top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Richard Strauss: A Life of Drama

Part One

This music was written by a man who was 81. It was written in depressing, shattering circumstances at the end of the second world war, but there's none of that in the music. This is music written by a man who could express anything in music he put his mind to, which is probably not surprising. After all, he'd been composing since the age of six, when he wrote this Christmas Song. [listen]

Loved for his rich, voluptuous opera scores, his vital contributions to the song repertoire and his gripping, virtuosic orchestral works, this composer is also vilified for his connection with the Nazis and his alleged inability to, stylistically, change with the times. He's a fascinating man and his name his Richard Strauss.

Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich on 11 June 1864. His parents were Franz and Josephine Strauss. Franz Strauss was one of the most important musicians in Germany, a superb and famous horn player whom the conductor Hans von Bülow described as "the Joachim of the horn". (Joseph Joachim was one of the most famous violinists in Europe.) He was the principal horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra at the time of Richard's birth. Josephine Pschorr Strauss was the daughter of a wealthy Munich brewer, and Richard was the first of the couple's two children.

Franz Strauss was a hugely important influence on his son. The elder man was noted for his conservative musical tastes (he disliked both Wagner and Brahms), his brilliant musical skills, and his stubbornness. He drilled his son in an earlier musical world, that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and despite the general view that Richard Strauss was in some sense Wagner's successor, the two men had very different backgrounds.

Franz Strauss, the composer's father

Making music at home was central to the young Strauss's early life, and the family lived in the heart of Munich, one of the great musical capitals at the time. His father's musical connections were impeccable and - unlike Wagner - Strauss was a precocious musical talent. The song mentioned above, composed when he was about six, is one of the earliest-known of his works. Another is this polka, originally written as a piano piece when he was six and orchestrated shortly afterwards. [listen]

Strauss began piano lessons when he was four, and started the violin when he was eight. When he was 11 (after already composing for five years) he started formal composition lessons with Friedrich Meyer, who gave the boy a solid foundation in the basics. All these experiences awakened and developed the young Strauss's musical talent and his early compositions include a large number of songs, piano pieces and chamber works.

His earliest attempts at orchestral writing stemmed from his experience of playing in an amateur orchestra conducted by his father. Strauss joined the ensemble as a violinist in 1882, by which time he'd already written a symphony, a number of overtures and other smaller orchestral pieces. Experiencing orchestral sound and technique from the inside, as it were, helped him develop a keen sense of orchestral colour and effective orchestration.

The first symphony, in D minor [listen], was written in 1880 and is clearly influenced by Haydn and Beethoven. It was joined by a second in F minor four years later which shows much more of the influence of Brahms These are substantial works - 30 and 40 minutes respectively - but they're almost never played today, and while interesting and well-crafted, they do look pale and unoriginal when compared to Strauss's mature works. Brahms himself made some scathing comments about the second symphony when he conducted it shortly after it was written. But it's a fascinating example of the 20 year old composer's achievements nonetheless. [listen]

Richard Strauss, aged 22

From this early period, though, four of Strauss's works have remained in the regular repertoire. Two are concertos: the violin concerto (completed in 1882) [listen] and the first horn concerto (completed the following year).

The horn concerto is a masterful work, originally a gift from the 19-year old composer to his virtuoso father. Father and son played the work together in their Munich home, with Richard playing the orchestral part on the piano, but due to his asthma, Franz Strauss refused to play the work in public. The public premiere was given - again with piano accompaniment provided by the composer - by one of Franz Strauss's former pupils, Bruno Hoyer. Another horn player, Gustav Leinhos, played the solo part in the first performance with orchestra, given in 1886. [listen]

Father and Son: Richard and Franz Strauss

In late 1882 Strauss began studies at Munich University. Despite only staying there for a few months this experience opened him up to many of the intellectual preoccupations of his later life: literature (especially Shakespeare) and philosophy (especially Schopenhauer) in particular, as well as art history, aesthetics and of course music. His works started to be performed beyond Munich and the beginnings of his wider fame can be dated from 1883.

In late 1883 Strauss relocated to Berlin and immediately immersed himself in the artistic and social life of the city. It was in Berlin that he made contact with Hans von Bülow, the pianist and conductor who was closely associated with Wagner (and who was the first husband of Wagner's second wife, Cosima). Bülow's superb piano playing captivated Strauss, but it was his conducting which influenced him even more. As Strauss's own conducting career developed, he closely modelled himself on Bülow both in terms of technique and in the way he ran rehearsals.

