Richard Strauss

(11 June 1864 - 8 September 1949)

Richard Strauss was one of the most prominent composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who built an impressive artistic career spanning almost eight decades. Strauss made important contributions to virtually all possible musical forms that existed at the time, but was most famous for his symphonic tone poems and operas. He came of age at a time when associations between art and society were becoming somewhat problematic. Strauss, in his masterpieces, took advantage of the paradoxes and potential profundities to be found in everyday modern life.

Richard Strauss came from a musical family. His father Franz Strauss was an eminent horn player in the Munich court orchestra who became a professor at the Königliche Musikschule in 1871. Although strongly associated with Wagner, Richard Strauss’s upbringing was more similar to that of Mendelssohn – he was the son of bourgeois parents, to whom musical training was an ordinary part of life. Strauss began learning piano at the age of four and violin at the age of eight. He composed his first pieces by the age of six and began composition lessons aged 11 with Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer. Strauss later learned composition with Ludwig Thuille, who was treated almost as one of the family and who had a huge influence on the young composer.

In 1882, Strauss enrolled in the University of Munich. Although his time there only lasted a few months, it was an important time in that it awakened a keen intellectual curiosity in which he discovered works of Shakespeare and Schopenhauer. It was during this time that he made a name for himself with some landmark premieres such as his Serenade and his Violin Concerto. He also travelled regularly: to Dresden and to Berlin.

In Berlin, he met many important figures in classical music, most notably the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow who made a great impression on him. Bülow’s Meiningen orchestra performed Strauss’s Serenade and subsequently, he was commissioned by Bülow to write a woodwind piece, the Suite in B flat, which marked Strauss’s beginnings as a conductor. By 1884, Strauss’s recognition was widespread throughout Europe and his Second Symphony was performed in America before its European premiere in Cologne the following year.

I am going home to play the chord of C major 20 times over to satisfy myself that it still exists.

Strauss was apprenticed to Bülow as assistant conductor at a crucial time in his musical development and it was Bülow whom he later credited with teaching him ‘the art of interpretation’.

In 1878 and 79, Strauss attended performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the entire Ring and was completely fascinated. He also went to hear his father play in the first performance of Parsifal. Up until that time, Strauss was under the influence of his father who disapproved of Wagner, therefore from the late 1870s onwards, with his newfound freedom, he developed a more progressive style.

During the 1880s, Strauss was less preoccupied with conducting and gave more thought to music and aesthetics, leading Strauss to consider a new approach to musical form. He was a great admirer of Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems. Strauss’s own first fully-fledged tone poem was Tod und Verklärung in 1889, followed by Don Juan soon after. 1887 was an important year, in which he met Mahler and his future wife Pauline de Ahna who had studied singing at the Munich Muzikschule. In 1889 he worked as musical assistant at Bayreuth where he began a long-standing close friendship with Richard Wagner’s widow, Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima.

During the 1890s, he composed steadily and produced some of his most famous works, the tone poems Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben.

Strauss found a new modernist voice with his second opera Salome, based on the play by Irish writer Oscar Wilde. The work struck a chord across Europe, mainly because of the image of the sensual femme fatale protagonist, and within a year of its 1905 Dresden premiere, its popularity had spread throughout Europe and the United States.

[Strauss's Four Last Songs are] the most consciously and most beautifully delivered Abschied (farewell) in all music.

Strauss’s next opera marked the start of a fruitful partnership with the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal wrote the libretto of Elektra, which was premiered in 1909 as part of a Strauss opera festival in Dresden. Elektra failed to outshine Salome, but still helped to contribute to Strauss’s reputation as a pre-eminent German opera composer. The next Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration was a tremendous success: Der Rosenkavalier, followed soon after by Ariadne auf Naxos and the metaphysical Frau ohne Schatten.

Their post-World War I work Arabella was Strauss’s best-loved stage work of the early twentieth century, even though shortly after putting the final touches to the text of the first act, Hofmannsthal suffered a severe stroke and died. Strauss was too devastated to attend the funeral but sent an emotive condolence letter to Hofmannsthal’s widow: ‘This great genius, this great poet, this sensitive collaborator, this kind friend, this unique talent!....No one will ever replace him for me or the world of music!

Strauss died at the age of 85 in 1949. Strauss had declared of himself two years earlier: "I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer." There are very few composers who have matched Strauss in terms of his orchestral imagination and contribution to opera in the post-Wagnerian years.

Now at last I have learned to orchestrate! (1915)

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