Richard Strauss - Biography


Richard Strauss was born July 11th 1864 in Munich, Germany and died September 8th 1949 in Garmisch-Pareten-Kirschen, Germany. His father Franz was first horn of the Munich Royal Opera and performed at the world premieres of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, and was lavishly praised by Wagner whose music and person he detested. Strauss received musical training from his father who had very conservative musical tastes and who didn’t appreciate music beyond Mendelssohn and some Schumann and rejected Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. During his early teen years he received additional instruction from members of the court orchestra including the assistant conductor Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer. Strauss began composing at a very early age. Some songs were written in his early and mid-teens along with some chamber music, and some orchestral music including a Violin Concerto, a Serenade and a Symphony and his well known First Horn Concerto, were written in his late teens. While very accomplished, these works and compositions are conservative and are not characteristic of Strauss’s mature style. Strauss attended the University of Munich for a year before going to Berlin to train as a conductor, eventually becoming assistant conductor to the legendary Hans von Bulow and his Meningen Orchestra. The last of the works from this conservative first period is the well known Burlesque for piano and orchestra which has a curious resemblance to Brahms.


In 1887, Strauss started work on a series of compositions called Symphonic Poems, derived from Franz Liszt’s Tone Poems. They are free flowing orchestral pieces that revolve around musically, representing a story often from classical literature. The first of these poems Aus Italien and Macbeth were modestly successful, but the next year he composed his breakout piece Don Juan, based on a play by the German writer Lenuau. This was Strauss’s first masterpiece and it hurtled him to the front rank of German composers. During this period, Strauss became friendly with a somewhat older composer, Alexander Ritter. He was of a somewhat mystical bent, and was also a fervent German nationalist. Ritter helped Strauss break away from his previous conservative musical style. He suggested the story for Strauss' next great piece, 1889's Death and Transfiguration, which musically outlined the death throes and ascension of the spirit of a dying old man, a strange subject for a twenty-five-year-old but a masterful composition none the less.


In the 1890's, Strauss became a very distinguished conductor, a dual career that he shared with his friend Gustav Mahler. During this period, Strauss wrote a number of Lieders (songs) which were to become famous as his next symphonic poem in 1895, a masterpiece titled Till Eulenspiegel--based on the legend of a medieval prankster who falls afoul of society. In 1896, he wrote what was to become (through the intervention of Stanley Kubrick using the prologue as the theme from 2001) probably his most commonly know piece, Also Sparch Zarathustra--based On Nietzsche’s great philosophical epic in verse. During this time, he also wrote his first opera Guntram, which was not a success. On a personal note in 1894 Strauss married singer Pauline D’Ahna, whose volatile personality was to become legend, and well as playing a musical role in his symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben, Sinfonia Domestica and the opera Intermezzo.


Strauss closed out the 19th century with probably his finest symphonic poem, Don Quixote, and with the bombastic orchestral portrait of himself, the aforementioned Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). This work illustrates the problem in assessing Strauss because it alternates between entertaining music of poor taste with passages that are deeply moving (critics should realize that the banal episodes are meant to be satiric). Strauss’s first work of the 20th century was his second opera Feuersnot which despite many fine passages was only a modest success. Sinfonia Domestica, his next major work is supposed to represent a day in the life of the Strauss family (including the prattling of his young son Franz) and is forty-five minutes long and written for an orchestra of colossal size. Again this is a mixture of poor taste and staggering musical invention. In 1904, Strauss embarked on a very successful tour of America with Sinfonia Domestica as a centerpiece of his concerts.


In 1905, his operatic career struck gold when he composed his one act opera Salome based on Oscar Wilde’s notorious play. Because the lasciviousness of the sixteen-year-old princess is described in graphic detail, the opera was banned in many opera houses including the Met in New York, when no less a personage then JP Morgan threatened to withdraw his financial support if they went on with scheduled performances. He followed this with an equally spectacular opera in 1909, Elektra, based on the Sophocles play adapted by Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannstahl, who became Strauss’s librettist and partner for the next twenty years. Their next opera Der Rosenkavilier was in a different vein, the action took place in 18th century Vienna and is reminiscent of Strauss’s favorite composer Mozart. The opera also has magnificent Waltzes that rival his namesake, Johann Strauss (no relation). The Mozartean mood became part of his next opera Ariadne auf Naxos, initially an “entertainment” with a ballet Der Burger ales Edelman as an opening for the short neo-classical opera (Strauss was to later jettison the ballet and write an operatic prologue).


