A life dedicated to music
An innovator in form, modern and bold in concept, hailed by his contemporaries as the "prophet of a new musical age" and the "creator of a new art". These words refer to the German composer Richard Strauss.
It is very difficult to determine with which of his works Strauss remains in history – whether with his operas, with his symphonic poems or with his songs.
Author of 16 operas, two symphonies and 8 symphonic poems, 2 concertos for horn and over 200 songs and choir works, Richard Strauss is one of the most original composers in world music history.
Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich on June 11, 1864. He began playing the piano at the age of four. When he was six, he heard children singing a Christmas carol and decided that he could write similar tunes. There were always music sheets between his textbooks in the school bag. As a result, while his classmates studied French and mathematics, he composed Scherzo for string quartet, which was published in his Opus 2. By the time he finished school, he had written more than 140 works, including 59 songs – a genre that would brilliantly develop in the following years. These works, written in his adolescence and youth, were greatly influenced by the musical upbringing that Strauss received from his father. For many years, Franz Strauss was considered one of the best horn players in Germany at the time. He worshipped the musical classics Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and hated Wagner. Unlike him, Richard adores Wagner, but hides his adoration for a long time so as not to upset his father. But on graduation, Richard received a surprise gift – his father took him to Bayreuth to watch “Parsifal”. There, Strauss met Wagner and took the opportunity to talk to him.
Through his father’s connections, Richard Strauss met a number of famous musicians at the time. Among them was the conductor Hans von Bülow. He commissioned his Suite for 13 Winds for the Meiningen orchestra and invited the 20-year-old Strauss to conduct its premiere in Munich, after which he appointed him assistant conductor. Thus, along with composing, Strauss began a career as a conductor, which would take him to the Munich Opera as a third conductor, then he would be invited to direct the Weimar Court Orchestra, would return as a second and then chief conductor in Munich, later he would be conductor and then director of the Royal Opera House in Berlin and would eventually accept the invitation to be musical codirector of the Vienna State Opera.
Richard Wagner's music will have a huge impact on both the composer Strauss and the conductor Strauss. In a letter to his sister, he admits that he became a "convinced Wagnerian" after studying the score and watching “Tristan and Isolde”. Later, Strauss will conduct almost all of Wagner's operas, keep in touch with the composer's family and do everything in his power to make the music world appreciate deservedly Richard Wagner.
At Meiningen Strauss met the composer Alexander Ritter, who advised him to abandon classical forms and to express his musical ideas in the medium of the symphonic poem, as Franz Liszt had done. Strauss wrote "From Italy" and the remarkable work "Don Juan". The triumphant reception of this piece led to Strauss’s acclamation as Wagner’s heir and marked the start of his successful composing career.
In 1894, in Weimar, Strauss met the singer Pauline de Ahna, a general's daughter, who would become his wife seven years later. She was also the greatest admirer and supporter of the composer, as well as his inspiration for the characters of Salome from the opera of the same name and The Marschallin from The Knight of the Rose. The Symphonia Domestica is dedicated to her, and in the opera Intermezzo the composer makes an elegant portrait of their marriage. Pauline’s tempestuous, tactless, and outspoken personality was the reverse of her husband’s aloof and detached nature, and her eccentric behaviour is the subject of countless anecdotes. Nevertheless, the marriage between them was strong and successful; they adored each other and ended their days together 55 years later.
By the end of the 19th century, Richard Strauss had already achieved the fame of an avant-garde composer and his style became recognizable to the public.
Like his great contemporary Gustav Mahler, Strauss wrote brilliantly for a large orchestra, but also managed to achieve an exquisite musical line in the chamber genre. He has an unsurpassed talent for describing music and a remarkable ability to convey psychological details. These qualities are especially evident in his operas. The first opera to receive great acclaim for the composer was "Salome" based on a play by Oscar Wilde and premiered in Dresden in 1905
"Elektra" will appear in just four years.
When Richard Strauss and the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal met on the eve of the 20th century, Strauss enjoyed the fame of a famous and sought-after conductor throughout Europe. In 1903, the composer attended the premiere of the play "Elektra", adapted by Hofmannsthal for the Max Reinhardt Theatre in Berlin.
Strauss immediately realized that the drama could serve as the basis for an opera libretto and connected with the writer. The two set the beginning of an extremely fruitful collaboration that would last 20 years and would create six operas. In their joint work on "Elektra", Strauss and Hofmannsthal achieved a perfect balance between text and score, raising this symbiosis to an extremely high level. Hofmannsthal complied with the composer's notes and reworked parts of the libretto. All this happened through letters by mail, as the writer lived in Vienna and Richard Strauss – in Berlin. After three years of work, "Elektra" was completed. The first performance was on January 25, 1909 at the Royal Opera in Dresden.
