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Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949)

In the same way that Bach marked both the pinnacle and the end of the Baroque Era, Richard Strauss was the last of the great Romantics. Like his contemporary Gustav Mahler he both followed and greatly extended the type of musical expression founded by composers such as Richard Wagner where highly charged music was performed by enormous orchestras. He was very much a celebrity at the peak of his career as both composer and conductor and, though he faded from the limelight as younger composers explored new territories, he remained an inspiration to a new generation of musicians.

Richard Strauss He was born in Munich in 1864, and like many great composers was clearly gifted from a very early age. His father Franz Strauss was one of the foremost Horn players of the day, and Richard's talents were also recognised and encouraged by none other than Hans von Bulow (the first husband of Liszt's daughter Cosima, later to marry Wagner). Inspired initially by Berlioz and Brahms his first compositions were more classical in nature, before he moved in the direction of the more uninhibited romanticism of Liszt and Wagner. By his early twenties Richard had composed a considerable amount of music, but it was with his first "Tone Poem" Don Juan in 1889 that his career was to take an upward turn. Having written several tone poems to major acclaim, Strauss turned first to writing Operas, and then to conducting, his longest lasting post being with the Berlin Philharmonic for 12 years. During this time his compositional output declined to near zero, but then in later life a last spurt of creativity resulted in a number of mature works seeming in part to return to a more classical form.

Richard Strauss - the man:

Compared to Wagner whose private life had many scandals Strauss's family life was quite normal, even boring. He was dominated by his wife (a singer) who would only give him a small allowance from the great wealth that was to accrue from his productions. Nevertheless, some of his works were to cause controversy such as the notorious opera "Salome" named after Herod's daughter who performs the Dance of the Seven Veils, requests the decapitation of John the Baptist and is aroused by his head! Strauss participated in many heated debates with his critics, but as with some of todays celebrities such scandals seemed only to increase his legendary status.

Richard Strauss At times Strauss seemed to be more motivated by greed and fame than by his art, and his ego led to much rivalry with his critics and other composers. "Ein Heldenleben" (A Hero's Life) is an example of his arrogance in that he made it clear that he was the hero of this work. The tone poem quotes from several of his works and uses musical humour to depict his critics. A further example of his dark side was his willingness to stay in German during WWII and opportunistically taking up a post vacated by a Jewish conductor who had been removed by the Nazis. Nevertheless he was later to redeem himself by working with the Jewish Librettist Stefan Zweig on his opera "The Silent Woman". This greatly displeased the Nazis who then removed Strauss from his conducting post and simply tollerated his remaining in Germany during the war.

Richard Strauss - the music:

Richard Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra CD cover At various times during his long life Strauss's composing style went through a number of changes, touching upon both classicism and modernism. Nevertheless it is with his firmly romantic work that we most associate him. At mfiles we don't believe that Strauss ever wrote directly for the silver screen, but without exaggeration his music has had a profound influence on film music. Firstly he is famous for writing "Programmatic" music, that is music that tells a story rather than being abstract in nature. Although other forms of music may be inspired by stories, or relate tales such as with opera this is frequently in a stylised way. The free expression afforded by the Late Romantic movement allowed for a greater emotional involvement in the unfolding story, and Strauss's Tone Poems were frequently divided into sections depicting particular events. This style of music is therefore ideally suited to a role accompanying moving pictures.

2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack CD cover Secondly his compositional style was adopted by the early film composers such as Alfred Newman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. You could say that the rich tapestries woven by Korngold for many of his "Main Title" overtures, though shorter in duration, were modelled on the early tone poems of Strauss such as "Don Juan" and "Till Eulenspiegel". Korngold and others who followed him defined a language for film music that has had a lasting influence on film music ever since, and John Williams in particular based his style on music from this late romantic era. Thirdly, Strauss is responsible for one of the most recognisable film themes ever. The opening Sunrise section of his symphonic Tone Poem Also Sprach Zarathustra was used as the main theme of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since then it has been used on television for the Apollo Moon Missions and other inspirational endeavours, and formed the basis for a few rock cover versions.

Major works by Richard Strauss include the following:

  • Don Juan - his first widely successful Tone Poem (a free format work inspired by an idea, story or person) this is a quintessential swashbuckling tale of a dashing hero and his romantic entanglements
  • Till Eulenspiegel - this musical portrait starts with a lovely anti-climax and is full of humourous touches
  • Also Sprach Zarathustra - based on Nietzsche's philosophical book but much more rewarding, the opening providing the main theme for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The work is split into a number of sections, including "Of Science" a fugue which builds up to a tremendous climax, a gypsy waltz, 12 bell chimes from the "Song of the Night Wanderer" and an enigmatic ending. Its strength is in the creative development of a number of short motifs including the opening C-G-C.
  • Note that the three works above (together with the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome) are all on the recommended CD Also Sprach Zarathustra and other Tone Poems.

  • Don Quixote - "Fantastic Variations on a theme of Knightly Character", this contains exceptionally inventive musical characterisation of the main characters - see the article Humour in Music. Quixote's sidekick is represented by a solo viola and Quixote himself by a solo cello - in performances it is customary for the soloist to play-act a little on the final death scene by slouching forward with the last note.
  • Death and Transfiguration
  • Ein Heldenleben - many of Strauss's tone poems are centred around heroes, though this one is autobiographical
  • Alpine Symphony - the "programme" includes ascent and descent, waterfalls and a storm complete with sound effects from wind machine and thunder machine
  • Symphonia Domestica - possibly taking programme music too far, this piece is about family events in the home
  • Last Four Songs - highly regarded songs for Soprano
  • Salome - the scandalous opera based on an Oscar Wilde play; one staging of this had sets designed by the artist Salvador Dali
  • Der Rosenkavalier - an enjoyable comedy and deservedly popular, a set of beautiful waltzes from the opera are often played separately in concert, though note that Richard was unrelated to Waltz King Johann Strauss who coincidentally wrote "The Blue Danube" also in the movie 2001
  • Elektra - another popular opera
  • Ariadne auf Naxos - originally written for Moliere's play "Le Bourgeois Gentihomme"
  • Metamorphosen - for strings
  • Oboe Concerto - from his later more classical and reflective period
  • Two Horn Concertos