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Richard Strauss

Related subjects Performers and composers

Richard Georg Strauss ( June 11, 1864 September 8, 1949) was a German composer of the late Romantic era and early modern era, particularly noted for his tone poems and operas. Strauss was also a noted conductor.

Life and works

Early life

Strauss was born on June 11, 1864, in Munich, the son of Franz Strauss, who was the principal horn player at the Court Opera in Munich. He received a thorough, but conservative, musical education from his father in his youth, writing his first music at the age of six. He continued to write music almost until his death.

During his boyhood he had the good fortune to be able to attend 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, Tannhäuser and Siegfried; the influence of Wagner's music on Strauss's style was to be profound, but at first his father forbade him to study it: it was not until the age of 16 that he was able to obtain a score of Tristan und Isolde. Indeed, in the Strauss household the music of Richard Wagner was considered inferior. Later in life, Richard Strauss said and wrote that he deeply regretted this.

In 1882 he entered Munich University, where he studied philosophy and art history, but not music. Nevertheless, he left a year later to go to Berlin, where he studied briefly before securing a post as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow, taking over from him at Munich when von Bülow resigned in 1885. His compositions around this time were quite conservative, in the style of Robert Schumann or Felix Mendelssohn, true to his father's teachings. His Horn Concerto No. 1 (1882–1883) is representative of this period and is still regularly played.

Richard Strauss married soprano Pauline de Ahna on September 10, 1894. She was famous for being bossy, ill-tempered, eccentric, and outspoken, but the marriage was happy, and she was a great source of inspiration to him. Throughout his life, from his earliest songs to the final Four Last Songs of 1948, he would prefer the soprano voice to all others. Indeed, nearly every major operatic role that Strauss wrote is for a soprano.

Tone poems

Strauss's style began to change when he met Alexander Ritter, a noted composer and violinist, and the husband of one of Richard Wagner's nieces. It was Ritter who persuaded Strauss to abandon the conservative style of his youth, and begin writing tone poems; he also introduced Strauss to the essays of Richard Wagner and the writings of Schopenhauer. Strauss went on to conduct one of Ritter's operas, and later Ritter wrote a poem based on Strauss's own Tod und Verklärung.

This newly found interest resulted in what is widely regarded as Strauss's first piece to show his mature personality, the tone poem Don Juan. When this was premiered in 1889, half of the audience cheered while the other half booed. Strauss knew he had found his own musical voice, saying "I now comfort myself with the knowledge that I am on the road I want to take, fully conscious that there never has been an artist not considered crazy by thousands of his fellow men." Strauss went on to write a series of other tone poems, including Aus Italien (1886), Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration, 1888–1889), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, 1894–95), Also sprach Zarathustra ( Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896, the opening section of which is well known today for its use in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey), Don Quixote (1897), Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life, 1897–98), Sinfonia Domestica (Domestic Symphony, 1902–03) and Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony, 1911–1915).


Around the end of the 19th century, Strauss turned his attention to opera. His first two attempts in the genre, Guntram in 1894 and Feuersnot in 1901 were considered obscene and were critical failures. However, in 1905 he produced Salome (based on the play by Oscar Wilde), and the reaction was as passionate and extreme as it had been with Don Juan. When it opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, there was such a public outcry that it was closed after just one performance. Doubtless, much of this was due to the subject matter, and negative publicity about Wilde's "immoral" behaviour. However, some of the negative reactions may have stemmed from Strauss's use of dissonance, rarely heard then at the opera house. Elsewhere the opera was highly successful and Strauss reputedly financed his house in Garmisch-Partenkirchen completely from the revenues generated by the opera.

