Richard Strauss11 jun 1864 (München) - 8 sep 1949 (Garmisch-Partenkirchen)
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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 particularly for his operas, Lieder, and tone poems. Strauss, along with Gustav Mahler, represents the extraordinary late flowering of German Romanticism after Richard Wagner, in which pioneering subtleties of orchestration are combined with an advanced harmonic style. Strauss's music had a profound influence on the development of music in the twentieth century. Strauss was also a prominent conductor.
Life and works
Strauss was born on 11 June 1864, in Munich, the son of Franz Strauss, who was the principal horn player at the Court Opera in Munich. In his youth, he received a thorough musical education from his father. He wrote his first music at the age of six, and continued to write music almost until his death.
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 Richard's abiding love for the French horn, whose warm sonority always had a central role in his orchestral style.
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 learnt 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 of Robert Schumann or Felix Mendelssohn, true to his father's teachings. His remarkably mature first Horn Concerto is representative of this period and is still regularly played.
Richard Strauss married soprano Pauline de Ahna on 10 September 1894. She was famous for being irascible, garrulous, eccentric and outspoken, but the marriage, to all appearances, was essentially 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 preferred the soprano voice to all others and all his operas contain important soprano roles.
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 Arthur Schopenhauer. Strauss went on to conduct one of Ritter's operas, and later Ritter wrote a poem based on Strauss's own Death and Transfiguration (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 (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 (1888–1889), Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, 1894–95), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra, 1896), Don Quixote (1897), Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life, 1897–98), Sinfonia Domestica (Domestic Symphony, 1902–03) 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."
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 both controversial works. Guntram was the first significant critical failure of Strauss's career and Feuersnot was considered obscene by some critics. However, in 1905 he produced Salome (based on the play by Oscar Wilde), and the reaction was passionate and extreme. The première was a major success, with the artists taking more than thirty-eight curtain calls. 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, especially the scene in which Salome kisses the lips of the decapitated head of John the Baptist . However, some of the negative reactions stemmed from Strauss's unprecedented use of dissonance for dramatic purposes. Nevertheless, the opera was a sensational success, not only with the general public but also with Strauss's peers: 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, which took his use of dissonance even further (see also: Elektra chord). 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 (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), Die ägyptische Helena (1927), and Arabella (1932), all in collaboration with Hofmannsthal; and Intermezzo (1923), for which Strauss provided his own libretto, Die schweigsame Frau (1934), with Stefan Zweig as librettist; Friedenstag (1935–6) 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.
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); a cello sonata; a piano quartet; the famous violin sonata in E flat which he wrote in 1887; as well as a handful of late pieces. After 1890 he 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 arrangements of portions of his operas, including the Daphne-Etude for solo violin and the string Sextet which is the overture to his final opera: Capriccio. His last independent chamber work, an Allegretto in E for violin and piano, dates from 1940.
Solo instrument with orchestra
Much more extensive was Strauss's 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 oboe concerto (inspired by a request from an American soldier and oboist, John de Lancie, whom he met after the war); and the Duet-Concertino for bassoon, clarinet and orchestra, which was one of his last works (1947). Strauss admitted that the Duet-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.
In 1948, Strauss wrote his last work, 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. All his life Strauss had produced Lieder, and the Four Last Songs are among his best known, along with "Zueignung", "Cäcilie", "Morgen!" and "Allerseelen". 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.
Death and legacy
Richard Strauss died at the age of 85 on 8 September 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Georg Solti, who had arranged Strauss's 85th birthday celebration, also directed an orchestra during Strauss's burial. During the singing of the famous trio from Rosenkavalier, Solti described how "each singer broke down in tears and dropped out of the ensemble, but they recovered themselves and we all ended together." Strauss's wife Paulina was inconsolable. She died six months later.
Although Strauss himself declared in 1947 with characteristic self-deprecation, "I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer" there are commentators who would disagree with his analysis. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould described Strauss in 1962 as "the greatest musical figure who has lived in this century." There are certainly few composers in the twentieth century who can compare with Strauss in terms of orchestral imagination, and no composer since Wagner has made a more significant contribution to the history of opera. Strauss's late works, modelled quite self-consciously on "the divine Mozart at the end of a life full of thankfulness", are perhaps the most remarkable works by any octogenarian composer.
Strauss in Nazi Germany
In 1933, when Richard Strauss was 68, Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power. Strauss never joined the Nazi party, and studiously avoided Nazi forms of greeting. For reasons of expediency, however, he was initially drawn into cooperating with the early Nazi regime in the hope that Hitler — an ardent Wagnerian and music lover who had admired Strauss's work since viewing Salome in 1907 — would promote German art and culture. Strauss's need to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and Jewish grandchildren also motivated his behavior.