"Elektra" provoked mixed reactions from the audience at the premiere with its modern musical language. From the first chords the composer puts the listener in a state of intense anticipation. Based on ancient Greek mythology and the eponymous tragedy of Sophocles from 410 BC as a libretto, the work was written by Strauss in an extremely modernist and expressionist style. The composer created a canvas for dramatic voices and a huge orchestra, but also a penetrating musical and psychological portrait, which impressed with its exceptional emotionality and expressiveness.
As musical line, orchestration and aesthetics, "Elektra" contrasts sharply with Strauss's earliest operas and his later career. "Elektra" is Strauss's most modern work and the only opera in which he extends the boundaries of tonality to the impossible. After "Elektra", he retreated to a more conservative style of composition and presented the audience with masterpieces such as "The Knight of the Rose", "Ariadne on Naxos", "The Woman Without a Shadow", "Capriccio", "Arabella".
Richard Strauss spent many years of his life perfecting his compositional style. His later works can be said to achieve a perfect combination of late German romanticism and the neoclassical impulse.
In 1919, Strauss became director of the Vienna Opera with Franz Schalk. Many composers of the late Romantic period, including Strauss, were described as "old-fashioned." At the time, Strauss and Hoffmannstal were keen to contrast the beauty of art with the sadness of the postwar period. Together with director Max Reinhardt and set designer Alfred Roller, in 1920 they founded the Salzburg Festival, which became one of the most prestigious cultural forums in Europe. Strauss then toured the United States and South America to present his music to the world. His son Franz married the daughter of a Jewish industrialist in 1924, which would later bring great trouble to the composer and his family. He resigned from his post at the Vienna Opera and left the city.
Strauss and Hofmannsthal failed to complete the opera "Arabella". The librettist died of a heart attack in 1929 as a result of his son's suicide. The composer deeply mourned his friend and finished "Arabella", which is essentially a lyrical work, by himself.
Strauss contacted the writer Stefan Zweig and began work on "The Silent Woman". Despite the opera's success, it was banned after the fourth performance because of Zweig's Jewish origins. At that time, the National Socialists came to power and began the persecution of the Jews. Strauss was forced to part with Zweig and began collaborating with Joseph Gregor, with whom he would create three operas.
Richard Strauss was never interested and never engaged in politics. Therefore, it was difficult for him to accept the post of president of the German Reichsmusikkammer (State Music Chamber) in the period 1933-35. With his intolerance of the Nazis, Strauss managed to turn Joseph Goebbels against himself. At the same time, he was tempted to compose the anthem for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This political naiveté brought only negatives, and Strauss would later use all his influence as the greatest living composer in Germany to protect his family, especially his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, from Goebbels's terror. In Vienna, where Strauss spent part of World War II, he and his family were under the protection of Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach.
Strauss composed his last two operas, "The Love of Danae" and "Capriccio", at the beginning of the war. On "Capriccio" (1941), he and conductor Clemens Kraus wrote an inspired "conversation" about the relative importance of words and music in the opera genre.
After 1908, Strauss lived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, in a villa he built with the Salome fee. Strauss loved the peace and life in the family home. He and his wife had a very busy social life, which was skilfully guided by Pauline. Despite two serious illnesses, Strauss always worked hard. Pauline was the one who paid attention to regular meals, daily walks and afternoon rest. But even she could not stop the composer from smoking, and he never got rid of cigarettes. Strauss had fun and played with his grandchildren, taught them to play the piano and told them the librettos of Wagner operas as fairy tales.
After the end of World War II and a forced stay in Switzerland, Strauss experienced a severe financial crisis. With the help of the great singer and his friend Maria Jeritza and her then-husband, he managed to recover and return home in 1949.
In response, the composer dedicated his last song to her, "Malven", whose manuscript Jeritza kept for 33 years and did not show to anyone for the rest of her life.
Richard Strauss died on September 8, 1949, a few months after his 85th birthday celebrations.
Nowadays, it would be impossible to imagine the repertoire of music institutes around the world without the works of Richard Strauss. More than 70 years after his death, the popularity of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", "Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks", "An Alpine Symphony", the symphonic poems "Don Quixote" and "A Hero’s Life", as well as numerous song cycles continue to dominate the interest of performers and audiences. Strauss's vision of the new in art made him one of the titans of composition. He remains one of the most performed classical composers of the 20th century.