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Richard Strauss was one of the most important German composers of the end of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. He lived until the ripe old age of 85, composing music for nearly 80 of these years. He produced a huge range of different musical works including tone poems, operas, symphonies, concertos and songs. It is for his tone poems1 and operas that he is best remembered today. The opening of his Also sprach Zarathustra has become instantly recognizable due to its use in Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. His opera Der Rosenkavalier, his tone poems Ein Heldenleben and Don Juan and his Four Last Songs are equally well known to music lovers, although not to the general public.
Richard Strauss was born in Munich in 1864. He was not related in any way to the Strauss family of Vienna (Johann, Josef etc). His father was the leading horn player in Germany at the time. His mother came from a wealthy brewing family. This combination of music and riches provided the young Richard with a good schooling, both academically and musically. He began performing (on piano) and composing at the age of six.
His first symphony was performed when he was only 17. By the time he was 20 he had another symphony, a horn concerto and a violin concerto under his belt, as well as over a hundred other musical pieces. These were all written in a traditional classical style according to the school of Beethoven and Brahms.
At the age of 20 he met up with followers of Wagner and Liszt who converted him to the Wagnerian style that he continued to use for the rest of his life.
For the next 15 years, until about 1899, Strauss specialised in the musical form known as 'tone poems'. In this period he also became known as one of the foremost conductors of his day, taking the job of conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1894, and the Berlin Opera in 1898. His first opera Guntram (1894) was a failure but he married the leading soprano, Pauline de Ahna, and remained with her until he died.
From around 1900 until the First World War, Strauss put all his energy into writing operas and produced a number of famous works. With the outbreak of the war he lost all the savings that he had invested in London. This made him very money-conscious, a trait much criticised by others.
In the period between the two world wars Europe was in turmoil. Germany was shattered and trying to rebuild itself. New policies and new ideas were tested and the National Socialist (Nazi) party began to assert itself. This period saw Strauss at his least adventurous. Many of his compositions from this period were arrangements of his earlier works. Critics have said that because the economy could not support large orchestras, he rewrote his works for smaller groups in order to make more money from their performances. This is possibly overly cynical. However, there is no doubt that at this time Strauss was fanatical about money.
At this time, too, Strauss was appointed Head of the Reichsmusikkammer, an important government musical body. This appointment was criticised later as a collaboration with the Nazis. Strauss' attitude was that politics and music were independent of each other. Only later did he come to realise the seriousness of the situation. When one of his own operas, Die schweigsame Frau, was banned because the words had been written by a Jew, he fought with the authorities and lost his position. As his daughter-in-law and his grandsons were of Jewish descent and thus in danger, Strauss did not openly criticise the Nazis. He continued to work as conductor, stepping in when Toscanini walked out in protest in Bayreuth. In return, the government allowed his family to move to the safety of Switzerland. Strauss was later cleared of a charge of collaboration at a special trial in 1948.
During and after the Second World War Strauss had a resurgence in his composing, producing some very good music. He died in Garmisch Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps in 1949.
All Strauss' musical compositions, with the exception of his earliest works, share the principles of Wagner and Liszt. These are:
- Chromaticism 2
- Clashing harmonies
- Tension in the music
- Continuous music without breaks
- Themes representing particular ideas, people or things
- Extreme expression of emotion
- Lack of formal structure
His works can be divided into five main periods:
1870 - 1885, Early works
In his first years as a composer Strauss produced many works in a traditional classical style. These included two symphonies, a violin concerto, a horn concerto and more than a hundred other small pieces. These are rarely heard today. Some of them were written when he was as young as six, so they tend to vary in quality. The symphonies and concertos were considered good enough to be performed in their day.
1886 - 1899, The Tone Poems
During this period Strauss produced many tone poems. These are short musical pieces for orchestra, mostly between 15 and 30 minutes long. They constitute 'programme music' ie they have a particular idea that they are intending to illustrate. For example, Don Quixote is intended to illustrate the life of the hero and his adventures. Different instruments represent the different characters. Each piece is accompanied by descriptions that explain the different themes.
