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Richard Strauss was the last of the great Romanticists. Straddling the turn of the 20th century, he brought the Romantic period ideals into the modern age. This lesson will discuss his life and music, including operas, tone poems, and Lieder.

The Midas Touch

Don Juan is one of the best tone poems ever composed.

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Der Rosenkavalier is one of the most beautiful operas. Morgen is one of the most beloved and often sung Lied. Any composer would be delighted to have written just one of these works. Richard Strauss composed all three, and many more besides. Every genre to which he applied his pen became pure gold.

He is the King Midas of composers.

An Auspicious Beginning

Richard Strauss was fortunate to have been born into a musical and wealthy family. He was born June 11, 1864 in Munich, Germany, to Franz and Josepha Strauss. Franz was a gifted french horn player and had a secure job with the Munich Court Opera. Josepha came from a wealthy brewery family.

Thus young Richard had a comfortable early life with an excellent music education.

A dashing, young Richard in 1888.
A painting of Strauss from 1918
Painting of Strauss 1918

Thanks to his father’s associations, Strauss met the famous conductor, Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow commissioned a chamber work from Strauss, then invited him to conduct the performance. The performance went so well von Bülow offered Strauss the position of assistant conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra. Strauss became an accomplished conductor and continued to conduct for much of his life. He held positions with the Munich Opera, Weimar Court Orchestra, the Munich Court Orchestra, the Royal Court Opera in Berlin, and the Vienna State Opera.

The Tone Poems

Strauss’ first successful foray into professional composition was the genre of tone poems. Tone poems, also called symphonic poems, are works for orchestra that tell a story or epitomize an idea. Since the music is in service of the story, they are free-form and dramatic. Strauss found this genre intriguing and pursued it. He scored a hit in 1889 with Don Juan, a tone poem about the famous philanderer. He composed six more tone poems by 1903, the most popular are Don Quixote, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenpiegel’s Merry Pranks).

The Operas

Strauss had dabbled in opera for years.

His first opera, Guntram, premiered in 1894. While it fared poorly, Strauss found success when he married the soprano, Pauline de Ahna, and they remained happily married for life.The opera Salome, premiered in Dresden in 1905, was his first critically acclaimed opera. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, and with its strip-tease ‘Dance of the Seven Veils,’ it was viewed by many as scandalous and obscene. Yet it was very popular and made Strauss a wealthy man.

Poster for 1910 production of Salome
Poster for the opera Salome

The next opera, Elektra, was Strauss’ first collaboration with Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. They would work together on five more operas over the next 20 years, all of them successful. Elektra was a harmonic high-water mark for Strauss. He pushed Romantic harmony to its extreme, adding a great deal of extended chords and dissonance. It was quite modern musically and thematically.

Strauss returned to his more conservative roots for the rest of his operas. They were all written with his playwright friend, von Hofmannsthal, and were very well-received. Der Rosenkavalier is still considered a masterpiece. Unfortunately von Hofmannsthal died during work on their next opera, Arabella, and Strauss was brokenhearted.

The Lieder

It should be no surprise that Strauss excelled at composing Lieder. He began composing them while a teenager and continued for his entire life, completing more than 200.

He even took them on the road, touring Europe and the United States, accompanying his wife on the piano while she sang.His most important songs were composed in 1948, the year before he died. Titled Vier Letzte Lieder, ‘The Last Four Songs,’ they were somber and introspective in tone. A fitting finale for a composer who had spent his life in the pursuit of beautiful melodies.

Difficult Years

The house that Salome built. The Strauss villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, built with the royalties from Salome.
Photo of the Strauss villa

Strauss’ later years were filled with difficult politics and turmoil. Like many artists and musicians of his time, he failed to understand the Third Reich. He stayed in Germany during World War II, serving as President of Germany’s Chamber of State Music until 1935 and maintaining a relationship with various Nazi officials.

Strauss received a great deal of criticism for his choices, but he was cleared of any collaboration with the Nazis and never sympathized with the Nazi regime.Strauss did not long outlive the Nazis. He died September 8, 1949 in his villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Today, more than 60 years after his death, he remains one of the most performed composers of the 20th century.

Lesson Summary

Richard Strauss was born June 11, 1864 in Munich, Germany to a musical and wealthy family. He began composing and playing the piano while a child.

Strauss was a talented conductor as well. He is most well known for three genres: tone poems, opera, and Lieder. In each of these, he pursued Romantic period expressive ideals to the greatest extent he could. Strauss died on September 8, 1949, one of the most famous and beloved composers of his day.

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