Personalities | Richard Strauss | Turn of the Century | Opera

1864–1949, German

Often regarded as the best composer never to have achieved greatness, Strauss succeeded Wagner and Johannes Brahms (1833–97) as the most important living German composer. At his most impressive, Strauss commands complete control over the orchestra and possesses striking harmonic inventiveness.

Childhood and Family

Strauss was born in Munich on 11 June 1864. His father, Franz, was an outstanding horn player, a member of the Munich court orchestra and much admired by the conductor Hans von Bülow. Strauss was a precocious child: he began piano lessons aged four, composed his first music aged six and took up the violin aged eight. By the time he was 13 years old, he was playing in the back desks of his father’s semi-professional orchestra and regularly attended rehearsals for the Munich court orchestra. In spite of his father’s attempts to ‘protect’ his son, Strauss had already heard Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845) aged 10. Lohengrin (1850) Siegfried (1876) and Tristan und Isolde (1865) soon followed. Interestingly, however, Strauss betrayed no sign of Wagner’s influence at the time. His father was his greatest musical influence and Strauss’s music follows established classical patterns, with the figures Schumann and Brahms looming particularly large.

Finding a Voice

In 1885, Bülow took Strauss on as assistant conductor in Meiningen, where the young composer met Alexander Ritter, a first violinist in the orchestra. Ritter filled Strauss with enthusiasm for Wagner and Franz Liszt (1811–86), and their capacity to take music into the future. The result was a sea change in Strauss’s outlook, first heard in the tone-poem Macbeth (1887–88). From this point onwards, Strauss began to find his true voice and the acclaim that greeted Don Juan in 1889 signalled the arrival of a significant artist. Ritter had challenged Strauss to complete an opera along the same lines as Wagner – including writing his own libretto.

First Operatic Steps

The premiere of Guntram in 1894 was a disaster; it won over neither the critics nor the public. For all his success with the dramatic music of his tone-poems, it was not until the premiere of Salome in 1905 that Strauss gained a firm hold on opera. Oscar Wilde’s (1854–1900) play had attracted fury and outrage in England, but Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation was triumphantly staged in Berlin. Strauss swiftly got to work and, inspired by the charged eroticism and the powerful psychological conflicts of the text, created a sensation. The relative shortness of Salome enabled Strauss to stay close to the kind of writing he had developed in his tone-poems. For his next opera he again chose a short play as his basis, this time by the great Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal.


Hofmannsthal had written to Strauss in 1900 suggesting a scenario for a ballet, which had been rejected. Strauss, though, did not forget their correspondence and they began an extraordinarily productive relationship with Elektra. The premiere of Elektra in 1909 was again a great success and the pair moved on...

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