Early life and family
During his boyhood Strauss attended orchestra rehearsals of the Munich Court Orchestra, and he also received private instruction in music theory and orchestration from an assistant conductor there. In 1874 Strauss heard his first Wagner operas, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. The influence of Wagner’s music on Strauss’s style was to be profound, but at first his musically conservative father forbade him to study it. Indeed, in the Strauss household, the music of Richard Wagner was viewed with deep suspicion, and it was not until the age of 16 that Strauss was able to obtain a score of Tristan und Isolde. In later life, Richard Strauss said that he deeply regretted the conservative hostility to Wagner’s progressive works. Nevertheless, Strauss’s father undoubtedly had a crucial influence on his son’s developing taste, not least in Strauss’s abiding love for the horn.
In 1882 he entered Munich University, where he studied Philosophy and Art History, but not music. He left a year later to go to Berlin, where he studied briefly before securing a post as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow, who had been enormously impressed by the young composer’s Serenade for wind instruments, composed when he was only 16 years of age. Strauss learned the art of conducting by observing Bülow in rehearsal. Bülow was very fond of the young man and decided that Strauss should be his successor as conductor of the Meiningen orchestra when Bülow resigned in 1885. Strauss’s compositions at this time were indebted to the style ofRobert Schumann or Felix Mendelssohn, true to his father’s teachings. His remarkably mature Horn Concerto No. 1, Op. 11, is representative of this period and is a staple of modern horn repertoire.
The Strausses had one son, Franz, in 1897. Franz married Alice von Grab, a Jewish woman, in a Catholic ceremony in 1924. Franz and Alice had two sons, Richard and Christian.
Solo and chamber works
Some of Strauss’s first compositions were solo and chamber works. These pieces include: early compositions for piano solo in a conservative harmonic style, many of which are lost; a string quartet (opus 2); a cello sonata; a piano quartet; Violin Sonata in E flat (1888); as well as a handful of late pieces.
After 1890 Strauss composed very infrequently for chamber groups, his energies being almost completely absorbed with large-scale orchestral works and operas. Four of his chamber pieces are actually arrangements of portions of his operas, including the Daphne-Etude for solo violin, and the string Sextetwhich is the overture to his final opera Capriccio. His last independent chamber work, an Allegretto in E for violin and piano, dates from 1940.
Tone poems and other orchestral works
The new influences from Ritter resulted in what is widely regarded as Strauss’s first piece to show his mature personality, the tone poem Don Juan (1888), which displays a new kind of virtuosity in its bravura orchestral manner. Strauss went on to write a series of increasingly ambitious tone poems: Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung, 1889), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, 1895),Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra, 1896), Don Quixote (1897), Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life, 1898), Sinfonia Domestica(Domestic Symphony, 1903) and An Alpine Symphony (Eine Alpensinfonie, 1911–1915). One commentator has observed of these works that “no orchestra could exist without his tone poems, written to celebrate the glories of the post-Wagnerian symphony orchestra.”
Solo instrument with orchestra
Strauss’s output of works for solo instrument or instruments with orchestra was fairly extensive. The most famous include two concertos for horn, which are still part of the standard repertoire of most horn soloists; a Violin Concerto in D minor; the Burleske for piano and orchestra; the tone poem Don Quixote for cello, viola and orchestra; the well-known late Oboe Concerto in D major; and the Duet-Concertino for bassoon, clarinet and orchestra, which was one of his last works (1947).
In 1905, Strauss produced Salome, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, which produced a passionate reaction from audiences. The premiere was a major success, with the artists taking more than 38 curtain calls. Many later performances of the opera were also successful, not only with the general public but also with Strauss’s peers: Maurice Ravel said that Salome was “stupendous”, and Mahler described it as “a live volcano, a subterranean fire”. Strauss reputedly financed his house in Garmisch-Partenkirchen completely from the revenues generated by the opera.
Strauss’s next opera was Elektra (1909), which took his use of dissonance even further, in particular with the Elektra chord. Elektra was also the first opera in which Strauss collaborated with the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The two subsequently worked together on numerous occasions. For his later works with Hofmannsthal, Strauss moderated his harmonic language somewhat, which resulted in operas such as Der Rosenkavalier (1911) having great public success. Strauss continued to produce operas at regular intervals until 1942. With Hofmannsthal he created Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918), Die ägyptische Helena (1927), and Arabella (1932). For Intermezzo (1923) Strauss provided his own libretto. Die schweigsame Frau (1934), was composed with Stefan Zweig as librettist; Friedenstag (1935–6) andDaphne (1937) both had a libretto by Joseph Gregor and Stefan Zweig; and Die Liebe der Danae (1940) was with Joseph Gregor. Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio (1942), had a libretto by Clemens Krauss, although the genesis for it came from Stefan Zweig and Joseph Gregor.
All his life Strauss produced Lieder. The Four Last Songs are among his best known, along with “Zueignung”, “Cäcilie“, “Morgen!“, “Allerseelen”, and others. In 1948, Strauss wrote his last work, the masterful and haunting Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra. He reportedly composed them with Kirsten Flagstad in mind, and she gave the first performance, which was recorded. Strauss’s songs have always been popular with audiences and performers, and are generally considered – along with many of his other compositions – to be masterpieces of the first rank.