Personalities | Richard Strauss | Late Romantic | Classical

(Re-khart Shtrous) 1864–1949
German composer

During an amazingly productive career, Richard Strauss wrote 15 operas, five ballets, several orchestral masterpieces, well over 200 songs and many other works. As a conductor he contributed in countless practical ways to the musical life of Europe and the US in the flourishing period from the last two decades of the nineteenth century to the start of the 1930s.

Although his life and works span two eras in classical music, the composer’s roots lay in the great German Romantic tradition and to the end – despite increasing criticism – he refused to abandon them. His apparent indifference to technical advances in music, however, has to be measured against his astounding feats of orchestration and harmonic invention. His political opportunism, too, came to an abrupt end in 1935 when he was asked to resign his official posts after refusing to break off contact with his Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig. At the end of his life in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when musical Modernism began to pass through its most hermetic phase, he continued to write lavish and exquisitely refined music that expressed a heroic ideal to which he thought the modern age should aspire.

Early Years

Strauss was born in Munich on 11 June 1864. His father, Franz Strauss, was one of Germany’s leading horn players and his mother, Franz’s second wife Josephine Pschorr, belonged to a family of brewers. Josephine’s wealth ensured a sunny childhood for Richard and also gave her husband the independence to do and to say what he liked, including expressing a negative opinion of Wagner.

Strauss began composing when he was six years old. One of his first compositions was a polka, written for his sister, notated and orchestrated by his father. Like Mozart’s father, Franz Strauss was an all-round musician who taught his son everything he could and encouraged him in every way possible. Richard’s early works are varied, including songs, orchestral marches, a String Quartet in A (1880), a Sonata in B minor for piano (1881) and two symphonies, all influenced by classical models and frequently by later composers such as Mendelssohn and Brahms.

Towards Maturity

Strauss’s early Piano Quartet in C minor (1884) is influenced by Brahms. But it is also his first work to demonstrate the paradoxical mixture of skilful economy and provocative lavishness that became the hallmark of his later style. It was first performed in Meiningen where, at the age of only 21, he had been appointed assistant to Bülow, the greatest conductor of the time. Also in Meiningen, Strauss met Alexander Ritter, a violinist in Bülow’s orchestra, to whom he later gave the complete credit for putting him on the right road as a composer. Discussing ideas and music with his new friend was ‘like a whirlwind’, which converted him for life to the philosophies expounded by Schopenhauer and the composers his father hated most: Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner.

The Height of Fame


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