(June 11, 1864 – September 8, 1949) was a German composer of the
late Romantic era, particularly noted for his tone poems and operas.
He was also a noted conductor.
He was born on June
11, 1864 in Munich, Germany (then the Kingdom of Bavaria), the son of
Franz Strauss, who was the principal horn player at the Court Opera
in Munich. He received a thorough, but conservative, musical education
from his father in his youth, writing his first music at the age of
six; he was to write music almost continuously between then and his
death almost eighty years later.
During his boyhood
he had the good fortune to be able to attend orchestra rehearsals of
the Munich Court Orchestra, and he also received private instruction
in music theory and orchestration from an assistant conductor there.
In 1874 Strauss heard his first Wagner operas, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser
and Siegfried; the influence of Wagner's music on Strauss's style was
to be profound, but at first his father forbade him to study it: it
was not until the age of 16 that he was able to obtain a score of Tristan
und Isolde. Indeed, in the Strauss household the music of Richard Wagner
was considered inferior. Later in life, Richard Strauss said and wrote
that he deeply regretted this.
In 1882 he entered
Munich University, where he studied philosophy and art history—not
music—however he left a year later to go to Berlin. There he studied
briefly before securing a post as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow
taking over from him at Munich when he resigned in 1885. His compositions
around this time were quite conservative, in the style of Robert Schumann
or Felix Mendelssohn, true to his father's teachings. His Horn Concerto
No. 1 (1882–1883) is representative of this period and is still
regularly played. Strauss's style began to change when he met Alexander
Ritter, a noted composer and violinist, and the husband of one of Richard
Wagner's nieces. It was Ritter who persuaded Strauss to abandon the
conservative style of his youth, and begin writing tone poems; he also
introduced Strauss to the essays of Richard Wagner and the writings
of Schopenhauer. Strauss went on to conduct one of Ritter's operas,
and later Ritter wrote a poem based on Strauss's own Tod und Verklärung.
married soprano singer Pauline Maria de Ahna on September 10, 1894.
The marriage was happy, and she was a great source of inspiration to
him. Throughout his life, from his earliest songs to the final Four
Last Songs of 1948, he always preferred the soprano voice above all
There is much controversy
surrounding Strauss' role in Germany after the Nazi Party came to power.
Some say that he was constantly apolitical, and never cooperated with
the Nazis completely. Others point out that he was an official of the
Third Reich, and that although his post was largely ceremonial, he should
have spoken out against the Nazis.
In November 1933,
without any consultation with Strauss, Goebbels appointed him to the
post of president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau.
Strauss decided to keep his post but to remain apolitical, a decision
which has been criticized as naïve, but perhaps the most sensible
one considering the circumstances. Strauss was forced to resign his
position in 1935 after refusing to remove from the playbill for Die
schweigsame Frau the name of the Jewish librettist, his friend Stefan
His decision to
produce Friedenstag in 1938, a one-act opera set in a besieged fortress
during the Thirty Years War – essentially a hymn to peace and
a thinly veiled criticism of the Third Reich--during a time when an
entire nation was preparing for war, has been seen as extraordinarily
brave. With its contrasts between freedom and enslavement, war and peace,
light and dark, this work has been considered more related to Fidelio
than to any of Strauss's other recent operas.
daughter-in-law Alice was Jewish, he certainly realized the risk to
his family; some have pointed out that this may have stopped him speaking
out. There are also suggestions that he attempted to use his official
position to protect Jewish friends and colleagues.
In 1948, Strauss
wrote his last work, Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) for soprano
and orchestra. All his life he had produced lieder, but these are probably
the best known. When compared to the work of younger composers, Strauss'
harmonic and melodic language was looking somewhat old-fashioned by
this time. Nevertheless, the songs have always been popular with audiences
died on September 8, 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany at the
age of 85.
Born 11 June in Munich, Bavaria. His father, Franz Strauss, is the much
respected if musically conservative first horn in the Court Orchestra
First steps in composition, beginning with Schneiderpolka (‘Tailor’s
Polka’) notated by his father
First performances include String Quartet in A major, Symphony in D
minor (conducted by the esteemed Hermann Levi and well-received) and
a Festive March published as his official Op.1 with costs defrayed by
his uncle, Georg Pschorr.