Hans von Bülow

The other two works from this early period which have stood the test of time are both scored for 13 wind instruments: the Serenade of 1881 [listen] and the Suite of 1884. The Suite - commissioned by Bülow - is an extraordinary leap in confidence and sheer panache on the part of the 20 year old Strauss. It looks forward to his mature works in a way many of the early works don't. It was also the work which marked Strauss's debut as a conductor, an occupation which was soon to become central to his life. The Suite was included in a matinee concert conducted by Bülow in Munich in November 1884. Bülow informed Strauss at the last minute that he wanted the composer to conduct the performance without a rehearsal. [listen]

Strauss's music continued to be heard ever more widely. The F minor symphony example, was premiered in the United States and soon after was played in Cologne. But his first major career move came in 1885 when he was appointed Bülow's assistant conductor in Meiningen. This coincided with Strauss's increasing independence from the influence of his father and his increasing immersion in the music of Wagner. Wagner's music was to be a major component of Strauss's development and he had already been exposed to many of Wagner's operas in performance. He heard Die Walküre and Siegfried in Munich in 1878, and by the end of the following year he'd seen the entire Ring as well as Tristan and Die Meistersinger. Perhaps most important of all was his visit to Bayreuth in 1882 to hear the first production of Parsifal, in which his father was a member of the orchestra.

In Meiningen Strauss worked as Bülow's assistant and was learning from the best, something he happily acknowledged in later life. Again, their connection was only very short - Bülow resigned only two months after Strauss began working there - but this led to Strauss taking full control of the Meiningen orchestra as a result of his mentor's departure. And he was still only 21.

Hans von Bülow conducting the Meiningen Court Orchestra (1882)

He only stayed another four months after Bülow left, but during this time he made his debut appearance as a piano soloist in a Mozart concerto, as well as preparing the orchestra for the premiere of Brahms's fourth symphony, a performance which Brahms himself conducted.

Strauss's complete conversion to Wagner's aesthetic - the "music of the future" - occurred in Meiningen. The unusual thing was that this happened at the same time as he developed what he called his "Brahms adoration", at a time when in the German-speaking musical world one was usually a Wagnerian or a Brahmsian. The fact that Strauss was both perhaps reflects the fact that his famous father was notably neither.

The other major influence on the young Strauss, often overlooked, was Franz Liszt. It was Liszt who pioneered the musical form known as the symphonic poem, or tone poem. This revolutionary way of approaching orchestral music allowed a freedom of form and expression previously reserved mostly for keyboard music. Strauss took Liszt's ideas to heart and declared, "New ideas must seek new forms" as his slogan, something he believed to be the central principle of Liszt's orchestral works.

In 1886 Strauss took up a new post, as third conductor at the Munich Court Opera. Just before taking up this position he travelled to Italy and used this journey to put into practice his new theories inspired by Liszt. The result was his first tone poem, Aus Italien (From Italy), and this was no mere trifle. Aus Italien is a work in four continuous sections lasting some 40 minutes and it marks the beginning of the young Strauss's preoccupation with the tone poem as a form of vital - and above all new - musical expression. So established are the Strauss tone poems in the repertoire that we tend forget what early works they were. He was only 22 when he wrote Aus Italien... [listen]

Once he started working at the Munich Court Opera, Strauss encountered more tensions, both personal and professional, with his superiors. It was an excellent training ground for a young conductor on the rise but he resented the repertoire he was made to conduct, which he regarded as beneath him. Working in an opera company and getting a reputation as a first rate opera conductor naturally led to thoughts of writing an opera of his own, and it was from 1887 that his thoughts on music and philosophy led to the initial ideas for what would become Guntram, his first opera.

Before that came to fruition, though, he entered an astounding period of creative energy. It seems that discovering the tone poem gave him the vehicle he needed for his musical ideas at this stage of his life. In 1888 and 1889 he wrote three more: Macbeth [listen], Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration [listen], all major works and all still part of the repertoire today. They are uncompromising masterpieces, and Don Juan in particular is regarded still as one of the most challenging works of its kind for even the best orchestras. [listen]

In addition to these three tone poems, 1888 and 89 saw Strauss write a work on a much more intimate scale which also has retained a place in the repertoire, the violin sonata. It's one of Strauss's few pieces of chamber music but while there are a few hints of the influence of Brahms it's clear that even in his early 20s Strauss was intent on expressing his ideas his own way. [listen]


And over and above these works, Strauss was also writing songs, which form a thread running through his entire career. From the childhood settings written at the age of six to those dating from when he was in his 80s, Strauss's songs are really the third stream of his life's work (the others being the tone poems and the operas).

In the late 1880s he produced numerous sets of songs, including the op 15, 17, 19, 21 and 22 sets, some 26 songs in all. I can't help but feel that the dramatic nature of the poems Strauss chose to set at this early stage of his career became a sort of training ground for his later operas. This is one of the op 19 songs. [listen]

This time in Munich saw Strauss developing his reputation as a conductor and he was increasingly invited to conduct in other cities. By late 1887 he had had his first engagements outside Munich, conducting in Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig, and it was during these travels that he met Gustav Mahler for the first time. In 1887 he also met the soprano Pauline de Anha, who was studying at the Munich Music School. Soon afterwards she started private lessons with Strauss.

In 1889 Strauss moved to Weimar to take up a new post as Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and Pauline followed him there.

