Richard Strauss was born in Munich on 11 June 1864. His father, Franz Strauss, a horn soloist with the Munich Opera, was one of the most brilliant German horn players.This leading virtuoso, a regular guest at Bayreuth, was much esteemed by Hans von Bülow.Franz Strauss was also a confirmed anti-Wagnerian. In Bayreuth in 1883, he was the only musician who remained seated when the orchestra rose to pay homage to the composer who had just died.
Young Richard began studying piano at the age of 4. Showing a precocious gift for music, he set about composing when he was six before he learned another instrument, the violin. His mother took him early on to concerts and to the opera, where he discovered Weber’s Freischütz, which proved to be a real revelation for him.Beginning at age 11 he studied harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, and his first public creations were performed before he reached 17. These early compositions revealed influences by Mozart and Mendelssohn.His advanced musical studies were accompanied by a solid classical education at the University of Munich.In 1882, Richard went with his father to Bayreuth where he attended a performance of Parsifal, which enhanced his admiration for Wagner, whose protective shadow accompanied his beginnings in the world of opera.
In 1884 his reputation as a young prodigy was confirmed by the creation of his Symphony in F Minor by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Theodore Thomas, who introduced Wagner to American audiences.
Hans von Bulow played a decisive role in his career, facilitating his start as a conductor.Also at this time he became friends with poet and musician Alexandre Ritter, who introduced him to the “music of the future” represented by Liszt and Wagner.In 1885, Richard Strauss replaced Hans von Bulow as head of the Meiningen orchestra before becoming third conductor at the Munich Opera, where he had an opportunity to participate in the posthumous creation of Wagner’s The Fairies (1888).
His first great symphonic works date from this period: Don Juan (1889), Macbeth (1890) and Death and Transfiguration (1890) which made him the undisputed master of programme music.The formal daring of his symphonic poems is made possible by the astonishing musical maturity and the exceptional orchestral virtuosity that are already clearly his.Richard Strauss established himself as the finest representative of musical modernism, which earned him harsh critiques from traditionalists; from Hans von Bulow, he got the nickname “Second Richard”.In 1892, he conduced Tristan for the first time; the following year, he directed the creation of Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel.
When Richard Strauss first tackled opera with Guntram in 1894, he was a conductor acknowledged to be one of the finest of his generation, the author of symphonic works which would have been sufficient on their own to ensure his fame for posterity.
Debuting in opera
From his very precocious beginnings as a composer at the age of six until the eve of his death, Richard Strauss always composed lieder, demonstrating his passion for the voice and, uniquely, for the soprano voice.This predilection for song gave rise to some extraordinary roles:Salomé, Elektra, la Maréchale, Zerbinette, Arabella and Countess Madeleine, to name just a few.
Assistant conductor and song Meister at the Bayreuth Festival, a confident of Cosima Wagner, Richard Strauss naturally followed in the footsteps of the Master he admired above all when he began composing his first operatic work, Guntram. Success was not in the cards in 1894, and the unhappy composer decided to give up opera “forever” to devote himself solely to the symphonic poem. But a happy event was to temper this failure:Richard Strauss married soprano Pauline de Ahna, who was playing his heroine, Freihild.She remained at his side for 55 years, forming a symbiotic couple with the man who admitted to Karl Böhm: “I really needed my wife.In fact, I had a lethargic temperament, and without Pauline I would never have achieved all that.”In 1897, with the birth of their son Franz, Pauline said her goodbyes to the opera.
Richard Strauss’s life was very active all those years as he had a brilliant career as conductor.In 1898 he was appointed head of the Berlin Opera orchestra, where he conducted some sixty works a year, renewing the entire repertoire.At the same time he undertook major tours around Europe.He became an almost legendary figure in his own country.Once again his most significant creations were major symphonic poems, Till Eulenspiegel (1895), Thus Spake Zarathustra (1896), Don Quichotte (1898) and Ein Heldenleben (1899). But his desire to return to the opera world helped erase the bad memories from Munich associated with the failure of Guntram and Richard Strauss once again became involved in the operatic adventure.
Behind Feuernost, Richard Strauss’s second opera, there is an obvious itch for revenge against the Munich audience that greeted Guntram so unfavourably.The work is filled with musical allusions and citations bordering on pastiche, by which Richard Strauss again and even more forcefully affirms his allegiance to Richard Wagner.
However, this second burlesque-inspired operatic essay reveals new horizons and announces major themes.Lyricism is reaffirmed in the duos between the young lovers; the orchestration is more refined, and the paces of the waltzes prefigure those in Der Rosenkavalier.Richard Strauss was already developing the Nietzschean theme of the supremacy of the individual and, uniquely, of the artist, alone and free in the face of general mediocrity.When Berlin refused to stage his new work, the composer, deeply disappointed, swore that never again would one of his works be presented there.Feuernost premiered in Dresden with considerable success, which was followed in 1905 by a worldwide triumph with Salomé.
Richard Strauss was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play for his third opera, Salomé, created in 1905 in Dresden.This work, marked by a morbid cruelty and explosive sensuality, was met by public enthusiasm and a torrent of criticism. Performances of Salomé were prohibited in Great Britain until 1910 and withdrawn from the repertory, after just two evenings, at the Metropolitan Opera.It was one of the first operas in the genre known as “Literraturoper” that developed in the 20th century.It encompassed all the “literary operas”, i.e., those directly inspired by a literary work.The collaboration between Richard Strauss and the poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal symbolised this new aesthetic determination to give opera the dramatic effectiveness and poetic richness of librettos conceived as veritable literary works.
