Richard Strauss (1864-1949), the German composer and conductor, is known especially for his operas and symphonic poems linked to his phenomenal mastery of the orchestra. He was the chief exemplar of post-Wagnerian tastes and techniques.
Richard Strauss was born in Munich to a mother who was a talented amateur musician and a father who was the principal horn player in the Court Opera. Piano lessons with his mother began at the age of 4; at 8 he started violin study. In his own words, however, he was a bad pupil because he did not enjoy practicing. His pleasure even then was in composing, which he tried first when he was only 6. Thereafter he composed steadily while receiving regular instruction in music theory from various local musicians. Meanwhile his general education was furthered at the Royal Gymnasium and for a year at the University of Munich.
Strauss was obviously headed toward a career in composition, for by the age of 20 he had turned out a large and quite respectable collection of piano pieces, songs, chamber music, choruses, and orchestral works, including two symphonies and two concertos. He also got into print very early with the Festival March, written in 1876. This music, as far as one can judge from the available examples, was extremely conservative in tone, modeled after Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. It clearly carried the mark of his father's tutelage, which Strauss said kept him from hearing anything but classical music until he was 16.
The progressive movements of the 19th century touched Strauss only after he took up conducting and settled in 1885 into his first post as director of the Meiningen orchestra. There he became acquainted with a violinist named Alexander Ritter, who opened Strauss's mind to the "advanced" music and ideas of Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner—men whose names were anathema in his father's house.
The effect of this awakening was first apparent in a symphonic fantasy, Aus Italien, written in 1886 while Strauss was on a visit to Italy. Full alignment with the newer currents was signaled by his entry into the field of program music cultivated years before by Liszt. The result was a series of nine single-movement, orchestral tone poems beginning with Macbeth (1890), ending with Eine Alpensinfonie (1915), and covering a range of subject matter from medieval legend in Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895) to Strauss's own domestic life in Symphonia Domestica (1903). Don Juan (1888), Till, and Don Quixote, (1897) are generally the most favored of these works. In principle, however, Strauss's method remained constant. The shaping of each piece was guided by a poetic idea to which his music was linked in a more intimate and detailed way than in earlier programmatic scores. Yet he avoided becoming a mere illustrator by insisting that the composition must also develop "logically from within" to produce a satisfying musical form. And at every point he demonstrated his unsurpassed virtuosity in orchestration.
With the tone poems Strauss came into his own as a composer. He also became increasingly successful as a conductor, performing throughout Europe, especially Germany, where he held positions in Munich, Weimar, and Berlin, and in New York City. By the time he was 30, he was a celebrity on two counts. But there was much more to come after he turned to opera composition.
Strauss, as he said, may have put off composing for the theater from awe of Wagner. Once started, however, he gave it his main attention for almost 40 years, producing 15 operas in that period. The first two, Guntram (1893) and Feuersnot (1901), were failures. Then came Salome (1905), Elektra (1908), Der Rosenkavalier (1910), and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), which are possibly his best and certainly the most frequently played of all. Salome, with its shocking, perverse sensuality, and Elektra, which goes beyond that in violence and unremitting tension, are prime examples of German expressionism in its most lurid phase. They also show Strauss at the peak of his modernity in respect to musical vocabulary and technique. In Der Rosenkavalier he reverted to a sweetly diatonic strain cast much of the time in waltz rhythm; in Ariadne he looked still farther back as he applied classical methods to the ingenious idea of presenting an antique myth simultaneously with a sketch out of the commedia dell'arte. Of his remaining operas, Die Frau ohne Schatten (1917), Arabella (1932), and Capriccio (1941) are the most interesting, although none has won repertory status.
After Capriccio Strauss returned to earlier interests in concerto composition, chamber music, and songs, the peak of this final effort being the Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings (1945). Grave and Wagnerian in tone, it recalls Strauss's ties to the Germany of his youth and sounds an affecting though belated finale to an era that had long since been closed out by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Béla Bartók.
Further Reading on Richard Strauss
Strauss's Recollections and Reflections were edited by Will Schuh (1953). Two biographical studies are George R. Marek, Richard Strauss: Life of a Non-hero (1967), and Ernst Krause, Richard Strauss: The Man and His Work (trans. 1969). Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (1956), offers a biting censure of the Straussian dramaturgy, while William Mann, Richard Strauss: A Critical Study of the Operas (1964), is generally sympathetic. Strauss's historical position is outlined in Gerald Abraham, A Hundred Years of Music (1938; 3d ed. 1964), and Adolfo Salazar, Music in Our Time (trans. 1946).
Additional Biography Sources
Kennedy, Michael, Richard Strauss, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995.