A black and white photograph of Richard Strauss in 1918 shows a somewhat handsome man with a direct gaze and an authoritative air in his expression. A band of white hair frames the back of his head, a thick mustache sits above his lip, and a bowtie puts a neat finish on the white collared shirt and vested suit. He would have been 54 that year, his life spanning both the 19th and 20th centuries from 1864 to 1949, the year of his 85th birthday. He must have had a sense of humor for he is quoted as a conductor saying, “Never look at the trombones. You’ll only encourage them.” His father Franz was a French horn player in his birth city of Munich.
Strauss’ career took him from the heights of fame and fortune to bankruptcy at the end of the Second World War. Known for his tone poems and operas, Richard Georg Strauss is referred to as the last of the great Romantics in German music. He wrote his first work at age six and had his Symphony in D Minor performed in 1880, the year he turned 16. His tone poem “Don Juan” first brought him into the spotlight in 1889. He would have been 23. It’s reported that the audience both cheered and booed at the premiere when they first heard the dramatic work. The melodic motif played by soaring violins can still make you catch your breath today. The work happened to coincide with his courtship of a soprano, Pauline Maria de Ahna, who would become his wife.
Symphonic tone poems, first created by Franz Liszt, are defined as “an orchestral composition based on literature or folk tales” and often programmatic, that is, instruments imitating the sound of something real. You may not even realize you know Strauss’ music because the opening of his tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” became familiar as the theme from the Stanley Kubrick film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
After a succession of tone poems including “Death and Transfiguration,” “Till Eulensiegel’s Merry Pranks” and “Don Quixote,” Strauss moved on to opera. His “Salome” shocked Dresden audiences of 1905. Because the soprano at the premiere found the work “distasteful and obscene,” a ballerina performed the first “Dance of the Seven Veils.” The opera required a huge orchestra and presented a major challenge to the leading role that Strauss envisioned for “a 16-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde.” The public outcry when “Salome” opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York led to a close after only one performance. Other operas followed including “Elektra” and “Der Rosenkavalier.” He next took over the conductor’s role with the Berlin Philharmonic, remaining in that post for twelve years.
It’s reported that his wife ruled Strauss’ household and allotted him only an allowance from his considerable income. But there was some controversy in his personal life because he worked in Germany under the Nazis. His daughter-in-law and grandchildren (he had one son Franz born in 1897) were Jewish and he used his influence to protect them. But, when he wrote the opera “The Silent Woman” with Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, the Reich removed him from conducting, although he did remain in Germany to the end of the war. You can read details on his personal life at the Richard Strauss Web site.