Richard Strauss

Composer Richard Strauss

Initially famous as a composer of symphonic poems (notably “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which contains the theme made famous in “2001: Space Odyssey”), he later concentrated on writing operas. Strauss is an important link between Romanticism and 20th-century modernism.

Vital Statistics
June 11, 1864, in Munich, Bavaria
September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
20th century
Performed As:
Conductor and pianist
During Lifetime:
Germany reached an acme of power and influence, only to be devastated by two world wars. Drastic changes of fashion, precipitated by the cultural reactions to the wars, pushed Strauss from the forefront toward the rear guard of what was defined as musical progress.
Biographical Outline
  • Music in the blood: Son of Franz Strauss, principal hornist for the Munich Court Orchestra, Richard receives an excellent music education. By age 20, he has written two symphonies, two concertos, and other works, all in a conventional idiom.
  • First gig, 1885: Serves as assistant conductor to the world-famous Hans von Bülow, of the Meiningen Court Orchestra. Discovers the music of Richard Wagner, which totally changes his perspective and turns him into a "progressivist."
  • Rising star 1885-96: Strauss conducts and travels extensively. Writes songs and his first five symphonic poems. The third one, Don Juan (1889), electrifies audiences at its premiere.
  • Champion 1894-1904: Strauss marries his long-time student and temperamental star of his first opera, Guntram, Pauline de Ahna. He remains devoted to and inspired by her till his death. He composes five more symphonic poems and a second opera. Strauss, Friedrich Rösch, and Hans Sommer fight for and achieve changes in copyright law to benefit composers (1901).
  • Scandalous publicity, 1905: Strauss writes an immortal and “immoral” one-act opera, Salome, based on a play by Oscar Wilde, which culminates in a striptease and orgiastic kiss of the severed head of John the Baptist. The opera is banned in several cities, including New York and Chicago, enhancing its sensational appeal.
  • Operaphile, 1909-1920: With the poet and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss writes four more operas. While the first of these, Elektra, (1909) is Expressionist and even more dissonant than Salome, Strauss surprises the avant-garde with the genial, bittersweet comedy Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and with the neoclassical opera-within-an-opera Ariadne auf Naxos (1916). Strauss becomes codirector of the newly renamed Vienna State Opera (1919-1924). In 1920 he helps to found the Salzburg Festival, as a tribute to Mozart.
  • 1925-1940: Continues to conduct and compose. The 1930s are his most prolific decade as an opera composer. In 1933, the relatively apolitical Strauss makes the worst decision of his life: to serve as president of the Reich Music Chamber, lending his prestige to cultural activities of the Nazi regime. He is removed in 1935, but the stigma of his participation and his decision to remain in Germany throughout World War II blemishes his reputation in many quarters, to this day.
  • Final years: Strauss lives to see the destruction of Germany and the Nuremburg Trials, commemorating the former in his Metamorphosen for string orchestra. Strauss composes a final, autumnal masterpiece, Four Last Songs, in 1948.
Fun Facts
  • You’re so vain: Strauss is regarded as one of the greatest orchestrators who ever lived. His major revision of Berlioz’ textbook on the subject influenced generations of future composers. He was far from modest about his abilities, once telling a singer in New York, “I can translate anything into sound. I can make you understand by music that I pick up my fork and spoon from this side of my plate and lay them down on the other side.”
  • Thank you for sharing: Symphonia Domestica (1903) describes a day in the Strauss household, with his baby crying, a fight with his wife, and a torrid love scene.
  • Card fanatic: Strauss was an expert at a three-handed German card game called Skat, winning so often at one Bayreuth Festival that one of the festival organizers had to secretly reimburse the orchestra players who had been inveigled into losing to him.
  • Kaiser Wilhelm II on Strauss and Salome: “I’m sorry, I like him otherwise, but with this he will do himself a great deal of harm.” Strauss’ reaction: “The harm it did me enabled me to build my villa in Garmisch.”
  • It's morning in space: The “Sunrise” theme from Strauss' symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zoroaster, 1896), was used in the famous opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and is now, arguably, the single most famous line of classical music ever written.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Strauss’ most beloved works are his operas, symphonic poems and songs. He was a master at storytelling in music, using techniques (many of which were learned from Wagner) that have inspired generations of movie composers.
Recommended Websites
  • Symphonic poems:
    • Some of the earlier ones are the most popular: Don Juan, Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration, 1889), Till Eulenspiegel’s Lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, 1895), and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Later works, such as Don Quixote (1898) and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life, 1899) are more involved, and are about 45 minutes long.
    • Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Zarathustra: Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan (DG, 1996).
    • Don Juan, Till, Zarathustra and Heldenleben and Ein Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) Chicago Symphony/ Vienna Philharmonic/ Bavarian Radio Symphony/ Sir Georg Solti (2 CDs, London Double Decker, 1994).
    • Ein Heldenleben and Zarathustra. Chicago Symphony/ Fritz Reiner (RCA, 2004).
    • Don Quixote : Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1999)
  • Opera:
    • Salome and Elektra epitomize the lurid decadence and violence of turn-of-the-century art, but Rosenkavalier and Ariadne are better indications of Strauss’ direction in his later years. Both his last collaboration with Hoffsmanthal, Arabella (1932), and his final opera, Capriccio (194 ) have connections to the earlier comedies.  Strauss’s operas are soprano showcases. It’s not only that women singers take the most important roles, it’s that often one or two women characters totally dominate the action – a welcome change from Wagner and Verdi.
    • Salome
    • DVD: Teresa Stratas/ Bernd Weikl/ Hans Beirer/ Astrid Varnay; Vienna Philharmonic/ Karl Böhm; a film by Götz Friedrich (1974)(DG, 2007)
    • CD: Birgit Nilsson/ Eberhard Wächter/ Gerhard Stolze; Vienna Philharmonic/ Georg Solti (Decca, 2006).
    • Elektra
    • DVD: Leonie Rysanek/ Astrid Varnay/ Catarina Ligendza/ Josef Greindl; Vienna Philharmonic/ Karl Böhm; a film by Götz Friedrich (1981) (DG, 2005).
    • CD: Birgit Nilsson/ Regina Resnik/ Marie Collier/ Tom Krause; Vienna Philharmonic/ Georg Solti (Decca, 2007).
    • Inge Borkh/ Jean Madeira/ Marianne Schech/ Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Dresden Staatskapelle/ Karl Böhm  (DG, 1994)
    • Der Rosenkavalier
    • DVD:    Gwyneth Jones/ Brigitte Fassbaender/ Manfred Jungwirth/ Lucia Popp; Munich Opera/ Carlos Kleiber; 1979 production by Otto Schenk (Philips, 2005).
    • CD: Regine Crespin/ Yvonne Minton/ Manfred Jungwirth/ Helen Donath (and a young Pavarotti); Vienna Philharmonic/ Georg Solti (London, 2001).
    • Ariadne auf Naxos
    • DVD: Gundula Janowitz/ Edita Gruberova/ Teresa Stich-Randall/ Rene Kollo; Vienna State Opera/ Karl Böhm; film of a production by Filippo Sanjust  (DG, 2008).
    • CD: Deborah Voight/ Natalie Dessay/ Anne Sofie von Otter/ Ben Heppner; Dresden Staatskapelle/ Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG, 2001)
  • Orchestral/Vocal: These magical works are concert staples.
    • Four Last Songs
    • Gundula Janowitz/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan  (DG, 1996). With Metamorphosen and Death and Transfiguration
    • Jessye Norman/ Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/ Kurt Masur (Philips, 2007). With further Strauss lieder.