Before starting in Weimar, though, Strauss made another vital connection, this time with the cult of Wagner in Bayreuth. He worked there as a musical assistant, learning the Wagner repertoire from the inside, and he developed a close friendship with Cosima Wagner. This provided a personal link with two of Strauss's greatest influences, with Cosima being not only the widow of Wagner (who had died in 1883) but also the daughter of Franz Liszt (who had died in 1886).

Once in Weimar Strauss's reputation developed rapidly. Don Juan and other major works had their premieres there, establishing his reputation as a new voice in German music, and his conducting was highly praised. He made Weimar a centre of Wagner performance, with one of his major achievements being an uncut production of Tristan und Isolde in 1892.

Meanwhile Strauss had been hard at work on his own first opera, Guntram. All this work - conducting, composing, travelling - led to a serious illness in 1892. He had to cancel an engagement to conduct at Bayreuth, but the resulting break from work provided him with time to reflect, to read and to rest. He immersed himself in philosophy and aesthetics, forming new ideas for future works. Guntram was also nearing completion.

Strauss returned to his duties in Weimar in late 1893 and Guntram was set into rehearsals with the premiere planned for May 1894. In March he was formally informed that he had been appointed Kapellmeister back in Munich, and it may have been this news which led him to propose to Pauline de Anha. Pauline sang the role of Freihild in the premiere of Guntram in Weimar, but the opera received very mixed reviews. When performed back in Munich, the reaction was universally negative and future performances were cancelled. [listen]

Pauline de Anha (c. 1900)

Strauss and Pauline married in September 1894. Before taking up his new duties in Munich, Strauss finally conducted at Bayreuth, leading performances of Tannhäuser with Pauline in the role of Elisabeth. In Munich he was responsible for all the Wagner productions, while his guest conducting engagements grew ever more prestigious and wide-ranging. In addition to conducting in Russia for the first time, he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1894-95 season.

But the four years as Kapellmeister in Munich are famous for providing the world with four of Strauss's greatest achievements as a composer. In another incredible burst of creative energy he completed four of his greatest tone poems by 1898, four works which are now central to the canon of late Romantic orchestral music: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra), Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life).

These four works are so overwhelming in their power and originality that I can't possibly deal adequately with them here. As the article on Strauss in Grove says: "These post-Guntram tone poems reveal a composer capable of making poetic content and formal design coalesce with great brilliance".

These are works of huge impact and unprecedented scope. Also sprach Zarathustra - which is more than half an hour long - has been severely damaged by its adoption into the world of pop culture. Stanley Kubrick's use of the opening of the work in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey has meant that the rest of the work is almost totally unknown, and usually completely bewildering to modern audiences on the rare occasions it's performed complete. [listen]

Don Quixote - at about three quarters of an hour - straddles the world of symphony, concerto and tone poem, with a prominent solo part for cello and a major part for the orchestra's principal viola. Like Zarathustra, it is incredibly demanding on the entire orchestra. [listen] The same could be said, perhaps even more so, of Ein Heldenleben, which also lasts about three quarters of an hour. [listen] These tone poems require first rate playing and conducting to bring them off, and they show Strauss capable of maintaining a dramatic thread over large musical spans.

The shortest of these four masterpieces, Till Eulenspiegel, is no less demanding on the players and like all of Strauss's greatest works requires a virtuoso orchestra to bring it off. Yet the dramatic impact of the piece on an audience is perhaps even greater because of its relatively compact proportions; it only takes about 15 minutes. [listen]

Richard Strauss's second period in Munich ended in 1898, the year in which this massive quartet of tone poems was completed.

Because he lived well into the 20th century, Strauss was able to conduct many recordings of his own works. There exists a 1929 recording of Till Eulenspiegel he conducted with the Berlin Staatskapelle which you might be able to get your hands on (I couldn't find it online to link here, I'm afraid). Despite the relatively poor recording quality it's an amazing document.

Part Two

In Part One we looked at Strauss's life up to 1898. As well as developing into one of the most important voices of modernist composition, he also became one of Europe's leading conductors. His influences as a composer were Wagner, Liszt and Brahms, while his conducting mentor was Hans von Bülow. By 1898 he had created his first opera and his earliest songs, but most impressive of all, nearly all his great orchestral tone poems were written by this date as well.

Strauss's work as a composer covered many genres but his music in retrospect excels in three particular areas: orchestral music, songs and opera. In 1898, the year he finally left Munich and took up the post of conductor at the Berlin Court Opera, Strauss seems to have largely drawn a line under his work as a composer of large-scale orchestral tone poems. From this date his focus was very much redirected towards opera. Before 1898 he had written only one opera, Guntram, which had had a mixed reception in Weimar and a poor reception in Munich.

