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Richard Strauss

1864 - 1949

Richard Georg Strauss (11 June 1864 – 8 September 1949) was a leading German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. He is known for his operas, which include Der RosenkavalierElektraDie Frau ohne Schatten and Salome; his Lieder, especially his Four Last Songs; his tone poems, including Don JuanDeath and TransfigurationTill Eulenspiegel's Merry PranksAlso sprach ZarathustraEin HeldenlebenSymphonia Domestica, and An Alpine Symphony; and other instrumental works such as Metamorphosen and his Oboe Concerto. Strauss was also a prominent conductor in Western Europe and the Americas, enjoying quasi-celebrity status as his compositions became standards of orchestral and operatic repertoire.

The son of a brilliant horn player, Strauss came to music early in life. His first piano lessons began at the age of four, and by six he was composing. In 1881, his first symphony and string quartet, both written when Strauss was 16, were performed in Munich. He entered the University of Munich in 1882, studying philosophy, aesthetics and the history of art while continuing his music studies privately. He also benefited immensely from being able to attend the rehearsals of the Munich Court Orchestra where his father worked. By 1884 he had found his vocation and left university in order to concentrate on music. Composition came easily to him, and even at this early stage he wrote many fine works, including the vivacious Horn concerto No.1.

In 1885 he was appointed assistant conductor at Meiningen, rising to principal conductor a few months later. However, he had his sights set firmly on greater things and moved on quickly to the Munich Court Opera, gathering valuable experience of the operatic repertoire. Like Mahler, throughout his life he earned a living by conducting, using his free time to compose. He later met Mahler and, though wan' of one another, they became friends.

In 1889 Strauss began work at the Weimar Opera House and gained his first compositional success with the symphonic poem Don Juan, rapidly establishing a reputation as the most significant German composer since Wagner. The period from 1894 to 1902 was one of intense activity, during which Strauss continued his series of symphonic tone poems (works that refer to an external "programme" — often a book — and use instruments to tell a story or illustrate a theme). Among these, Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra; 1896) is one of the grandest in design: based on the text by Nietzsche, it uses huge orchestral forces to depict the evolution of the human race. Don Quixote (1897—8) is a portrayal of scenes from the classic novel by Cervantes, in which the cello represents the knight and the viola his servant Sancho Panza. Symphonia domestica (1902-3) describes in music a day in the life of Strauss's own household.


Strauss accepted the post of chief conductor at the Royal Court Opera at Berlin in 1898 and during his first season conducted 71 performances of 25 different operas. The next decade was also one of frenetic compositional activity. His third opera, Salome, from Oscar Wilde's play, caused massive controversy when performed in 1905. This sensual and erotic work was received with such enthusiasm at the first performance that Strauss had to make 38 curtain calls. Despite dealing with a biblical subject, the music is dramatic and sexual in a manner that had never before been heard, and the scandal it provoked led to huge attendances across Germany.

In 1909 Strauss produced Elektra, his first opera to a libretto by German poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The emotionally charged music and the story of vengeance and burning resentment again attracted media attention: opera houses were packed with audiences wanting to hear the "decadent" and "immoral" music. Hofmannsthal would be Strauss's regular collaborator until his death in 1929.

Strauss's next opera, Der Rosekavalier, was a shock of a different nature. Without warning Strauss renounced his reputation as a "progressive"' composer, and produced a Mozartian opera full of memorable tunes and Viennese waltzes. It is a warm, human work, received with an almost universal acclaim that has never abated. It is a measure of Strauss's prominence that special Rosenkavalier trains ran from Berlin to Dresden for the first performance. He followed the work with the delightful Ariadne auf Naxos, a subtle combination of the comic and the romantic.

Immediately after World War I, Strauss signed a five-year contract with the Vienna Opera House, then perhaps the most prestigious position in Europe. His magnificence as a conductor was incontrovertible, but he was forced to resign in 1924 due to antagonism with the management, who regarded his infamous financial extravagance as unacceptable. The rest of the interwar period was less happy. His compositions met with diminishing success and rumours of connections with the Nazis led to difficulties; the extent of his involvement with Hitler's government is still a shadowy and controversial subject.

Undoubtedly his true concern was music, but his conducting of Wagner's Parsifal in 1933, after the previous conductor had resigned in protest at the Nazi regime, lost him much respect outside Germany.

Among Strauss's late works is the conversation piece Capriccio, which discusses the relative importance in opera of words and music. He continued to compose thoughout World War II, and was stimulated by its horrors to a final outpouring of compositions. Metamorphosen (1945), for 23 strings, is an elegy for the pre-war German musical life shattered beyond recognition by the conflict. In 1945 he moved to Switzerland while being investigated by the denazification board; he returned to Berlin a free citizen three years later. He died in 1949, a year after completing the serenely beautiful Four last songs, settings of poems by Hesse and Eichendorff for soprano and orchestra.

Termed by many the last of the great Romantics, Strauss left an extraordinary catalogue of works, whose power and warmth have earned them an unassailable position in musical life today.

Key Worws

Thus Spake Zarathustra, Op 30

1. "Einleitung" 
2. "Von den Hinterweltlern"
3. "Von der großen Sehnsucht"
4. "Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften" 
5. "Das Grablied"
6. "Von der Wissenschaft" 
7. "Der Genesende"
8. "Das Tanzlied"
9. "Nachtwandlerlied"

Don Juan, Symphonic Poem Op. 20

 Ein Heldenleben, Op 40

Till Eulenspiegel, op.28 (Poema Sinfonico)

 Death and Transfiguration

Sonate Es-Dur fur Violine und Klavier, Op. 18

I. Allegro, ma non troppo
II. Improvisation Andante cantabile
III. Finale. Andante - Allegro

Horn Concerto No. 2 in E flat major

1. Allegro
2. Andante con moto
3. Allegro molto

Dance of the Seven Veils

Der Rosenkavalier Suite

Richard Strauss, by Max Liebermann, 1918

Symphonische Fantasie aus Die Frau ohne Schatten

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