The First World War was a difficult period for Strauss, he was cut off from much of his foreign royalties, and his financial investments were severely affected. The first year of the war saw the composition of his most massive orchestral work, An Alpine Symphony, which uses a colossal orchestra that includes a wind machine and an off stage orchestra. Though somewhat thin of musical inspiration, with a great orchestra and conductor it makes a magnificent effect. The balance of the war years were occupied by conducting and writing songs. In 1919, he collaborated with Hofmannstahl to write a huge opera Die Frau Ohne Shatten (The Women Without a Shadow) a very complex allegorical opera in his most opulent manner. Initially a qualified success, it has become in the last forty years a popular opera due to its magnificent singing roles. He next wrote an autobiographical opera Intermezzo (1924) loosely based on the contentious relationship between his wife and himself. The opera that followed in 1927, Die Aegyptichne Helena (the Egyptian Helen) was not successful and initially was dependent on the glamorous Moravian soprano Maria Jeritza singing the title role. In 1929 Strauss received a blow when his collaborator Hofmannstahl died of a stroke at age 55. He produced a libretto for the Viennese opera Arabella that Strauss set to music and produced in 1933 after Hofmannstahl's death.


We now come to a period in Strauss’s life which has garnered much controversy and has clouded his reputation, his relationship with Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Strauss was a politically conservative man but by no means a Nazi. He substituted for Bruno Walter when his concerts were cancelled primarily because of his Jewish ancestry, and substituted for Toscanini when he refused to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival in 1933 when the festival became fervently pro-Nazi. More troubling is that he accepted a government post as president of an organization that would set policy on standards for German music. He quit the post (officially for health reasons) when he became disenchanted with the Nazi’s policies on music and with their interference with Strauss’s collaborative efforts with his new librettist, the noted writer Stefan Zweig, who was Jewish. Another mitigating factor was that Strauss’s son was married to a Jew and his grandsons were half Jewish and subject to the Nuremburg Race Laws if the Nazi’s wished to pursue it. An anecdote sums up Strauss’s amorality perfectly, when an interviewer after the war asked Strauss his opinion of Hitler, he replied that Hitler had very limited tastes, all he ever talked about was Wagner and never spoke of Mozart or his works.


The opera he worked on with Zweig, Die Schweigsame Frau had its premiere in Dresden and was sabotaged by the Nazi’s. He continued to write operas into the late 1930’s, Daphne, Freidstag and Der Liebe Danae, but none were successful (Der Liebe Danae was not performed publically until 1952). He had developed a strong bond with the great conductor Clemens Krauss, a man nearly thirty years younger than him. They collaborated on what was to be Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, which was first performed in 1942 and in recent years has received critical acclaim.


Strauss at the end of the war was 81 and impoverished; his villa in Garmisch was commandeered by American troops. Strauss under these difficult circumstances had one last burst of creativity. He wrote a beautiful extended piece for twenty-three strings titled Metamorphosen, a lament for the German musical culture that was shattered by the war. He wrote a lovely Oboe Concerto for American oboist, John D'Lancie, who was with occupation forces. There were also two charming orchestral Serenades for wind ensemble. Strauss was to cap his career with one last masterpiece Four Last Songs composed to poems by Eichendorff. Strauss died the following year of old age in Garmisch on September 8th 1949.


Richard Strauss was probably the most musically skilled composer since Mozart. Unfortunately, this facility allowed him to compose when he was less then inspired. Strauss was capable of tremendous highs but often the ordinary was within the same work. His reputation fairly or unfairly has been tarnished by his being an official representative of Nazi German culture (his music is still banned in Israel). Regardless, in a seventy year musical career, he created so many pieces of beauty and power. He was particularly fortunate in emerging during the golden age of conducting and benefiting from the likes of Walter, Beecham, Reiner, Szell, Krauss, Bohm, Karajan, Kempe and Solti. Also he reaped the benefit of a magnificent crop of Germanic sopranos that came after the Second World War, Schwarzkopf, Della Cassa, Rysnaek, Gueden, Nilsson and Ludwig who sang his roles with beauty. One of the most apt things said of Strauss was that he was mistaken for a sunrise when in affect he was a beautiful sunset.

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