Richard Strauss conducting (c. 1900)

The one constant, though, was song. Strauss wrote songs throughout his life and the opus 37, 39, 41, 43, 47, 48 and 49 sets - a total of some 40 songs - were written in the period 1898 to 1900. Strauss's songs to the end of the 19th century show a conscious transition from the Romantic German lied to the more searching, more psychological, more serious nature of modernist song-writing. This is reflected in the lieder of his contemporaries, including Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Max Reger, Arnold Schoenberg and - later still - Erich Korngold.

This is one of Strauss' Op 41 songs. [listen]

After the hostile reception meted out to his first opera in 1894 and 95, Strauss was determined to write another which would prove his critics wrong; his second opera was written in 1900 and 1901. The German title, Feuersnot, is difficult to translate into easy English; one possible rendering would be "The Shortage of Fire". (Another would be "Fire Famine".)

The story is derived from an old Flemish saga and in Feuersnot - a one-act work - the story retains many of the erotic - if not overtly sexual - features of the original legend. A virgin humiliates a sorcerer who retaliates by quenching all the festival bonfires in the town. He will only re-light the fires if given "the body of a virgin in heat". The virgin is persuaded to submit to the sorcerer and during her first sexual experience (depicted in the orchestra and not shown onstage) the fires in the town are re-ignited.

Cover of the piano score of Feuersnot (1901)

Feuersnot had three productions in close succession. The premiere took place in Dresden in 1901, while Gustav Mahler prepared and conducted the Vienna premiere in January 1902. Berlin first saw the work later the same year. The overwhelming influence in the score - and the libretto - is Wagner, especially the Wagner of Die Meistersinger. Some have interpreted the story as a parody of Wagner's ideal of "redemption through love". The sexual nature of the story shocked audiences but the music was generally recognised as modern and new. [listen]

In the end though Feuersnot has failed to retain a place in the repertoire and performances nowadays are rare. As a large-scale one act opera (it takes about 90 minutes) it not only invokes Wagner's plan in Das Rheingold but with the benefit of hindsight is clearly a precursor of Strauss's next two operas, which are two of his greatest achievements of any sort.

In the first few years of the new century Strauss was incredibly busy. He formed a society to further the interests of German composers. He took on conducting posts and committee positions, toured as a conductor and edited writings for publication. And all this was in addition to his duties at the Berlin Opera.

Works such as Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration were already part of the German orchestral repertory, and all-Strauss concerts started to be given in major centres like Vienna and London. It was while on a trip to England in 1902 that he began another purely orchestral work, the Symphonia domestica, or "Domestic Symphony". Though titled a symphony, the work straddles the worlds of both symphony and tone poem, and it portrays in music the life of a family (ostensibly his own) through a 24-hour period. The crying child, the parents making love, a domestic argument...all these things and much more are clearly discernible in this massively complex score.

Richard Strauss (1902)

First performed in Chicago under Strauss's baton in 1904, the Symphonia domestica was savagely criticised as being tasteless and crass, but it was an instant hit with the general public. The morning argument between the two parents is portrayed in a wild fugue at the start of the finale. [listen]

While touring and performing his new orchestral work, and giving recitals with his wife, who was a leading soprano, Strauss was at work on a new opera, and it would be with this work that he finally fulfilled the expectation which had been piling up for years: that Germany's leading opera conductor should somehow write Germany's most important new operas. Guntram and Feuersnot had failed to live up to these expectations. His third opera would exceed them and make Strauss the leading opera composer of his time.

Here is a new voice, a new sound. Here is a new courage. The coy sexiness and gauche smuttiness of Feuersnot here in the new opera is replaced by raw decadence and depravity. When Strauss discovered Oscar Wilde's French play inspired by the daughter of Herodias in the gospel of St Matthew it unleashed one of the most overwhelming creations for the operatic stage: Salome. [listen]

Salome was a scandalous, outrageous success. Within a year of its premiere in Dresden in 1905 it had been performed is six other German cities, as well as in Graz, Prague and Milan. It was soon famous in the USA and throughout Europe. Opera had never depicted anything like it: the debauched lust of Herod in demanding Salome dance for him in return for the head of John the Baptist, and the greater debauchery of Salome, fascinated with the lifeless head, singing to it insanely and then kissing it, only to be killed by Herod's soldiers...and of course the dance of the seven veils.

Salome playbill (1905)

Like Mahler, Strauss was so busy doing other things - conducting, mainly - that he could by this stage of his career only really focus on composing during his summer breaks. Salome was so successful that its royalties eventually paid for a new villa in Garmisch, and it became his composing base from this time onwards.

Like Feuersnot, Salome is a large-scale, one act opera, but there the similarities end. Salome shocked - and stills shocks - in a way no other opera can. The genius of the work is of course in the music, because Strauss's score is so powerful - and so incredibly classy - that it never comes close to being a gaudy titillation. The biggest problems was: what next?