A legendary meeting
Richard Strauss’s meeting with Hugo von Hofmannsthal marks a key stage in the life of the composer, who attached fundamental importance to the quality of his librettos. The poetic world was already at the heart of his symphonic poems – a genre invented by Liszt.It was not until his fourth opera, Elektra (1909), that he encountered the writer who was to become, much more than a special collaborator, his true inspiration, his alter ego.“Your words bring out of me the loveliest music that I could give,” Strauss confessed to his “second self”.Their legendary collaboration, which was sometimes stormy as shown by their abundant correspondence, continued until the sudden death of the librettist, who was cruelly affected by his son’s suicide.Der Rosenkavalier(1911) remains their most famous joint work.Richard Strauss had by then reached the apex of his operatic career.It was followed by Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Die ägyptische Helena (1928), and Arabella (1933) whose completion was jeopardised by Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929.
With the death of the one he called his “Da Ponte”, the composer painfully questioned himself:“After the death of my faithful and brilliant Hofmannsthal, I was resigned to the thought that my operatic work was over.”Yet their collaboration had experienced some difficult moments:Hugo von Hofmannsthal had refused to participate in the adventure that was Intermezzo (1924), inspired by a genuine conjugal misadventure that had affected Strauss and his wife.Hofmannsthal did not want to set about writing such a prosaic bourgeois comedy and Richard Strauss had ultimately ended up doing the writing himself.Success was not in the cards: Hofmannsthal attributed the work’s failure to the weakness of a libretto with no dramatic spring to it.
The composer thought he might find another willing partner in Stefan Zweig.Unfortunately, between 1931, when their fruitful collaboration began, and 1935 the year Die schweigsame Frau was createdGermany had gone Nazi.As a Jewish writer, Zweig’s name was erased from the playbill, which led to a new conflict between the government and the composer. created under the direction of Karl Böhm, the opera was boycotted and then prohibited after three performances.Richard Strauss, who had stood up for Stefan Zweig, had to resign as chairman of the Reich’s Music Chamber.The break was permanent.What a contrast between the era that saw the twilight of “yesterday’s world” and the light, gay atmosphere of Die Schweigsame Frau.
Hope for a better world
When Adolph Hitler came to power in 1933, Richard Strauss was a veritable institution.He was a composer whose works are played worldwide, as well as one of the greatest living conductors, an opera director, an influential personality that the Nazis wanted to use in their propaganda.Hitler sent him a portrait with this dedication:“To the great composer Richard Strauss, with my sincere admiration.”But the musician never wanted to be officially associated with the regime, which he ended up opposing openly in order to defend his librettist, Stefan Zweig.Prevented by the Nazis from working with him, he had to settle for librettos written by a curator at the Vienna Library, Joseph Gregor, a scholar very far removed from poetic concerns.Together they did three works that are not among the most important in Strauss’s oeuvre: Friedenstag(1938), Daphne(1938) and Die Liebe der Danae (1952). While Capriccio (1942), for which he once again served one last time as librettist, stands as Richard Strauss’s true musical testament, Die Liebe der Danae was his last officially created work, dated 16 August 1952, i.e., three years after his death.
Richard Strauss completed the score for Die Liebe der Danae on 28 June 1940 with the desire to see it staged after the end of the war, preferably for his 80th birthday, on 11 June 1944… The tragic events affecting Germany decided otherwise.In late July 1944, Goebbels decided to close all theatres because of “total war”.Only a general rehearsal was planned, under the direction of his faithful friend Clemens Krauss, with the great bass-baritone Hans Hotter.“Perhaps we will meet again in a better world,” Richard Strauss said to the orchestra’s musicians after this first performance of Die Liebe der Danae.The official staging was to take place in 1952, on the same stage, with the same conductor, but without the composer who died on 8 September 1949 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
In April 1945, Strauss completed the score for one of his last masterpieces, Metamorphosen, subtitled “Etude for twenty-three soloist strings”.The ageing composer drew painful inspiration for this moving orchestral score from the anguish caused him by the bombing of the Munich Opera in his home town; the score features tonal and harmonic “metamorphoses" while simultaneously describing the transformation of yesterday’s world, symbolised by the Funeral March of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which Strauss explicitly cites. This nostalgic reflection on the inevitable and too often painful metamorphoses that time works on the world and on people was at the heart of Strauss’s operas; he was one of the last internationally recognised and publicly appreciated composers.
The dazzling success of works whose seductive power was never questioned earned the great composer some suspicious comments.In Dr Faustus, Thomas Mann defined him as: “a complacent revolutionary, a conciliatory avant-gardist, always certain of success”.Strauss himself explains what it is that ultimately drives him: “It is the desire to depict characters with an extreme precision that led me to bitonality.” Hence it was first of all the dramatic situation or poetic necessity that guided his formal choices.Was Richard Strauss the last of the romantics or the first of the modernists?This very ambiguity is the source of his strength and his undeniable originality.
“A type of music and even a world died with Richard Strauss,” according to André Tubeuf, one of his better biographers.A sad end for this man who, at the age of 20, received honours and, soon after, emoluments.The composer, who was a conformist and bourgeois in many respects, was for a time – the time of the symphonic poems and above all Elektra– a musical revolutionary.Then, with Der Rosenkavalierand Die Frau ohne Schatten, the former young man with a future became the champion of a lost cause:heritage.Mozart’s, mainly, and also Wagner’s.Strauss never stopped exploring the magical world of the theatre, making it more intelligible, habitable, hospitable.Hofmannsthal and Zweig were the key witnesses to that.A type of music and a world died with Strauss, and yet his work, which is well aware of its own limitations, is more alive in us than those that have come along since and who imagine they are starting something. (Richard Strauss or the Traveller and His Shadow - Actes Sud Classica 2011)