In 1933, Strauss wrote in his private notebook:
Meanwhile, far from being an admirer of Strauss's work, Joseph Goebbels maintained expedient cordiality with Strauss only for a period. Goebbels wrote in his diary:
Nevertheless, because of Strauss's international eminence, in November 1933, he was appointed to the post of president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau, and Strauss in turn dedicated the song Das Bächlein ("The Little Brook") to Goebbels. Strauss had decided to accept the position but to remain apolitical, a decision which eventually became untenable. He attempted to ignore Nazi bans on performances of works by Debussy, Mahler, and Mendelssohn, and continued to work on a comic opera, Die schweigsame Frau, with his Jewish friend and librettist Stefan Zweig. When the opera was premiered in Dresden in 1935, Strauss insisted that Zweig's name appear on the theatrical billing, much to the ire of the Nazi regime. Hitler and Goebbels avoided attending the opera, and it was halted after three performances and subsequently banned by the Third Reich. On 17 June 1935, Strauss wrote a letter to Stefan Zweig, in which he stated:
This letter to Zweig was intercepted by the Gestapo and sent to Hitler. Strauss was subsequently dismissed from his post as Reichsmusikkammer president. The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics nevertheless used Strauss's Olympische Hymne, which he had composed in 1934. Strauss's seeming relationship with the Nazis in the 1930s attracted criticism from some noted musicians, including Arturo Toscanini, who had said, "To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again," when Strauss had accepted the presidency of the Reichsmusikkammer in 1933. Much of Strauss's motivation in his conduct during the Third Reich was, however, to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice and his Jewish grandchildren from persecution. Both of his grandsons were bullied at school, but Strauss used his considerable influence to prevent the boys or their mother from being sent to concentration camps.
In 1938, when the entire nation was preparing for war, Strauss created Friedenstag (Peace Day), a one-act opera set in a besieged fortress during the Thirty Years' War. The work is essentially a hymn to peace and a thinly veiled criticism of the Third Reich. With its contrasts between freedom and enslavement, war and peace, light and dark, this work has a close affinity with Beethoven's Fidelio. Productions of the opera ceased shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939.
When his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice was placed under house arrest in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1938, Strauss used his connections in Berlin, including the Berlin intendant Heinz Tietjen, to secure her safety. He drove to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in order to argue, albeit unsuccessfully, for the release of his son Franz's Jewish mother-in-law, Marie von Grab. Strauss also wrote several letters to the SS pleading for the release of her children who were also held in camps; his letters were ignored.
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. Strauss was unable, however, to protect his Jewish relatives completely; in early 1944, while Strauss was away, Alice and his son Franz 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. The title comes from a profoundly self-examining poem by Goethe which Strauss had considered setting as a choral work. Generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of the string repertoire, Metamorphosen contains Strauss's most sustained outpouring of tragic emotion. When it was published the work provoked controversy from one hostile early critic, Dutchman Matthijs Vermeulen, because Strauss had written the words "In Memoriam" over a quotation therein from the slow movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Because Beethoven had originally dedicated that funeral march to Napoleon, Vermeulen inferred that Strauss had written his work as a threnody for Hitler. In actual fact, it was the destruction of German culture — including the bombing of Strauss's favorite opera house, the Hoftheater in Munich — which Strauss was mourning. At the end of war, Strauss wrote in his private diary:
In April 1945, Strauss was apprehended by American soldiers at his Garmisch estate. As he descended the staircase he announced to Lieutenant Milton Weiss of the US Army, "I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salome." Lt. Weiss, who, as it happened, was also a musician, nodded in recognition. An 'Off Limits' sign was subsequently placed on the lawn to protect Strauss; and the American oboist, John de Lancie, asked Strauss to compose an oboe concerto. Initially dismissive of the idea, Strauss completed this late masterpiece, his Oboe Concerto, before the end of the year.
Other orchestral works
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's 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 expression 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, Carl Maria von Weber, Peter 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's 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.
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. Some find more feeling in these performances than in Strauss's earlier recordings, which were recorded on the Magnetophon tape recording equipment. Vanguard Records later issued the recordings on LPs. Some of these recordings have been reissued on CD by Preiser and are of remarkable fidelity.
Richard Strauss was the composer of the music on the first compact disc to be commercially released: Deutsche Grammophon's 1983 release of their 1980 recording of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Alpine Symphony.
Depictions in other media
The English playwright Ronald Harwood wrote Collaboration (2008), a play largely sympathetic of Strauss. Themes in this play interweave with Harwood's more ambiguous treatment of Wilhelm Furtwängler in Taking Sides (1995), and many of the characters and events are mentioned or figure in both plays.
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An Alpine Symphony
Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin
Quartet for Strings No. 23 in F major
Orion String Quartet
Canon in D
Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
Columbia Chamber Orchestra
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor
The Pirates of Penzance
New Promenade Orchestra