Primary tabs

1864 1949

Richard Strauss

Strauss, Richard
  • 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

Born: June 11, 1864, in Munich, Bavaria
Died: September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Nationality: German
Genre: 20th century
Performed as: Conductor and pianist
During the composer's 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

  • Michael Kennedy, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma (Cambridge, 2006).
  • Bryan Gilliam, The Life of Richard Strauss. Musical Lives (Cambridge, 1999).
  • Kurt Wilhelm, Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait, trans. by Mary Whittall (Thames & Hudson, 2000).
  • Tim Ashley, Richard Strauss. 20th-century Composers. (Phaidon, 1999).
  • Gustav Mahler–Richard Strauss: Correspondence 1888-1911, ed. by Herta Blaukopf, trans. by Edward Jephcott (University of Chicago, 1996).

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

Concerto No. 1 In E Flat Major, Op. 11 look inside Concerto No. 1 In E Flat Major, Op. 11 (French Horn and Piano Reduction). By Richard Strauss (1864-1949). For horn (in F) and piano. Brass Solo. 20th Century. Difficulty: medium. Set of performance parts. Solo part and piano reduction. 24 pages. G. Schirmer #LB1888. Published by G. Schirmer (HL.50262600)

Smp_stars40 (12) ...more info

Richard Strauss: 40 Songs look inside Richard Strauss: 40 Songs (The Vocal Library). By Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Edited by Laura Ward and Richard Walters. For high voice solo and piano accompaniment (High Voice). The Vocal Library. Classical Period and 20th Century. Difficulty: difficult. Collection. Vocal melody, lyrics, piano accompaniment, introductory text and translations. 180 pages. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.747062)

Smp_stars50 (1) ...more info