Stefan Zweig

By: Brian Berger
November 28, 2011

By the early 1930s STEFAN ZWEIG (1881-1942) was perhaps the world’s most popular German-language writer. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, Zweig immersed himself in the city’s rich cultural foment, befriending poets, artists, musicians, Sigmund Freud. Following a wartime exile in Switzerland, Zweig in 1919 moved to Salzburg and published widely: stories, essays, translation, biography, novellas. Then, on July 13, 1929, Zweig’s hero, 55-year-old Austrian playwright Hugo von Hoffmansthal, died of a brain hemorrhage. Both literature and music grieved, for Hoffsmansthal had written six of the last seven librettos for Germany’s most eminent living composer, 65-year-old Richard Strauss. His genius was irreplaceable! In 1931, a mutual friend introduced Strauss and Zweig. Their correspondence was inspired — they’d adapt Ben Johnson’s 1609 comedy, “Epicoene, or The Silent Woman” and by mid-January 1933, Zweig’s text was complete. Two weeks later, Adolf Hitler came to power. In August 1934, Zweig Austria fled for England; Strauss, apolitical, alternately appeased and challenged the Nazis. He had Jewish friends and family; he wanted only to compose. Strauss and Zweig’s Die Schweigsame Frau, premiered in Dresden in June 1935; neither Hitler nor Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels attended and after four performances, the opera was banned. (Naively, Strauss hoped to work further with Zweig but this couldn’t be; Zweig did find Strauss another librettist, Austrian theater historian Joseph Gregor, and the composer continued, warily, as worlds convulsed.) Strauss and Zweig’s half-Jewish comic masterpiece, Die Schweigsame Frau, lay buried, where it largely remains.


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What do you think?

  1. Dear Evan–

    Who said anything about “Die Schweigsame Frau” being the “center” of Stefan Zweig’s achievement? I write of that particular achievement in 240-odd words. Clive James– and various others who have written about Zweig at substantially greater length– doesn’t mention it at all. Indeed, had I the space, I’d have written further about the relationship between Stefan Zweig and Joseph Gregor but alas. (I agree, by the way, that James underrates Zweig’s fiction.)

    Please understand that while some HiLos are intended as mini-biographies, others illuminate their subjects by taking a more limited purview. I believe if you read all of my contributions–

    as well as those of my colleagues, you’ll see both approaches amply demonstrated.

    Finally, as a fellow Zweig and opera fan, let me direct you to a fascinating book, “A Confidential Matter: The Letters of Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, 1931-1935” (U of California Press, 1977).

    All best,

  2. Also, speaking as the editor, I should say that I strongly encourage the authors of HiLo Hero items *not* to be even-handed in their approach. There are plenty of encyclopedia entries and obits out there already; these items are supposed to convey the author’s particular interest in a HiLo Hero.

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