Strauss's next opera was Elektra, which took his use of dissonance even further. It was also the first opera in which Strauss collaborated with the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The two would work together on numerous other occasions. For these later works, however, Strauss moderated his harmonic language somewhat, with the result that works such as Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1910) were great public successes. Strauss continued to produce operas at regular intervals until 1940. These included Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918), Intermezzo (1923), Die ägyptische Helena (1927), and Arabella (1932), all in collaboration with Hofmannsthal; and Die schweigsame Frau (1934), with Stefan Zweig as librettist; Friedenstag (1936) and Daphne (1937) (libretto by Joseph Gregor and Zweig); Die Liebe der Danae (1940) (with Gregor) and Capriccio (libretto by Clemens Krauss) (1941).

Strauss also made live-recording player piano music rolls for the Hupfeld system all of which survive today and can be heard.

Solo and chamber works

Strauss's solo and chamber works include early compositions for piano solo in a conservative harmonic style, many of which are lost; a rarely heard string quartet (opus 2); the famous violin sonata in Eb which he wrote in 1887; as well as a handful of late pieces. There are only six works in his entire output dating from after 1900 which are for chamber ensembles, and four are arrangements of portions of his operas. His last chamber work, an Allegretto in E for violin and piano, dates from 1940.

Solo instrument with orchestra

Much more extensive was his output of works for solo instrument or instruments with orchestra. The most famous include two horn concerti, which are still part of the standard repertoire of most horn soloists; a concerto for violin; Burleske for Piano and Orchestra; the tone poem Don Quixote, for cello, viola and orchestra; a late concerto for oboe (inspired by a request from an American soldier and oboist, John DeLancie, whom he met after the war); and the duet concertino for bassoon and clarinet, which was one of his last works (1947). Strauss admitted that the Duett Concertino had an extra-musical "plot", in which the clarinet represented a princess and the bassoon a bear; when the two dance together, the bear transforms into a prince.

Strauss and the Nazis

There is much controversy surrounding Strauss's role in Germany after the Nazi Party came to power. Some say that he was constantly apolitical, and never cooperated with the Nazis completely. Others point out that he was an official of the Third Reich. Several noted musicians disapproved of his conduct while the Nazis were in power, among them the conductor Arturo Toscanini, who famously said, "To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again."

In November 1933, without consultation with Strauss, Joseph Goebbels appointed him to the post of president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau. Strauss decided to keep his post but to remain apolitical, a decision which has been criticized as naïve, but perhaps the most sensible one considering the circumstances. While in this position he composed the Olympische Hymne for the 1936 Olympics, and also befriended some high-ranking Nazis. Evidently his intent was to protect his daughter-in-law Alice, who was Jewish, from persecution. In 1935, Strauss was forced to resign his position as Reichsmusikkammer president, after refusing to remove from the playbill for Die schweigsame Frau the name of the Jewish librettist, his friend Stefan Zweig. He had written Zweig a supportive letter, insulting to the Nazis, which was intercepted by the Gestapo. By the time he conducted the Olympische Hymne at the Berlin Olympic Stadium in 1936, he was no longer president of the Reichsmusikkammer.

His decision to produce Friedenstag in 1938, a one-act opera set in a besieged fortress during the Thirty Years' War – essentially a hymn to peace and a thinly veiled criticism of the Third Reich – during a time when an entire nation was preparing for war, has been seen as extraordinarily brave. With its contrasts between freedom and enslavement, war and peace, light and dark, this work has been considered more related to Fidelio than to any of Strauss's other recent operas. Production ceased shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939.

When his daughter-in-law Alice was placed under house arrest in Garmisch in 1938, Strauss used his connections in Berlin, for example the Berlin Intendant Heinz Tietjen, to secure her safety; in addition, there are also suggestions that he attempted to use his official position to protect other Jewish friends and colleagues. Unfortunately Strauss left no specific records or commentary regarding his feeling about Nazi anti-Semitism, so most of the reconstruction of his motivations during the period are conjectural. While most of his actions during the 1930s were midway between outright collaboration and dissidence, it was only in his music that the dissident streak was, in retrospect, more obvious, such as in the pacifist drama Friedenstag.