In 1905, the year of the premiere of Salome, Strauss saw a production of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's play Elektra and he knew he'd found the basis for his next opera. In Salome, Strauss set a translation of Wilde's play rather than having it "worked up" into a traditional opera libretto. In Elektra he did the same, largely setting Hofmannsthal's text as it stood. The world of antiquity is evoked again - this time it was Classical Greece rather than New Testament Jerusalem - and again the structure is a large-scale opera in a single act. Its story is drenched with blood and riven with madness and lust for revenge. Perhaps the absence of an overtly sexual element has meant that Elektra has not had the popular success of Salome - and this was certainly the case in Strauss's lifetime as well - but there is no doubting that Elektra is a masterpiece of the first order in which Strauss went as far as he dared into the world of German expressionism. [listen]

Elektra playbill (1909)

And then the composer shocked everyone.

Contrary to popular mythology, Strauss's next opera - the massive, gorgeous, three-act Der Rosenkavalier - was not a step backwards from the abyss of modernism. He and Hofmannsthal were working on a new collaboration even before Elektra was performed. Yes, Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier of the Rose) is very different from Salome and Elektra, and yes, it's not a gory, blood-soaked tragedy expressed in dark, angry tones. But because it's different doesn't mean it's a step backwards. Der Rosenkavalier sets up deliberate anachronisms - an 18th century story coloured by 19th century waltzes, for example - and the agony of living without the person you love in the midst of beauty is a different sort of sadness, albeit one expressed with heart-breaking beauty rather than shattering brutality.

Der Rosenkavalier was Strauss's greatest critical success in his lifetime, and it was premiered in Dresden in 1911. [listen]

Richard Strauss (1911)

Within days of the Dresden premiere of Rosenkavalier it was performed in other German cities; within three months it had been performed in Vienna and in 1913 it was staged in London and New York. And as with the aftermath of Elektra, Strauss was keen to press on to his next opera as soon as possible.

He had found in Hugo von Hofmannsthal a librettist he could work with and he pressed his colleague for ideas for a new work to follow Rosenkavalier. Strauss wanted to write another tragedy and the sketches Hofmannsthal delivered on that front eventually became Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Richard and Pauline Strauss with their son Franz (1910)

But Hofmannsthal was still obsessing over the world of the 18th century which had inspired Rosenkavalier, and this resulted in their next collaboration, Ariadne auf Naxos. In its original form (written in 1911-12), Ariadne was an experimental, hybrid work, combining spoken drama with opera. In this form it was not a complete success when premiered in Stuttgart in 1912. Four years later they replaced the spoken component with a sung prologue and in this form - first performed in Vienna - the work was a much greater success. [listen]

Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1893)

Between the two versions of Ariadne, Strauss wrote his last tone poem. Like its predecessor, the Symphonia domestica, An Alpine Symphony is called a symphony, but in terms of structure it inhabits many worlds. Its narrative is that of an eleven hour period, from just before dawn to nightfall, spent climbing a mountain in the Alps.

An Alpine Symphony is huge, both in terms of its duration (it lasts nearly an hour), and in terms of its performing forces (Strauss calls for an orchestra of about 125 players).

The Alpine Symphony was premiered in Berlin in 1915 with Strauss conducting. Despite claims from some quarters that it was "cinema music", the composer was proud of what he achieved. It is a worthy climax - and end - to his remarkable sequence of tone poems. [listen]

A climax and an end of sorts came with Strauss's next opera as well. With the revisions to Ariadne auf Naxos taking up far more time than either Strauss or Hofmannsthal anticipated, their next project was somewhat delayed. Of course World War I intervened and Germany - along with the rest of Europe - suffered as a result of this unprecedentedly barbaric conflict.

The delayed project was Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow), an opera which Grove perceptibly points out was conceived in peacetime, composed during World War I and first performed after the Treaty of Versailles. After the war there was a definite sense in Europe that the world had changed forever, and Strauss called the piece his "last Romantic opera".

Die Frau ohne Schatten is a large, three-act work containing a little over three hours of music. It uses an enormous orchestra and makes extreme demands on many of the singers. Its story is described as a fairy tale on the theme of love blessed through the birth of children, but the libretto is far from simple. It's drawn from many sources and is highly symbolic and complex. By the time it was first performed - in Vienna in 1919 - the public was tired of large, massive works and the initial reactions were decidedly negative. Even though Die Frau ohne Schatten is now regarded as part of the regular operatic repertoire (in Europe, at least), performances of it are not common, given the demands it makes. [listen]

Richard Strauss in London (1914)

The premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna marked the end of an era for Strauss and the start of a new one as co-director of the Vienna State Opera. Strauss was 55 and was only just beginning the third phase of his composing career. Over the next three decades he would write many more operas, and much else besides.

Part Three

In the first part of this article we explored Strauss's early life as a young prodigy and dynamic voice of the new German Romanticism after Wagner. In that period of his life, up to 1898, he composed nearly all of his large-scale tone poems which are still central to the orchestral repertoire.

In Part Two we looked at Strauss's life from 1898 to 1919, in which he became established as one of Europe's leading conductors and a composer of international reputation. This period saw his main creative energies turned towards the writing of opera, not to mention his last two tone poems, the Symphonia domestica and An Alpine Symphony.