While Strauss' tone poems are considered standard fare for orchestras these days, they were greeted with derision by the music lovers of the day. Critics could not find enough nasty things to say about them. The clashing discords, which add interest to the music, were considered to be totally unmusical at the time. It took about ten years before the public became accustomed to Strauss' music and accepted it for the masterpiece that it is.
The main tone poems Strauss produced in this period were:
- Aus Italien (In Italy - 1887)
- Don Juan (1888)
- Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration - 1889)
- Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks - 1895)
- Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra - 1896)
- Don Quixote (1897)
- Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life - 1898)
Later, during his opera period, he produced two other tone poems. These were both given the title of symphony, but were much closer to his tone poems than to traditional symphonies. These were Symphonie Domestica (Domestic Symphony - 1903) and Eine Alpensymphonie (An Alpine Symphony - 1916).
1900 - 1916, The Operas
In 1900 Strauss turned seriously to writing operas. His first success was Salomé in 1905. This opera caused an uproar at its first performance. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, it is the biblical story of Salomé, the daughter of Herod, who danced the dance of the seven veils for her father and, as payment, demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This grisly tale combined with the erotic dancing of the girl, the horrific outcome of the story and the sensual yet brutal music, caused much public outrage. The opera was banned in many opera houses but, nevertheless, was immensely successful.
Strauss followed this opera with another similar tale, Elektra, in 1909. This opera is set in Mycenae in Ancient Greece. The queen Clytamnæstre has just killed the king, Agamemnon. Their daughter Elektra suspects that she will probably also be killed in order to preserve the secret. The opera ends with Elektra performing a 'dance of death' before the executioner. This opera was also very successful.
In 1911 Strauss toned down his style somewhat, producing Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose Knight). This is the jewel in the crown of German opera. It is a light, amusing opera set in 18th Century Vienna. All the harshness of Strauss' earlier work is gone and it contains some of the most beautiful melodies ever composed. There are waltzes reminiscent of the golden days of Vienna, when the (other) Strauss family ruled the musical life of the city. The story tells of the love between three people; a middle-aged princess, a young man and a young woman. All three parts are played by women. The three major soprano roles are all different and combine in places to produce some of the most ravishing music ever written.
In 1916 Strauss produced Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos). This is a strange opera with dual plots. One concerns a comic group putting on a show. The other deals with the Greek heroine Ariadne, who has been abandoned on Naxos by Theseus. These two plots run concurrently but the effect is not entirely successful. The comic elements lose out and the opera is dominated by the soaring singing of Ariadne3.
1917 - 1940, Between the Wars
After the First World War Strauss settled for a steady job with a good income. He continued to conduct and to compose, producing many more operas and works. None of his later works have the same dramatic impact as his earlier masterpieces. They are far more mellow, but at the same time more poignant.
1941 - 1949, The Final Years
Perhaps inspired by the Second World War's destruction of so much that was beautiful, Strauss started to produce very good music again. By now in his 70s, the mood of his music is very different from his earlier fire and rage. It is sweet, nostalgic and sad.
In 1941 he wrote the opera Capriccio. In 1942 he wrote his second Horn Concerto which was very different from his first, produced 60 years earlier. In 1945 he wrote Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings. This is considered to be a lament for the death of German music. In the same year he also wrote an Oboe Concerto. One of his last compositions was his Four Last Songs in 1948. Throughout his life Strauss had written songs, some to be accompanied by piano, others by orchestra. The Four Last Songs are for soprano and orchestra. They are probably the saddest and most poignant of all his works.
Der Rosenkavalier is Strauss' most famous opera. Containing some ravishing singing and lovely waltzes, it is his greatest opera.
Four Last Songs are a great example of Strauss' 'Indian summer' - those years at the end of his life when he produced the most wonderfully nostalgic and sad music.
Ein Heldenleben, judging by the number of its recordings and performances, would appear to be Strauss' most popular tone poem.
Tod und Verklärung is another popular tone poem.
Don Juan is a final tone poem to make a representative sample.