Works as a musical assistant on Parsifal at Bayreuth, and begins long
association with the ‘widow of Wahnfried’, Cosima Wagner.
Follows in Liszt’s footsteps as Kapellmeister at Weimar, where
he conducts first performance of Don Juan.
First serious illness, pneumonia – postdating composition of Tod
und Verklärung – does not prevent him from returning to Bayreuth
as Cosima’s guest
January 17 ‘the most wonderful day of my life’, conducting
an uncut Tristan in Weimar, with Pauline, a house soprano and already
singing at Bayreuth, as Isolde. After another severe illness departs
for Greece and Egypt, where he continues work on Guntram, his own operatic
homage to Wagner.
Emancipated by his travels, decides on a libertarian ending of Guntram
that horrifies Cosima and the inner circle of Wagnerites. Later regards
this as his turning point: ‘My path was clear at last for uninhibitedly
independent creation’. Conducts premiere of Humperdinck’s
Hänsel und Gretel in Weimar.
Conducts premiere of Guntram in Weimar, with Pauline as the heroine
Freihild. Pauline sings Elisabeth in several Bayreuth performances of
Tannhäuser conducted by Strauss. They are married in September
and he writes his first songs for her, including Morgen! and Cäcilie,
as a wedding present. Begins season as conductor of Berlin Philharmonic
Orchestra and is re-engaged by Levi at Munich Court Opera, where he
is to conduct Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and help restore the work
to its rightful place in the repertoire.
Strauss’s admiration for poetry, if not philosophy, of Nietzsche
finds musical fulfilment in Also sprach Zarathustra, which he premieres
in Frankfurt. Conducting engagements in many European cities, including
Birth of son Franz, while touring the Tennyson-based melodrama Enoch
Arden with Munich intendant Ernst von Possart as reciter. Strauss notes
ideas for ‘Symphonic poem Held und Welt (Hero and World)...and
as satyr-play to accompany it – Don Quichotte.’ First conducting
engagements in Paris and London.
Father Franz dies, aged 83, six months before triumphant Dresden premiere
of Salome. Agrees to set Hofmannsthal’s version of Sophocles’
Electra, their first collaboration.
Death of mother, Josepha, aged 73. Completes Der Rosenkavalier.
60th birthday celebrations in Vienna include premiere of confectionary
ballet Schlagobers. Disagreements with his co-director leads to Strauss’s
resignation from the State Opera. Premiere of Intermezzo takes place
Composes Parergon zur Symphonia Domestica in thanksgiving at son’s
recovery from typhus
Unexpected death of Hofmannsthal, leaving unrevised text for Acts II
and III of Arabella, which Strauss is to complete in his memory.
Hitler appointed Chancellor of Germany. Strauss is chosen to replace
Bruno Walter and Toscanini in conducting engagements and is appointed
president of Reichsmusikkammer by Goebbels without consultation.
Composes Olympic Hymn for the 1936 Games in Berlin, but comes under
increasing attack for his collaboration with Zweig, who – like
Strauss’s daughter-in-law Alice – is Jewish.
First performance of Die schweigsame Frau goes ahead, but the run is
cancelled. Nazis intercept a letter from Strauss to Zweig naively hoping
for continuance of their relationship and asking him ‘do you imagine
I have ever been led in the course of a single action by the thought
that I am Germanic (perhaps, qui le sait?)’ Forced to resign his
Reichsmusikkammer post. Takes up a legacy of Zweig, the ‘peace-opera’
Friedenstag, with the scholarly Joseph Gregor.
Composes Metamorphosen as a memorial after the bombings of the Munich,
Dresden and Vienna opera houses. At end of war Pittsburgh Symphony oboist
John de Lancie, then an American soldier billeted in Garmisch, visits
the composer and sows idea for Oboe Concerto. Strauss completes it before
moving to Switzerland with Pauline. Renews acquaintance with Dr Ernst
Roth of Boosey & Hawkes, who had acquired the rights to many of
his operas during the war, and arranges for the publishing of his future
and unpublished works.