Now we cover the last three decades of Strauss's life. In 1919, after the devastation of the first world war, Strauss relocated to Vienna and was appointed co-director (with Franz Schalk) of the Vienna State Opera (the new name for what had been called the Vienna Court Opera). Though Strauss's last large-scale Romantic opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) was premiered there to mark his appointment, Vienna was tired of the sort of opera they might have otherwise flocked to before the war. Die Frau ohne Schatten - now regarded as one of the composer's greatest achievements - had an unenthusiastic reception.

Franz Schalk

In 1919 Strauss turned 55 and, despite the intrigues and tensions which seem to bedevil any director of the Vienna State Opera, he enjoyed Viennese musical life. There were fears he would abuse his power in Vienna and use the company to promote his own works, but this was certainly not the case. Strauss reinvigorated the repertoire with new productions of Mozart and conducted new works by many different composers. His love of Mozart had been a lifelong passion and along with his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (and others) helped to establish the Salzburg Summer Festival in 1920, an event which has always had a close association with Mozart's music in his birthplace.

It was around this time Strauss began composing a ballet called Schlagobers (Whipped Cream). This was designed to help re-establish the Vienna State Opera's resident ballet company, which had collapsed during the war, but at its premiere in 1924 the world was not in the mood for a light-hearted confection in the style of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. At a time of hyperinflation, the production cost a staggering four billion Kronen (one billion more than a new production of Wagner's Rienzi around the same time) and it was a flop. [listen]

A scene from the American Ballet Theatre's production of Schlagobers

The frothy confection of Schlagobers led many to accuse Strauss of being out of touch with the real world, a claim which dogs him still, especially in relation to his later works. For his part Strauss said that Schlagobers was designed to create joy at a time of difficulty, and in his next operatic project he showed that he wanted very much to embody a new type of opera which was better-suited to the times.

He decided that the lessons of Die Frau ohne Schatten should be learned. His next opera would be more intimate, more contemporary, and he decided on a domestic comedy. Hofmannsthal was horrified at this and would have no part in such a work, which is why for his next opera, Intermezzo, Strauss wrote the libretto himself.

In 1924 Strauss had a number of happy experiences. His son Franz was married to the daughter of a wealthy Viennese industrialist; less than a decade later her Jewish ancestry would caused grave problems for the family. 1924 was also the year Strauss turned 60 and there were celebrations across Germany to mark this event. Back at the Vienna State Opera, though, his co-director Schalk resented Strauss's popularity and the fact that Strauss seemed to bask in the limelight across Europe while Schalk had to run the Opera on a day-to-day basis. Tensions erupted and Strauss resigned from the Opera, which in turn forced the premiere of Intermezzo to be shifted from Vienna to Dresden.

Intermezzo is based on incidents from Strauss's own life; the two major characters - Robert and Christine - are firmly based on the composer and his wife. Pauline Strauss did not know of the opera's subject matter before she attended the premiere and she was by all reports not impressed. The character based on her, though, is given some ravishing music. [listen]

Despite leaving his post at the Vienna State Opera, Strauss continued to live and work in the Austrian capital, and he had a genuine affection for the place. In the late 1920s he composed two left-hand piano works for pianist Paul Wittgenstein [who was the subject of an earlier post in this blog, here], but his major focus after Intermezzo was his next opera, Die ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen). Strauss renewed his working relationship with Hofmannsthal to create this work, which was premiered in Dresden in 1928, and it was in fact the last work they completed together.

The Egyptian Helen is a work strangely ignored by opera companies. It has had few stagings since the 1928 premiere and wasn't recorded until 1979. Hofmannsthal's libretto draws on Homer, Herodotus and Euripides and is one of Strauss's richest scores, full of ensembles and, in the character of Menelaus, the composer's most fully-developed tenor role. [listen]

Despite the high hopes both composer and librettist held for The Egyptian Helen (both felt it was their favourite of all their collaborations), the work failed to gain a place in the regular repertory. For their next project, composer and librettist decided to lighten the mood considerably, and Arabella veers more towards the world of operetta. It remains one of Strauss's most popular works from the 1930s but it was born out of tragedy.

While working on the libretto, Hofmannsthal suffered a fatal stroke. The text for Act 1 was finished but Acts 2 and 3, while complete in essential details, had not been revised or finalised. Strauss was shattered by Hofmannsthal's death, so much so that he was unable to attend the funeral. He wrote a letter of condolence to his widow: "This genius, this great poet, this sensitive collaborator, this kind friend, this unique talent! No musician ever found such a helper and supporter. No one will ever replace him for me or the world of music!"