In 1942, Strauss moved with his family back to Vienna, where Alice and her children could be protected by Baldur von Schirach, the Gauleiter of Vienna. Unfortunately, even Strauss was unable to protect his Jewish relatives completely; in early 1944, while Strauss was away, Alice and the composer's son were abducted by the Gestapo and imprisoned for two nights. Only Strauss's personal intervention at this point was able to save them, and he was able to take the two of them back to Garmisch, where they remained, under house arrest, until the end of the war.

Strauss completed the composition of Metamorphosen, a work for 23 solo strings, in 1945. It is now generally accepted that Metamorphosen was composed, specifically, to mourn the bombing of Strauss's favorite opera house, the Hoftheater in Munich. Strauss called this "the greatest catastrophe that has ever disturbed my life." However, some scholars suggest that the original intention of the piece was to be a choral setting of Goethe's poem, Niemand wird sich selber kennen.

Final years

In 1948, Strauss wrote his last work, Vier letzte Lieder ("Four last songs") for soprano and orchestra, reportedly with Kirsten Flagstad in mind. She certainly gave the first performance and it was recorded, but the quality of the recording is poor. It is available as a historic CD release for enthusiasts. All his life he had produced lieder, but these are among his best known (alongside " Zueignung", " Cäcilie", " Morgen" and " Allerseelen"). When compared to the work of younger composers, Strauss's harmonic and melodic language was considered somewhat old-fashioned by this time. Nevertheless, the songs have always been popular with audiences and performers. Strauss himself declared in 1947, "I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer!"

Richard Strauss died on September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany at the age of 85.


Richard Strauss made a number of recordings of his music, as well as music by German and Austrian composers. Harold C. Schonberg in The Great Conductors (New York:Simon and Schuster, 1967) says that, while Strauss was a very fine conductor, he often put scant effort into his recordings.

The 1929 performances of Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra have long been considered the best of his early electrical recordings; even the original 78 rpm discs had superior sound for their time and the performances were top-notch and quite exciting at times, despite a noticeable mistake by the French horn soloist in the famous opening passage of Till Eulenspiegel. The breaks for side changes, necessitated by the 78 rpm process, are rather curious because Strauss actually repeated a few notes each time the music resumed; careful editing for LP and CD reissues resolved the repetitions as well as the obvious interruptions in the music.

Schonberg focused primarily on Strauss' recordings of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A, as well as noting that Strauss played a breakneck version of Beethoven's ninth symphony in about 45 minutes. Concerning the Beethoven seventh symphony, Schonberg wrote, "There is almost never a ritard or a change in experession or nuance. The slow movement is almost as fast as the following vivace; and the last movement, with a big cut in it, is finished in four minutes, twenty-five seconds. (It should run between seven and eight minutes.)" Schonberg also complained that the Mozart symphony had "no force, no charm, no inflection, with a metronomic rigidity."

Peter Gutmann's 1994 review for classicalnotes.com says the performances of the Beethoven fifth and seventh symphonies, as well as Mozart's last three symphonies, are actually quite good, even if they are sometimes unconventional. "The Koch CDs," Gutman wrote, "represent all of Strauss's recordings of works by other composers. (The best of his readings of his own famous tone poems and other music are collected on DGG 429 925-2, 3 CDs.) It is true, as the critics suggest, that the readings forego overt emotion, but what emerges instead is a solid sense of structure, letting the music speak convincingly for itself. It is also true that Strauss's tempos are generally swift, but this, too, contributes to the structural cohesion and in any event is fully in keeping with our modern outlook in which speed is a virtue and attention spans are defined more by MTV clips and news sound bites than by evenings at the opera and thousand page novels."

Koch Legacy has also released recordings of overtures by Gluck, Weber, Cornelius and Wagner. The preference for German and Austrian composers in Germany in the 1920s through the 1940s was typical of the German nationalism that existed after World War I. Strauss clearly capitalized on national pride for the great German-speaking composers.

