Born in Munich, June 11, 1864;
died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, September 8, 1949
Simply stated, Richard Strauss (no relation to Johann, the “Waltz King”) was one of the most awesome, controversial and discussed figures in the history of music. Of all the great composers, none had a longer career. He wrote his first piece, a song, when he was six; nearly eighty years later, he was still composing. His first published work appeared when he was just sixteen, and his earliest work still in the active repertory, the Serenade for Winds, Op. 7 appeared a year later. When he was born (1864), Brahms and Wagner were in the midst of their careers; when he died (1949), electronic music was in its infancy and twelve-tone music was already old.
Strauss’s father Franz (also a composer but of minor importance) was Germany’s most famous horn player of his time, and young Richard lost no time in writing supremely difficult horn passages for his father to play. He dedicated his First Horn Concerto, written at the age of nineteen, to his father. This became, after the four Mozart concertos, the most popular concerto in the repertory for this instrument. Father Franz was a musical reactionary. He hated modern music and did his best to steer his son in the direction of his own ultra-conservative taste. Up until Richard’s 24th year (1888), he had been composing in a style highly reminiscent of Brahms and Schumann. But with his symphonic poem Don Juan, he broke out of this mold in a blaze of startlingly original creativity evident in his expressive harmony, in the incomparable verve of his themes, and especially in the phenomenally brilliant and virtuosic use of the orchestra.
New Paths for the Orchestra
Strauss then proceeded to take the orchestra down paths it had never gone before, surely his greatest legacy to the history of music. There was virtually nothing he could not depict in sound: youthful impetuosity and impassioned love in Don Juan, braying sheep and an aerial excursion on a windmill in Don Quixote, bickering music critics and a terrifying battle scene in Ein Heldenleben, the splashing of baby in his bath and stormy arguments between husband and wife in Symphonia domestica, a glistening waterfall and ferocious thunderstorm in An Alpine Symphony, a man’s struggle with death in Death and Transfiguration, sunrise over the mountaintop in Also sprach Zarathustra and much more. Strauss even once boasted he could portray a knife and fork in tone if he had to. Instruments were combined in unprecedented variety and pushed to the extremes of their range, with the utmost virtuosity and stamina demanded from every player. He employed all sorts of unusual instruments for special effects: wind machine, thunder machine, cowbells, heckelphone (a bass oboe), basset horn (the alto member of the clarinet family, obsolete for nearly a century), Wagner tubas … the list goes on and on.
Manipulating the Media
As a result of all this, Strauss became the most talked about living composer in the last years of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth. Every new work occasioned instant press coverage, and Strauss knew how to manipulate the press as well as he knew how to manipulate notes. Humility was not one of his strong suits. He once boasted: “I don't see why I shouldn’t write a symphony about myself. I find myself just as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.” The conceit! The sheer arrogance of the man! But it got him great media exposure. “No adulation that we now lavish on conductors is anything like the frenzy of a Strauss concert in those days,” writes one contemporary critic. “Performances of the latest Strauss tone poem combined the suspense of the World Series, the Dionysian energy of a Rolling Stones tour and the intellectual stir of a new Tom Wolfe book. What subject would he compose about this time? Knights in armor? Dancing philosophers? Diapers? How many harried-looking souls would it take to play it? What new ways had the tone-wizard discovered to bring a tear to the eye and a tingle to the spine? What new outrages would he perpetuate?”
In both quantity and variety, Strauss’s catalogue is formidable: fifteen operas, nearly a dozen symphonic poems, some two hundred songs, and much else. But like most creative artists, Strauss could not sustain throughout his long career a consistently high level of inspiration. After all the tone poems and his four most popular operas - the super-sensuous Salome (1905), the gut-wrenching Elektra (1909), the heartwarming Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and the hugely entertaining Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), which also spawned the music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme - the steady stream of masterpieces diminished to a trickle.
An Astonishing Comeback
Few great composers subsequently endured such an extended drought of inspiration as Strauss did: for over two decades, from approximately 1920 to 1940, he produced almost nothing of lasting value. Then, near the end of his life, he made an astonishing comeback. In a series of works that included the mellow Second Horn Concerto (1943) and the crystalline Oboe Concerto (1946), Strauss harked back to an earlier age, one that breathed a Mozartian elegance, finesse and a relaxed, smiling temperament. This last great flowering also produced one of his most sublime masterpieces, the grief-stricken meditation for 23 strings, Metamorphosen, composed in 1945 as Allied bombs brought Germany to its knees and cultural emblems across the country, especially the great opera houses, were brought to ruin.
In the fading twilight of old age, with the composer well past eighty, Strauss could look back on a long life of exultation and turmoil, joys and heartbreaks, successes and failures. Now resigned to the inevitable sunset of his life, he wrote a few final, divinely beautiful songs with orchestral accompaniment. In one of them, finished a year before he died, he set the words “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (Is this perhaps death?) to a theme from his symphonic poem Death and Transfiguration, written over half a century ago. It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary career.
Pianist Glenn Gould, one of Canada’s greatest musical icons, was almost fanatically devoted to the music of Richard Strauss, even though Strauss wrote nothing of great importance for his instrument. Yet Gould could say of Strauss that “I believe, quite simply, that Strauss was the greatest musical figure who has lived in this [the twentieth] century. … The great thing about the music of Richard Strauss is that … it presents to us an example of the man who makes richer his own time by not being of it; who speaks for all generations by being of none.”