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Learn about the German composer, Richard Strauss, and his works & life.

Richard Strauss: Overview

  • Born: 1864 - Munich, Germany
  • Died: 1949 - West Germany
  • Historical Period: Romantic 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, opera, choral, songs, keyboards, chamber music, ballet
Composer, Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss: The Gifted Entertainer Who Dedicated His Life to Music

Just like Bach was the last of the great baroque composers, Richard Georg Strauss marked both the apex and culmination of the Romantic era. Along with his contemporary Gustav Mahler, he was greatly influenced by the musical expressions of composers like Richard Wagner. He was more inclined towards enormous orchestras dishing out highly charged music. 

Early life

Richard Strauss was born on the 11th of June 1864, into a family of musicians in Munich. The first child of Josepha and Franz Strauss, he had started composing at the premature age of 6. He completed his junior high school academics at Ludwigs-Gymnasium. One of his early teachers recalls how he had a respectable attitude, was displaying incredible complexity with a tad bit of volatility. He also took his first music composition class at his high school, subsequently performing in his father’s “Wilde Gung’l” orchestra.    

By the time he was 18, he had crafted about 140 pieces – about 40 piano works and 60 Lieders. “Festive March for Large Orchestra” (Opus 1) was composed in 1881. In 1880, he composed a choir “Electra” which was based on the Sophocles tragedy, and in 1882, the Violin Concerto (Op. 8). He also attended the Bayreuth Festival at that time.

Music

1883 marked the demise of Richard Wagner. Hans von Bülow, one of the most significant conductors of Wagner, decided to take Strauss under his wing. In 1884, Strauss wrote and directed the “Bläsersuite” op. 4 in Munich. His mentor Hans von Bülow recommended the 21-year old Richard, who became the court music director in Meiningen.

At this stage, Strauss intensified his comprehension of Wagner. His friendship with the violinist and composer Alexander Ritter, who was married to Wagner’s niece Franziska was key to his development and evolution as a musician. While Bülow had already established the Meiningen Orchestra as a famous musical entity, Strauss had more important responsibilities. He conducted rehearsals and organizing concerts of the orchestra. He also performed as a pianist and manage the choir association. 

In 1889, Strauss moved to the Goethe city of Weimar and was appointed as the 2nd Kappellmeister. He efficiently handled the responsibilities of a conductor despite the opera suffering from recurring hardships. He also managed to successfully direct “Tristan,” “Lohengrin” and “Tannhäuser” during this period. 

His fame grew further with the premiere of “Macbeth,” “Death and Transfiguration,” and “Don Juan.” Though his first opera “Guntram” received mixed reviews, he continued composing several more songs (Lieder). In 1894, he got married to Soprano Pauline de Ahna, which marked a turning point in his life. He subsequently created the “Four Songs” op.27 (“Tomorrow,” “Lovers’ Pledge,” etc.) and dedicated them to his newlywed.

In 1885, he successfully summarized the op.10 “8 Lieder,” which included “dedication.” In his later years, he would go on to create his own distinct identity through this genre. As his fame grew, so did expectations of the music world. Strauss handled it magnificently, developing Lieder on a regular basis to diverge away from his instrumental pieces and symphonic poems. These Lieders went on to become op. 29 (“Dream in the Twilight”), op. 37 (“Abundant Happiness”), and op 32. (“I carry my Love). 

Symphonic Poems and Berlin Days

In 1894, he went to Munich and assumed the role of First Chapel Master. Pauline gave birth to his son Franz three years later in 1897. However, until 1898, he was primarily known for his tone poems (e.g. “Thus spoke Zarathurstra”). Despite being internationally renowned, he failed to land the role of the Munich general music director. Strauss offered his unique reaction, crafting “Sinfonica Domestica,” a Symphony based on his life. He also met Hugo Laurenz August Hofmann von Hofmannsthal, an Austrian prodigy for the first time in early 1900. They would later go on to create one of the most celebrated musical partnerships.

In 1905, the highly controversial “Salome” premiered in Dresden, marking the birth of modern opera music. It was met with highly mixed reviews, with reactions oscillating from profound enthusiasm to astute rejection. The trend continued with his next opera “Elektra,” which was his first collaboration with the poet Hugo von Hoffmansthal. However, it proved to be a commercial success, as Strauss used the proceeds to finance his villa in Garmisch.          