Conducts for the last time following 85th birthday celebrations. After
several heart attacks and six weeks of illness, dies peacefully at Garmisch
on 8 September.
Pauline dies on 13 May, nine days before the first performance of the
Four Last Songs at London’s Royal Albert Hall, with Kirsten Flagstad
as soloist and Furtwängler conducting.
(1864 - 1949) His artistic education was strictly conservative, his
well-mannered, well-heeled appearance that of a stolid investment banker,
yet his music shocked the world. Richard Strauss stirred controversy
with iconoclastic symphonic works that inspired avid debate throughout
contemporary music circles, as well as with erotic operas that literally
incited crowds to riot.
Strauss was born in Munich in June, 1864. His father, Franz, was a fiery
artist himself and the most highly ranked horn player in Germany, hand-picked
by Richard Wagner for several of the Maestro's world premiere orchestras.
Notably, the well publicized volcanic relationship of Franz Strauss,
impresario-conductor Hans von Bulow, and Wagner was characterized by
regular heated exchanges and feuds. Franz made no secret of his dislike
for Wagner's horn composition and von Bulow's authoritarianism; an amazingly
independent attitude for any freelance musician toward two artistic
heavy weights. Wagner and von Bulow allowed Franz his disdainful bent
because they simply could not replace him. Meanwhile, certain that no
one since Mendelssohn had written anything worthwhile, Franz preached
from an anti-Wagnerian pulpit to his son, Richard, an approach which
had little restraining effect, however, on the young man's later style
of operatic composition.
Richard received a thoroughly proper music education based securely
around his father's rock-solid prejudices. Then, true to the program
which had been prescribed for him, the youthful Strauss began his career,
predictably enough, with the composition and performance of several
innocuously conservative symphonic pieces and a few seasons of piano
recitals in Berlin. His Suite for Winds in B Flat won the approval of
the famous conductor, von Bulow, and, on the spur of the moment, Strauss
found himself standing at the podium before the Munich Symphony Orchestra,
about to conduct the debut of his own score.
The quivering Strauss had never held a baton before and in later years
realized he spent the entire performance in an uncomprehending shock.
Nonetheless, Strauss soon became von Bulow's assistant and ultimately
as noted for his work as a conductor as he was as a composer. In 1885,
upon von Bulow's resignation, Strauss took charge of the Munich orchestra.
Otherwise, the composer continued, for the moment, on a mundanely marketable
creative track. At least, until he met Alexander Ritter, an accomplished
violinist and husband to Richard Wagner's niece, Franziska. Ritter and
Strauss initiated their friendship around tireless discussions of Wagner's
influence on concepts of harmonic structure, orchestration, and the
overall artistic vocabulary of the later nineteenth century.
Strauss transferred these revelations to his compositional palette and,
as one modern musicologist put it, "All hell broke loose."
In 1889, the performance of the composer's first tone poem, Don Juan
, left the audience standing: half of them cheering -- half of them
booing. Said Strauss, "I now comfort myself with the knowledge
that I am on the road I want to take, fully conscious that there never
has been an artist not considered crazy by thousands of his fellow men."
Having found a niche for himself, Strauss continued in the same musical
vein with more and more sensational efforts at the symphonic poem: Till
Eulenspeigel , Don Quixote , Also sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben
, Sinfonia Domestica, and Eine Alpensinfonia among them. In the creative
tradition of Wagner, Strauss' music subscribed to its own symbolism
and attachment to literary roots, as well as to the Wagnerian technique
utilizing an orchestra of gargantuan proportions to give full benefit
to music of enormous melodic and harmonic complexity, Strauss added
the challenge to audiences of a uniquely unsettlingly dissonant quality.
And, although evocative of the leitmotiv -- at times suggestive of the
sounds of thunder storms, bleating animals, human conflicts - Strauss'
work, like much of Wagner's, also stood on its own as absolute music,
not necessarily to be viewed as simply symbolic or programmatic.
A supercilious Saint-Saens commented, "The desire to push works
of art beyond the realm of art means simply to drive them into the realm
of folly. Richard Strauss is in the process of showing us the road."