One of the more interesting of Strauss' recordings was perhaps the first complete performance of his An Alpine Symphony, made in 1941 and later released by EMI, because Strauss used the full complement of percussion instruments required in this spectacular symphony. The intensity of the performance rivaled that of the digital recording Herbert von Karajan made many years later with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

There were many other recordings, including some taken from radio broadcasts and concerts, during the 1930s and early 1940s. Undoubtedly, the sheer volume of recorded performances would yield some definitive performances from a very capable and rather forward-looking conductor.

In 1944, Strauss celebrated his 80th birthday and conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in recordings of his major orchestral works, as well as the seldom-heard Schlagobers (Whipped Cream) ballet music. He actually put more feeling into these performances than his earlier recordings, which were recorded on the Magnetophon tape recording equipment (developed primarily by the Germans to record Hitler's speeches for radio broadcasts). Vanguard Records later issued the recordings on LPs. Some of these recordings have been reissued on CDs by Preiser; given their remarkable fidelity and their above average performances, these performances deserve to be heard.

Principal compositions

  • Detailed listing by opus number

Tone poems

  • Aus Italien, Op. 16 (1886)
  • Don Juan, Op. 20 (1889)
  • Macbeth, Op. 23 (1888/90)
  • Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24 (1891)
  • Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), Op. 28 (1895)
  • Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1896)
  • Don Quixote, Op. 35 (1898)
  • Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1899)
  • Symphonia Domestica (Domestic Symphony), Op. 53 (1904)
  • Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), Op. 64 (1915)

Other orchestral works

  • Romance for Clarinet and Orchestra (1879)
  • Symphony in D minor (1880)
  • Concerto in D minor for violin and orchestra, Op. 8 (1882)
  • Concerto No. 1 for horn and orchestra in E flat major, Op. 11 (1882/83)
  • Romance for violoncello and orchestra (1883)
  • Symphony in F minor, Op. 12 (1883)
  • Burleske for Piano and Orchestra (1886-1890)
  • Festive Prelude for orchestra and organ (1913)
  • Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, suite for orchestra Op. 60 (1917)
  • Film music for Der Rosenkavalier (1925)
  • Parergon for Piano left hand and Orchestra, Op. 73 (1925)
  • Panathenäenzug for Piano left hand and Orchestra, Op. 74 (1926-1927)
  • Japanese Festival Music (1940)
  • Concerto No. 2 for horn and orchestra in E flat major (1942)
  • Concerto for Oboe in D major (1945)
  • Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with string orchestra (1947)


  • Guntram, Op. 25 (1894)
  • Feuersnot, Op. 50 (1901)
  • Salome, Op. 54 (1905)
  • Elektra, Op. 58 (1909)
  • Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59 (The Knight of the Rose) (1910)
  • Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60 (1912)
  • Die Frau ohne Schatten, Op. 65 (1918)
  • Intermezzo, Op. 72 (1923)
  • Die ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helena), Op. 75 (1927)
  • Arabella, Op. 79 (1932)
  • Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman), Op. 80 (1934)
  • Friedenstag (Day of Peace) (1936)
  • Daphne, Op. 82 (1937)
  • Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83 (1940)
  • Capriccio, Op. 85 (1941)

Ballet music

  • Josephslegende (The Legend of Joseph), Op. 63 (1914)
  • Schlagobers (Whipped Cream), Op. 70 (1921/2)

Choral works

  • Zwei Gesänge, Op. 34 (1896/97) - 1. Der Abend 2. Hymne
  • Deutsche Motette, Op. 62 (1913)
  • Die Göttin im Putzzimmer (1935)
  • Männerchöre (1935)
  • An den Baum Daphne (1943)

Other works

  • Olympische Hymne for chorus and orchestra (1934)
  • Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings (1945)
  • Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) (1948)

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