His mother passed away in 1910, which left a mark on him. Strauss had become a family guy, which was quite evident from his work in “Rosenkavalier” (1911). He also toned down “Ariadne” in 1912 to make it more publicly acceptable. His symphonic poem genre finally culminated with his “Four Last Songs” in 1948.

His Best Works

Don Juan 

This tone poem (poems devoid of any fixed format, and inspired by a person, idea or story) was his first and highly successful work. It’s a quintessential dazzling tale of a hero and his romantic encounters.     

Death and Transfiguration

Another tone poem by Strauss that is created for a large orchestra, depicting the demise of an artist

Till Eulenspiegel 

It begins with a gripping anti-climax, portraying the pranks and misadventures of a German peasant through a humorous standpoint.     

Ariadne auf Naxos 

Strauss combines heart touching music with slapstick comedy in this opera, its theme depicting the competitiveness between the highs and lows of art for attaining public attention. It was originally crafted for "Le Bourgeois Gentihomme,” a play by Moliere. 

Der Rosenkavalier

A highly enjoyable comedy, this opera is one of the most popular works of the composer. It has a set of scenic waltzes that are often played separately in concerts.

Last Four Songs

A collection of his best-known songs, which Strauss composed as a tribute to the legendary soprano Kirsten Flagstad, which she performed and recorded duly

Salome

This scandalous opera was based on a play by Oscar Wilde. The staging and set designs were performed by the legendary artist Salvador Dali. Strauss didn’t even bother to use a librettist while composing the German translation. It debuted in 1918 as a part of the Court Opera. 

Symphonia Domestica 

This piece portrays the secure domestic life through a musical pane, which the composer himself was highly fond of. It harmoniously reflects family life and daily events occurring every day.   

Alpine Symphony

It aesthetically portrays the ascent and descent of climbing an Alpine mountain - spanning through 11 hours (from dawn to nightfall). It comprises of waterfalls and a storm (created via wind machines and sound effects). The performance requires about 125 people and lasts for around an hour.       

Don Quixote

Strauss created this epic based on Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, utilizing satirical music to characterize the main protagonists. Quixote is represented via a solo cello and his sidekick via a solo viola. It’s also customary for the solo player to play-act a part of the final death scene during the performance. 

Sprach Zarathustra 

This piece is based on Nietzsche's famous philosophical book. The opening score was used as the main theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Stanley Kubrick epic. Strauss had split it into multiple sections. “Of science,” a fugue, was the most popular one, as it builds up to an unbelievable climax. The sections also comprised of 12 bell chimes from "Song of the Night Wanderer,” a gypsy waltz finally culminating in an enigmatic ending.       

World War 1

During the first world war, Strauss’ considerable fortune was confiscated which deeply affected him. In 1917 he created “The Woman without a Shadow” and started composing Lieder, going back to his roots. He subsequently wrote, “Krämerspiegel,” also known as “The Shopkeepers Mirror” (op.66) with Alfred Kerr’s texts. In 1919, he was appointed as the music director in the Vienna State Opera, significantly enhancing its reputation by bringing in new productions.

In the post-war era, Strauss and Hofmannsthal used the allure of culture to confront the sorrow. In 1920, they founded the Salzburg Festival and started working on musical comedies and lighter pieces. The “Arabella” and “The Egyptian Helen” were the most significant ones. When Hofmannsthal passed away in 1929, Strauss collaborated with Stefan Zweig, the congenial poet. They created the “Silent Woman” together. Strauss started his world tour around this time, traveling to South America and the USA.

Profound Genius

Strauss started suffering from heart failure soon after his 85th birthday, finally passing away on the 8th of September 1949 in West Germany. 

Strauss’ scores are brilliantly crafted, especially from a conductor’s point of view. The real challenge is ensuring that the orchestra performs exactly the way he wrote the pieces. If they can duly achieve that feat, his music works superbly, notwithstanding its richness and dense complexity.

His union of music and texts with their emotional and psychological depths demand their portrayal. The perfect example was his symbiosis with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Their correspondence reveals that they were often at odds regarding questions of interpretation, but this discord enriched their creative alliance, allowing the performers a plethora of interpretative opportunities.

The beauty of his works lies in the richness of his orchestral texture. When performed by a sensitive conductor, it can reach sumptuous heights, opening new frontiers of line and timbre. A gifted entertainer and composer, he was a genius operating at the peak of his career and has since become a source of great inspiration for the modern generation of musicians.     

 


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