Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss

(born Munich 11 June 1864; died Garmisch-Partenkirchen 8 September 1949)

Strauss was the most significant German opera composer of the first half of the twentieth century, who established his reputation at the end of the nineteenth century through a series of brilliant orchestral tone poems such as Tod und Verklärung  (Death and Transfiguration) (1888–9), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks) (1894–5), Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) (1895–6) and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) (1897–8).

Strauss's Musical Style

His music is characterised by post-Wagnerian tonality, a sure dramatic instinct, complete understanding of the voice (especially the soprano voice) and an insider’s knowledge of writing for the large forces of the Romantic orchestra. His Four Last Songs (1948), premiered in the Royal Albert Hall in 1950, remain a touchstone of the magnificence of his technique and personal style.

Strauss's Life

The son of a horn player in the Munich court orchestra, Strauss remains one of the most complex figures in musical history. Throughout his long life he was a celebrity who was subjected to media gossip and critical scandal, and was often misunderstood and misrepresented. Following the success of the orchestral tone poems and his operas Salome (with its scandalous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’), Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier (with its exquisite final trio), the critics who had once hailed Strauss now began to complain he was old-fashioned and the public began to desert him. None of his later operas achieved the level of success of these three major works, though he continued to collaborate with his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and figures such as Stefan Zweig. While in old age he was considered an irrelevant survivor of a vanished age – a Romantic composer in an era of unparalleled scientific and social change when figures such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Messiaen were at the forefront of new music – today Strauss is accepted as one of the finest of all orchestral composers the best of whose operas must be considered among the most subtly characterised since Mozart’s.

Though he stood up to the Third Reich when necessary – his daughter-in-law was Jewish and he protected her and his grandchildren – he failed to condemn publicly the regime at the time, causing him difficulties in the years immediately after the war. Only in 1948, the year before his death, was he cleared of any Nazi collaboration but the accusations affected his posthumous reputation for several decades.

Notable Operas

  • Elektra, 1906–8, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal after Sophocles
  • Der Rosenkavalier, 1909–10, libretto by Hofmannsthal
  • Ariade auf Naxos, 1914–17, libretto by Hofmannsthal
  • Arabella, 1929–32, libretto by Hofmannsthal
  • Capriccio, 1940–1, libretto by Strauss and Clemens Krauss