Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949)

Richard Strauss was a German composer and one of the most important musical figures of the first half of the 20th Century. As Mahler applied Wagner’s Post-Romantic chromatic language to the symphony, Strauss did the same in his tone poems and operas.

Strauss was born into a musical family in Munich. He received his early musical training from his father, a horn player at the court. He developed a deep love for the horn and wrote two concertos for the instrument, as well as several smaller chamber works. Strauss wrote his first piece at the age of six. His father’s conservative tastes were initially passed on to his son, who was influenced by the works of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. However, at the age of 10, he heard some of Wagner’s operas and began to study his music, despite his father’s reservations.

He had early success with his Serenade for 13 winds, written at the age of 16. It made a deep impression on the famous conductor, Hans von Bülow, who served as an important mentor to Strauss. He continued to write several chamber works.

When he was in his early 20’s, he met violinist Alexander Ritter, who became another important figure in his life. Ritter suggested that Strauss write using the form of the tone poem, pioneered by Liszt. Strauss took his advice and wrote a series of imaginative works that have entered the concert repertory, including Don Juan, the deeply moving Death and Transfiguration, the comedic Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also Sprach Zarathustra, (immortalized as the Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey“), and the semi-autobiographical Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”), as well as other symphonic works, such as the Sinfonia Domestica and An Alpine Symphony. In addition to the two horn concertos, Strauss also wrote several other concertante works, including a violin concerto, Burleske for piano, another tone poem, Don Quixote, that features a solo cello and viola, and the Duet Concertino for clarinet and bassoon.

Strauss also wrote many successful operas, including the highly expressionist Salome and Elektra, which were highly regarded by critics, audiences, and fellow composers, such as Mahler and Ravel. Some of his later comedic operas, such as Der Rosenkavalier and Arabella show the influence of Mozart. Strauss’ wife, Pauline, was a gifted soprano and he wrote many art songs inspired by her singing. One of his last major works was the Four Last Songs.

Strauss was in his late 60’s when the Nazis came to power in Germany. Due to his high regard internationally as a composer and conductor, he was selected to head the government music bureau of the Third Reich. Although he detested the Nazis, (Joseph Goebbels in particular), he accepted the post so that he might safeguard German culture and protect members of his family, (his daughter-in-law was Jewish). His relationship with the Nazis was always tenuous at best and after attempting to program works by banned composers, such as Mendelssohn, Mahler and Debussy, he was dismissed from his post. (In fact, some of his works, written in collaboration with Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, were banned.) Nonetheless, he was able to save his daughter-in-law and grandchildren from the concentration camps and kept his family with him under house arrest.

Strauss with De Lancie

After the Allies took control, he was kept under guard by American soldiers, (due to his former position in the Nazi government), but was treated kindly out of respect for his music. One of the soldiers he met was the young oboist, John De Lancie, (later principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra). De Lancie suggested that Strauss write an oboe concerto. Although he initially dismissed the idea, Strauss eventually warmed to the idea and wrote the piece, dedicating it to the “American soldier”.

The last few years after the war saw a dramatic creative burst from the composer. In addition to the oboe concerto, second horn concerto, and Four Last Songs, Strauss also wrote his Metamorphosis, a masterpiece for string orchestra.

In addition to his acclaim as a composer, Strauss was a highly regarded conductor during his life, considered an equal to such figures as Toscanini and Furtwängler. He conducted recordings of most of his orchestral works, as well as pieces by other composers, such as Mozart, Gluck, Beethoven, and Wagner. He also produced piano rolls of many of his solo piano works. He served as an important mentor to future conducting stars George Szell (of the Cleveland Orchestra), Sir Georg Solti (of the Chicago Symphony), and Herbert von Karajan (of the Berlin Philharmonic). Solti even led an orchestra at Strauss’ 85th Birthday celebration and funeral, while Karajan made his conducting debut with Salome and recorded the very first compact disc, Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony.

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Suggested Reading:

Raymond Holden. Richard Strauss: A Musical Life

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