Yet from Claude Debussy came praise for the "tremendous versatility
of the orchestration, the frenzied energy which carries the listener
with him for as long as he chooses... One must admit that the man who
composed such work at so continually high a pressure is very nearly
Was it the dawning of the avant garde or the death throes of Romanticism?
The birth of modernism or the elevation of mediocrity? Subsequent to
each and every premiere, the battle raged. Whatever else it was, it
was news. And the most compelling was yet to come. Strauss set his sights
on operatic composition. A first effort, Guntram , clearly mimicked
Wagner and ran for one performance at Weimar. A second bid, Feuersnot
, also encountered damning criticism.
In 1905, with Salome , Strauss found operatic immortality as the composer
of the most scandalously sensational stage production of his era. The
decadence and obsessed eroticism astonished fin de siecle audiences.
A Metropolitan Opera production opened one evening, closed the next,
in reaction to public outcry. At the world premiere in Dresden, the
first Salome, Marie Wittich, protested the staging of the infamous "Dance
of the Seven Veils." "I won't do it," she exclaimed,
"I'm a decent woman." And, for some years after it was traditional
for a ballerina to perform the dance role as a double for the principal
While the pulpit and public registered their varied angry appraisals
even the Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, predicted "damage"
to Richard Strauss' career and reputation. Ever the businessman, Strauss
noted that over the next several years, as new productions of Salome
continued to open before curious patrons around the globe, the "damage"
provided funds to build a substantial villa at Garmisch.
His next opera, Elektra, not only resurrected the atmosphere of protest
and scandal initiated by Salome , but created an additional artistic
war zone. Strauss' requirement for voices of Wagnerian strength singing
with a violent dissonance drew the wrath of the music community. This
signaled, experts theorized, not only the end of operatic tradition,
but the demise of the human voice as an artistic instrument.
Then, as suddenly as it had emerged, Strauss' decade of creative iconoclasm
ended. Beginning with Der Rosenkavalier , which Strauss proposed as
his first Mozartian effort, the convulsively violent and sensational
bent was over. Ariadne auf Naxos, Ariadne , Die Frau ohne Schatten ,
Die agyptische Helena, Arabella, followed each other with happy regularity
between 1911 and 1933. Each was received with polite applause by appreciative
audiences and critics, not a little surprised at the one-hundred-eighty-degree
shift in Strauss' approach.
When the Third Reich came to power, authorities found it essential to
name Strauss "Reichsmusikkammer," in acknowledgment of his
rank as the most important composer in the nation. Completely apolitical,
Strauss continued composing to his own purposes, unwittingly offending
authorities on regular occasions. His uneasy and apparently useless
relationship with the Nazi regime continued for several years. His family
eventually lived under house arrest until they managed to emigrate to
Switzerland to wait out the last years of the war. Yet, once more, Strauss
attracted strong criticism from some who felt he should have utilized
his position as "court composer" to protest the Hitler dictatorship.
Wherever Strauss' artistic aberrations, astronomical earnings and political
uncertainties failed to provide sufficient copy for the press, tales
of his life with wife, Pauline, filled the gaps. He had met Pauline
de Ahna, when she sang under his direction at the opera house in Munich.
Reportedly, they argued violently during rehearsals. On one such occasion,
Strauss met with Pauline in her dressing room to smooth over the quarrel,
and emerged an engaged man. Their relationship was legendary as that
of domineering wife and henpecked husband. The artistically rebellious
Strauss seemed to thrive on his wife's "law and order" approach
to marriage. His slack habits of composition were soon set to rights
by Pauline who, noticing him wandering through the house without apparent
purpose would shout with military authority, "Richard, go compose!"
And Strauss would diffidently oblige.
How extraordinarily contradictory that, by the time of his death in
1949, Richard Strauss had achieved the strange distinction of living
a quiet, remarkably scandal-free life, without the slightest indication
of eccentricity; a practical businesslike artist, a conductor with a
nearly emotionless technique, a happily married obedient husband, who
had ignited a string of artistic Roman candles which will keep audiences
gasping and applauding well into the next century.