About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

December 11, 2012

MEMOIR: Ted Kramers, with Dave Brubeck and Richard Strauss

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

We just learned that a former neighbor in Mt. Gretna, Ted Kramers, passed away last week. Ted was well into his nineties and still vigorous. He told me the following story about 10 years ago. It's the same story that Alex Ross relates in The Rest is Noise (p 343, Zero Hour: The US Army and German Music, 1945-1949), naming Ted as "John" Kramers. Other differences in our two accounts may relate partly to Ted's memory. He was in his late 80's when I spent several hours with him to record the details. (My memory is no better but I wrote notes.)

In April 1945 Ted, a major in a Civil Affairs unit, entered Germany with the 103rd Division of the US Army. The division moved east toward Munich and turned south toward Garmisch, Innsbruck, and the Brenner Pass, to link up with other American forces moving north from Italy. They felt safe, he said, and “loose” because they realized the Germans were on the run and the end of the war was near. But they were aware that they might stumble upon a “redoubt” where loyal units of the SS or Wehrmacht could make a last stand in the remote southern corner of Germany. Ted also remembers feeling then, as he said most American soldiers did, that the German army usually “played by the rules” and so he planned to be careful to “handle things correctly” as he dealt with the formalities of ending the war. Meyer Levin, in the Saturday Evening Post, described Ted as “a spirited fellow who whistled through a youthful blond moustache.” Ted’s wife, Ellen, confirmed that; his moustache by then white, Ted “wanted to move at the head of the pack” on their many tourist excursions all over the world.

Ted and his driver, Sgt Griess, went ahead of the division to locate a place for their next headquarters in Garmisch. On route they encountered survivors fleeing from Dachau and also were ordered to take the surrender of a small unit of Hungarians—who rewarded them with a huge supply of pretzels. Ted was anxious to find a headquarters because the Division was close behind. They were scouting for a large building on enough land for 30 large military vehicles and many more small ones in a protected location. Such would be preferable to pitching tents in an open field. 

They came upon such a place without much difficulty in the suburban outskirts of Garmisch at Zoeppritzstrasse 42: a large three-story mansion in a spacious glade surrounded by tall trees nestled in the Loisach Valley of the Bavarian Alps. The view of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, was magnificent. According to protocol, Major Kramers waited in the jeep while Sgt. Greiss approached the villa and knocked on the front door. A tall, straight-backed and courtly man wearing a jacket and tie opened the door and spoke in good English. Sgt. Greiss politely requested that he and the other occupants of the house come out and talk to Major Kramers. Ted respectfully asked the man and his family to leave in 20 minutes with any possessions they would need so that the Americans could temporarily occupy the villa.

When Ted and Sgt. Griess returned to the villa about 30 minutes later, the owner led them into a large salon with a piano and served tea and cakes. Ted thought him to be an unusually gentle and modest man, especially compared to other Germans he had encountered during his brief sojourn in Germany. The man sat at the piano and played excerpts from “Der Rosenkavalier.” By then Ted, a reluctant violin student in his Philadelphia school days, realized that the owner of the villa was none other than Richard Strauss.

Ted met a younger woman, probably Strauss’ daughter-in-law Alice who served as his secretary, another man, probably Strauss’ son Richard, and another woman—Ted never learned her identity but she was probably Stauss’ wife Pauline. Far from the frail old man described by some commentators, Strauss appeared to Ted as a healthy, sturdy, and proud man who “still had all his marbles” despite his obvious advanced age (79 years).  

Strauss built the mansion in 1908 according to a design by himself, his wife, Pauline, and Emanuel von Seidl, brother of the architect of the Munich Museum. The family initially intended the villa to be a summer home, but after financial reverses--a British bank confiscated his assets after WWI--and during the rise of the Third Reich, they found refuge there and a permanent residence. As the war worsened, Strauss's son and his family were forbidden from shopping in "Aryan" shops and could not go out for fear of being beaten up. Strauss himself was spied on.

Strauss modestly described himself as “a first class second rate composer” and was listed in the Garmisch telephone directory (according to his friend, the tenor, Hans Hotter) as ”Dr. Strauss, Richard, Conductor,” and not, as you might assume, “Composer.” 

At the time of Ted’s visit Strauss was arranging Der Rosenkavalier, an opera he had written many years earlier, as a suite for orchestra, in part to produce a legacy of value for his family. The image of Strauss’ fingers on the piano keys stayed with Ted and he always sat in the front row at our concerts for just that reason. The encounter was short because Ted was ready to take possession of the house. 

Ted doesn’t know where the Strauss family went that day but believes that they learned within hours that they could return immediately; the Army was ahead of schedule and passed through the town without stopping. Neither Ted nor any other Americans ever occupied the villa. 

After the war, having briefly accepted the post of head of the Reich Music Chamber (probably without an opportunity to decline and, he believed, “to do good and prevent even greater misfortune”), Strauss was automatically classified as “Grade I Guilty” by a denazification court and lost more of his assets. Many of his musician contemporaries treated him with contempt because he remained in Germany during the war and even conducted for the Nazi elite. (Toscanini said, "To Strauss the musician I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it on again.") In 1948 he was exonerated and reinstated as a German citizen. By then he and his family had been in exile in Switzerland where he wrote his exquisite Four Last Songs and Metamorphosen. Eventually he and his family returned to the villa in Garmisch several months before he died there in September 1949. Pauline passed away in 1950. The grandchildren still maintain the home (and a web site).

Other, more welcome, knocks at the same door about that time came from American musicians stationed with Army bands in the area. One of them, Dave Brubeck, wrote to me and certainly others: “I was stationed in the Army at Eibsee near Oberammergau, and often would pass by Richard Strauss’ home. I never had the nerve to go knock at his door, although I wanted to.” Pittsburgh Symphony oboist, John Delancie, did knock. The eventual result was the Oboe Concerto that Strauss completed later in the year in Switzerland. Leonard Bernstein was also in the neighborhood.

Ted Kramers received more publicity for his participation, a few weeks later, in one of the many “liberation parties” that roamed the countryside looking to free famous captives. His party freed ex-premiers Daladier and Raymond, De Gaulle’s sister, and Generals Gamelin and Weygand from the prison castle of Itter, a high class branch of Dachau used to lock up important prisoners. They “weren’t merely out for sport,” according to Meyer Levin who traveled with one of the liberating units. “They went out in advance of their main elements because one day was often the margin needed for rescue. To the very last, the Germans were dragging important prisoners to the remotest mountains.”

We will all miss Ted.

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