Composer Richard Strauss: Biography, Operas & Songs

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Richard Strauss was the last of the great Romanticists. Straddling the turn of the 20th century, he brought the Romantic period ideals into the modern age. This lesson will discuss his life and music, including operas, tone poems, and Lieder.

The Midas Touch

Don Juan is one of the best tone poems ever composed. Der Rosenkavalier is one of the most beautiful operas. Morgen is one of the most beloved and often sung Lied. Any composer would be delighted to have written just one of these works. Richard Strauss composed all three, and many more besides. Every genre to which he applied his pen became pure gold. He is the King Midas of composers.

An Auspicious Beginning

Richard Strauss was fortunate to have been born into a musical and wealthy family. He was born June 11, 1864 in Munich, Germany, to Franz and Josepha Strauss. Franz was a gifted french horn player and had a secure job with the Munich Court Opera. Josepha came from a wealthy brewery family. Thus young Richard had a comfortable early life with an excellent music education.

A dashing, young Richard in 1888.
Photo of young Richard Strauss

By the time Richard left school at age 18 he had composed 140 pieces, mostly Lieder, German art songs for voice and accompaniment, and piano solos. The young Richard was strongly influenced by his father's taste in music. His father worshipped the Classical trio of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Above all, his father detested the music of Richard Wagner, whose difficult horn solos Franz expertly played.

However, as an adolescent, Richard discovered for himself Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde and the die was cast. He became infatuated with Wagner's music, the orchestrations, the lush, fat harmonies, and this was the style that would influence his mature works.

Strauss the Conductor

A painting of Strauss from 1918
Painting of Strauss 1918

Thanks to his father's associations, Strauss met the famous conductor, Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow commissioned a chamber work from Strauss, then invited him to conduct the performance. The performance went so well von Bülow offered Strauss the position of assistant conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra. Strauss became an accomplished conductor and continued to conduct for much of his life. He held positions with the Munich Opera, Weimar Court Orchestra, the Munich Court Orchestra, the Royal Court Opera in Berlin, and the Vienna State Opera.

The Tone Poems

Strauss' first successful foray into professional composition was the genre of tone poems. Tone poems, also called symphonic poems, are works for orchestra that tell a story or epitomize an idea. Since the music is in service of the story, they are free-form and dramatic. Strauss found this genre intriguing and pursued it. He scored a hit in 1889 with Don Juan, a tone poem about the famous philanderer. He composed six more tone poems by 1903, the most popular are Don Quixote, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenpiegel's Merry Pranks).

The Operas

Strauss had dabbled in opera for years. His first opera, Guntram, premiered in 1894. While it fared poorly, Strauss found success when he married the soprano, Pauline de Ahna, and they remained happily married for life.

The opera Salome, premiered in Dresden in 1905, was his first critically acclaimed opera. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, and with its strip-tease 'Dance of the Seven Veils,' it was viewed by many as scandalous and obscene. Yet it was very popular and made Strauss a wealthy man.

Poster for 1910 production of Salome
Poster for the opera Salome

The next opera, Elektra, was Strauss' first collaboration with Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. They would work together on five more operas over the next 20 years, all of them successful. Elektra was a harmonic high-water mark for Strauss. He pushed Romantic harmony to its extreme, adding a great deal of extended chords and dissonance. It was quite modern musically and thematically.

Strauss returned to his more conservative roots for the rest of his operas. They were all written with his playwright friend, von Hofmannsthal, and were very well-received. Der Rosenkavalier is still considered a masterpiece. Unfortunately von Hofmannsthal died during work on their next opera, Arabella, and Strauss was brokenhearted.

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