Richard Strauss (June 11, 1864 - September 8, 1949; no relation to the Viennese Waltz family) shone in two major areas: tone poem and opera. Almost single-handedly, he carried the Wagnerian opera tradition and the Romantic Lisztian tone poem into the twentieth century. He is also one of the great composers of Lieder.
Strauss began to compose at an early age in an idiom which owed much to Robert Schumann. His father, a musical conservative, probably had much to do with this. Young Richard received fairly thorough instruction, but, despite this, was never completely at home in sonata form. His early works, including a string quartet (1879), a symphony (1880), a piano sonata (1880), a cello sonata (1882), and a violin concerto (1882) show serious miscalculations of form. However, we must remember that Strauss is still in his teens, and each new work shows an increasing mastery. His best works of the period are the first concerto for horn (1883) – still in the repertory – and an astonishing piano quartet (1884), unaccountably neglected today. In the last work, Strauss forsakes Schumann for a brief encounter with Johannes Brahms and solves his problems with form at a single stroke. Still, Strauss concluded that Brahms, however great in himself, represented a dead end to would-be followers. He continued to search for his own idiom, and his next works are less assured than the piano quartet – for example, the Burleske for piano and orchestra (1886) and the symphony Aus Italien (1886).
After he left the university and began a conducting career, Strauss met Alexander Ritter, a composer and poet, who converted him to the school of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. It took Strauss some time to master this new form, but the tone-poem Don Juan (1889) immediately established Strauss as an important figure. In it, he found his artistic self, particularly in the creation of astonishing, unheard-of orchestral effects, which was to occupy him throughout most of his career, and in a new sense of dramatic movement, derived from Wagner, but more quickly paced. Don Juan inaugurated a series of tone poems, all of which keep their hold on standard repertoire: Tod und Verklärung (1889), to a program by Ritter; Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1894); Also sprach Zarathustra (1896); Don Quixote for cello and orchestra (1897), perhaps his most profound orchestral work; Ein Heldenleben (1898), which influenced later generations of modernists in its orchestration and use of dissonance.
In these poems, Strauss showed a powerful dramatic instinct. Hence, it is not surprising that he should want to try his luck on the operatic stage. His first two efforts – Guntram (1894) and Feuersnot (1901) – flopped. However, his Salome (1905), based on the play by Oscar Wilde, caused a sensation, and not only for its subject. The music stretched tonality, dissonance, and chromaticism. His next opera, Elektra (1908), stretched these things even more and marked the beginning of one of the great operatic collaborations – between Strauss and his librettist, the poet Hugo von Hoffmanstahl. Elektra gave Strauss the reputation of an Awful Modernist, which his subsequent career refuted. He immediately retreated to a mainstream, late-Romantic idiom with his next works: Der Rosenkavalier (1910), his most popular opera, Der Bürger als Edelmann (1912), Josephslegende (1914), Eine Alpensinfonie (1915), Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), which the critic Ernest Newman considered the finest opera since Wagner. This was the idiom he stuck with for the remainder of his career. By the Twenties, a decade after Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, Strauss seemed a ghost from the past.
However, the ghost had plenty of music in him. Hoffmanstahl died suddenly, and Strauss was thrown to searching for new librettists. He found fine ones and bad ones. The operas as well as the instrumental works became increasingly variable in quality. Highpoints include Arabella (1933), Die schweigsame Frau (1934), and Capriccio (1940).
During this period as well, Strauss became an official of the Third Reich, although his job was largely ceremonial, and he considered most of the powerful Nazis Philistines and barbarians. The fact that his grandchildren were part-Jewish made him keep his criticisms private. Even so, his private letters were read and he was warned. His silence and his continued residence in Germany caused him problems during the postwar de-nazification programs.
In the Forties, roughly twenty-five years after his last really good instrumental work, Strauss's instrumental music revived. From Capriccio at least, he became increasingly interested in the chamber ensemble and counterpoint. This produced such masterpieces as the second horn concerto (1942), Metamorphosen (1945) for twenty-three strings, the oboe concerto (1945), and the Duett-Concertino (1947) for clarinet, bassoon, strings, and harp. For those used to Strauss's earlier "punch-and-flood" idiom, typified by Heldenleben and the Symphonia domestica (1904), the late works present a puzzle. Indeed, many conductors today have trouble with them; the pieces require a degree of give-and-take found in the greatest chamber music.
Strauss's final work is a masterpiece and a culmination of his song-writing: Four Last Songs (1948), his most popular set. In general, Strauss survives as a song-writer by individual songs, rather than by cycles, unlike someone like, say, Mahler. One finds gems throughout his career, early through late.
Strauss became a whipping-boy for modernist critics, who regarded him as a moss-back and failed to discern how he led to modernism. To some extent this attitude persists. However, he has remained firmly in the standard repertory, and, at least since Norman Del Mar's monumental three-volume study, a new critical consensus has begun to form. ~ Steve Schwartz