Strauss managed to complete Arabella but work progressed slowly as he had to undertake the text revisions of Acts 2 and 3 himself. The score was completed in late 1932 and premiered in 1933. 1933 was also the year the National Socialists came to power and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Right from the start, Strauss was affected by the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis; his choice of conductor for the premiere of Arabella - Fritz Busch (who had conducted the premiere of The Egyptian Helen) - was forced out of his post in Dresden. Busch wasn't Jewish but he had close contacts and friendships with many prominent Jewish people, and he'd openly expressed his dislike for the new regime. He was mercilessly humiliated by the Nazis and eventually left Germany to work in England and South America. The Arabella premiere was eventually conducted by Clemens Krauss on 1 July, 1933. [listen]

Fritz Busch and Richard Strauss (1928)

Strauss's relationship with the Nazis is still a controversial issue, one all too easily obscured by uncritical omission or simplistic accusations (to paraphrase Grove). The facts are that Strauss was privately critical of the National Socialists in the late 1920s as they became more prominent, but the Weimar Government they eventually replaced was seen in the late 20s and early 30s as largely inept. Within a year of the Nazis coming to power, Strauss was appointed head of the Reichsmusikkammer, the official organisation for overseeing musical activity in Germany. This was years before the horrors of Kristallnacht in 1938 and - again to quote Grove - "in is not difficult to conceive how some, including Strauss, could have thought the Reichsmusikkammer might improve musical life". The one positive achievement Strauss made during this time was to secure full copyright protection for German composers, something he'd not been able to achieve during the Weimar period.

But while he was no Nazi sympathiser or anti-Semite, neither was Strauss a political hero during the National Socialist period. In 1933 - after decades of ill-feeling between himself and Bayreuth - he unwisely offered to replace Arturo Toscanini when the Italian maestro withdrew from that year's Bayreuth Festival. This played into the Nazis' hands, despite Strauss's desire simply to mend personal bridges. And despite his best efforts to remain aloof from politics (he refused to call Hitler "der Führer", for example), politics always seems to catch up with him.

As far as his next opera was concerned, Strauss's focus in the early 30s was on setting a libretto by the Austrian novelist and biographer Stefan Zweig. Strauss regarded Zweig as a worthy successor to Hofmannsthal and his text for Strauss was called Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman). The problem was - despite Strauss's best efforts to ignore it - Zweig was Jewish. A letter from Strauss to Zweig which was critical of the Nazis was intercepted, forcing Strauss to resign his post at the Reichsmusikkammer less than two years after his appointment. The Silent Woman was first performed in Dresden under the baton of Karl Böhm in 1935 but promptly banned after four performances. Zweig's name was absent from all publicity. [listen]

Stefan Zweig

Strauss trod a tightrope with the Nazis. After the banning of The Silent Woman he tried to stay in the good graces of the government, composing among other things the Olympic Hymn for the Berlin Olympics in 1936 [listen]. But he clearly felt such connections were important for the safety of his Jewish daughter-in-law and his grandsons. In fact, their safety became an obsession after the scandal surrounding the banned opera.

Strauss reluctantly conceded that he had to find a new librettist to replace Zweig, and Zweig himself suggested the Viennese theatre historian Joseph Gregor. Gregor was at best an amateur when it came to this sort of work but Strauss had few options. It did mean that Strauss called all the shots in their working relationship and in all Gregor wrote three libretti for the composer.

Joseph Gregor

The first was a one-act opera, Friedenstag (Day of Peace). The pacifist subject had been suggested by Zweig but was brought to fruition by Gregor. It was set at the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648, and while the opera was completed in 1936 it wasn't premiered until 1938, by which time Germany was itself preparing for war. Performances were stopped once the war started. [listen]

After finishing Friedenstag in 1936 Strauss began writing a cello concerto, his first concerto since the horn concerto of 1883, but it was never finished. Strauss's notes on the score indicate that it was to be a concerto about struggle, the artistic spirit (represented by the cello) struggling against the forces of pseudo-heroism (the orchestra).

Friedenstag - which is in one act - was originally intended to be half of a double bill with Strauss's next opera, Daphne. The libretto for Daphne was Gregor's only completely original text for Strauss and the opera was written in 1936-37. The two operas never really found their place as a double bill; Daphne was really too large for such a coupling and eventually became one of Strauss's best-known late works, while Friedenstag fell into obscurity.

Daphne was premiered in Dresden in late 1938. Subtitled "A Bucolic Tragedy in One Act" it's based on classical Greek sources, and with this work Strauss felt he had written as much tragedy as he could. [listen]

Richard Strauss at Garmisch (1938)

Strauss seemed desperate, as Germany hurtled towards war, to keep writing operas. After completing Daphne he urged Gregor to work up an idea for a more cheerful opera which Hofmannsthal had sketched but not developed. This led to Die Liebe der Danae (The Love of Danae), which occupied Strauss intermittently from 1937 to 1940. Remembering the problems which attended Die Frau ohne Schatten after the first world war, Strauss refused to grant permission for the new work to be performed until two years after the end of the war...whenever that might be.

