the year of about 1900. They worked together for about 30 years. And they started it all with their first opera called "Elektra."

(Soundbite of "Elektra")

Unidentified Soprano: (Singing in German)

HARRIS: "Elektra" was the first of eight operas and the ballet that Strauss and von Hofmannsthal created together. Lawyer Henning Booza(ph) is seeking royalties for those works on behalf of five von Hofmannsthal's descendants. Strauss' two grandsons still get royalties on the works until 2019, which is 70 years after Richard Strauss died. But von Hofmannsthal died 20 years earlier than Strauss, so copyright on his works ran out in 1999, in Germany.

Booza says the poet's heirs should get a share of those payments still coming to Strauss' estate because of contracts between the collaborators.

Mr. BOOZA: In the contract, in all the contracts, it explicitly said that the Richard Strauss estate, they have to pay royalties as long as Richard Strauss' estate takes in royalties. That's what the contract says.

HARRIS: The other side, naturally, disagrees.

Mr. THOMAS DERTHEL(ph) (Legal Counsel, ShotMusic(ph)): Well, these contracts are ambiguous and they are very ambiguous.

HARRIS: Thomas Derthel(ph) is legal counsel for ShotMusic(ph), the publisher of Strauss' works in Germany. He says that part of the contract was just to cover for places that didn't have copyright protections at the time.

Mr. DERTHEL: There were some countries, for example in Latin America, that simply did not grant the author - the text author - of an opera any income.

HARRIS: A judge will decide these legal questions later this month. But for fans of Strauss and von Hofmannsthal's work, such as their most popular opera, "Der Rosenkavalier," this case raises the question: which is more important, the words or the music?

(Soundbite of aria)

Unidentified Soprano: (Singing in German)

HARRIS: The former head of the International Richard Strauss Society, Gunther Brosche(ph), says the libretto, the lyrics of an opera, is important - especially in the Strauss-von Hofmannsthal collaboration. But he says the music is more.

Mr. GUNTHER BROSCHE (Former Head, International Richard Strauss Society): (Through Translator) Because without the music, the opera would never have been created. It would have been totally stupid to think the music is everything and the poetry is nothing. Without both, the pieces wouldn't be the same. But without music, they would never have been operas.

HARRIS: Albeit without the poetry, says Evita Luscinzki(ph), director of the Friends of Hugo von Hofmannsthal Society, there would not be such great operas.

Ms. EVITA LUSCINZKI(ph) (Director, Friends of Hugo von Hofmannsthal Society): (Through Translator) For me, they're from both. But it's no accident these are Strauss' most successful operas. Only "Salome," based on the text of Oscar Wilde, comes close to the success of the Hofmannsthal-Strauss collaboration. Strauss has never again found a poet like Hofmannsthal who could give him something he could make so much from.

HARRIS: The two men worked apart and communicated a great deal through letters, most of which have been published. They showed that though close collaborators, they were very different and not close personal friends. Poet von Hofmannsthal was Viennese, sensitive and temperamental. Writing depended on his mood or the weather. Strauss, the strapping Bavarian, composed every day. Strauss was key to starting a music copyright system in Germany. Strauss scholar Bryan Gilliam says he also thought about this question of music versus lyrics, and at first, but(ph) music dominates.

Professor BRYAN GILLIAM (Humanities, Duke University; Strauss Scholar): In "Salome," you have her singing, and he's got a trumpet playing at the same time, doubling her vocal line. Well, how do you - who do you think's going to win out, a soprano or a trumpet, if they're playing the same music?

(Soundbite of aria)

Unidentified Soprano: (Singing in German)

HARRIS: In later works, he says, sometimes at the urging of von Hofmannsthal, Strauss held back more. Strauss' final opera, "Capriccio," written after von Hofmannsthal had died, addressed the question of libretto versus music directly.

Unidentified Soprano: (Singing in German)

HARRIS: The plot is simple. The countess has competing suitors: one poet and one composer.

Prof. GILLIAM: At the end, she says, whom shall I choose? So we're all sitting on the edge of our seats. Whom is the countess going to choose? And she thinks - and then the butler comes in and he says, "Countess, dinner is ready." And then she leaves. But there is no doubt that music wins, because her aria at the end, you're not thinking about the words; it's music that wins out.

Unidentified Soprano: (Singing in German)

HARRIS: And a lawsuit about mere money. Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

Unidentified Tenor: (Singing in German)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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