During the war, though, he relented and in 1942 gave permission for Clemens Krauss to conduct the work. Krauss undertook to do so at the 1944 Salzburg Festival, to mark Strauss's 80th birthday. The season never took place, though, as the plot to assassinate Hitler was uncovered in July, 1944, less than a month before the scheduled premiere. All theatres in the Reich were ordered to close.

However, in deference to Strauss, a single dress rehearsal was permitted, so that he and an invited audience could hear the work. It was a deeply moving experience for all, the famous occasion on which Strauss walked to the edge of the pit and stood motionless during the third act interlude, taking in the music and the poignancy of the moment. [listen]

Die Liebe der Danae wasn't given a public performance until 1952, three years after Strauss's death, and despite its considerable musical wonders has rarely been performed. It makes enormous demands on the singers and is extremely complex in its staging requirements. But the fact remains that this is one of the most unjustly-ignored works there is.

Personal tensions were high while Strauss was composing Die Liebe der Danae, as well. Strauss's Jewish daughter-in-law was placed under house arrest, and her safety (and that of her children) was ensured only when Strauss himself personally intervened with the Berlin Intendant, Heinz Tietjen.

Between completing Die Liebe der Danae and its single dress rehearsal, Strauss managed to compose his final opera, Capriccio. This occupied him in 1940-41 and was premiered in Munich in October 1942. The libretto for Capriccio had a tortured genesis, originating in an idea from Stefan Zweig in the 1930s. Joseph Gregor worked at the piece under Strauss's direction but was eventually removed from the project by the impatient composer. Strauss himself, in collaboration with the conductor Clemens Krauss, finished the libretto of what came to be subtitled "A Conversation Piece for Music". It was originally conceived as a single act lasting nearly two and half hours, but the tradition of inserting an interval (at the moment the Countess orders chocolate) began in Hamburg in 1957, a practice usually observed today.

Capriccio is a delight, a light-hearted treatment of serious theatrical issues which might boil down to the question, "Which is more important, the music or the words?" The role of the Countess is the last of a glorious line of soprano roles Strauss bequeathed to the world in his operas, going all the way back to Salome nearly four decades before. [listen]

When Capriccio was premiered, the composer maintained that his life's work was complete, and that "whatever notes I scribble down now will have no bearing on musical history". Thankfully he was wrong. Later that same year - 1942 - he wrote his second horn concerto in barely a month. The manuscript is inscribed "to the memory of my father" and the work has remained a vital and treasured part of the horn repertoire ever since. [listen]

The final years of the war saw Strauss withdraw from the world more and more. The humiliation he often received from the Nazis, especially in relation to Jewish members of his family, alternated with moments of fame, especially when he turned 80 in 1944. But the destruction of Goethe's house in Weimar, and of the opera houses in Dresden, Munich and Vienna - all places associated with his career - left him in total despair.

The Strauss villa in Garmisch

In 1945 Strauss wrote one his most remarkable works in response to this destruction, the Metamorphosen, or "metamorphoses", for 23 solo strings. It was completed on 12 April 1945, only a few weeks before the war in Europe came to an end. This heart-breaking elegy to a world forever lost lasts about half an hour and can only really be appreciated when heard in full. [listen]

The Allied forces arrived in Garmisch in late April, 1945, and those officers who knew who Strauss was placed his villa off limits. One of these officers was an oboist, John de Lancie, whose meeting with Strauss led to the creation of the beautiful oboe concerto to which I provided a link at the start of this article. De Lancie was principal oboist in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1954 to 1977, and father of the American actor of the same name.

John de Lancie Snr

With Strauss's royalties frozen after the war, the elderly composer and his wife moved to Switzerland in October 1945. His health deteriorated, but despite this he managed one final foreign tour, a three-week visit to London in October 1947 when he was 83. During this he heard many performances of his works, including tone poems, orchestral pieces, extracts from the operas and a complete performance of Elektra, all of which conspired to raise his spirits considerably.

After he returned to Switzerland he wrote the Duett-Concertino for clarinet, bassoon and strings [listen] and worked on a chamber opera which he never finished. Apart from one song for voice and piano (Malven), his very last works, composed in 1948, were four songs for voice and orchestra. Now grouped together and called Four Last Songs, these ravishing masterpieces remain among Strauss's best-loved creations. [listen]

In December 1948 he underwent bladder surgery and spent many weeks in hospital recovering. In May 1949 he returned to Garmisch and on 10 June he conducted in public for the last time, directing the end of Act 2 of Der Rosenkavalier in Munich. On 15 August he suffered a heart attack, and he died of kidney failure on 8 September. He was 85. Strauss's wife Pauline died eight months later.

Richard Strauss's long and productive life, full of glorious achievements and glorious contradictions, gave the world some of the greatest music for the stage and for the concert hall ever written. His music can overwhelm, but surely there are times when it's good to be overwhelmed; just listen to the Four Last Songs.

Liebermann: Richard Strauss (1918)

This article is based on a series of three Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in June, 2014.

537 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page