b. Munich, June 11, 1864; d Garmisch, September 8, 1949
Known informally as the “other Richard” or the “other Strauss,” Richard Strauss rose to become the most important composer of German opera in the early 20th century. Living in the shadow of Richard Wagner (the first Richard, after whom there could be no second) and Johann Strauss, Jr. (no relation), Strauss advanced melodic and harmonic theories, while at the same time looking over a sentimental shoulder toward the waltz king’s Viennese dramaturgy and stagecraft.
Strauss was Bavarian, born to a wealthy mother and a musical father. Franz Strauss, a noted horn player in the court orchestra, occasionally was called upon as a principal horn for Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth. Although he performed in a number of Wagner premieres, father Strauss considered the much-venerated composer’s music to be cacophonic and “modern,” discouraging his young son from paying it much attention. But Richard would not obey his father’s orders, and as a teen who had been studying music since age four, he was completely consumed by Tristan und Isolde.
Strauss had the good fortune to serve as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow at Meiningen, which led to various postings in Munich, Bayreuth and Weimar. Eventually he would assume prestigious positions at the Berlin Court Opera and the Vienna State Opera, as well as conduct major orchestras around Europe and the Americas. To the early part of his career belong his famous works for the orchestra – the tone poems. The latter part of his career would be devoted almost exclusively to the voice, either in song or in opera.
To compose opera in Germany at the end of the 19th century was to follow the Wagnerian model, both writing one’s own libretto, then composing music to it. Strauss’ first opera, Guntram, was cast in that mold, complete with characters based on Teutonic history. It was not a huge success, but the opera received courteous acknowledgement from Giuseppe Verdi, to whom Strauss had sent the score. It was also during Guntram that Strauss announced his engagement to soprano Pauline de Ahna, who sang the leading female role at the premiere. Many found Pauline’s temperament to be tempestuous, even shrewish, but somehow, offset by the composer’s gentle manner, the marriage stood the test of time.
Strauss’ next opera, Feuersnot, was based on a bawdy Flemish legend and initiated a trend of indelicate themes that pervade many Strauss operas. The opera that followed, Salome, displayed full-blown sexuality and was his first big succès de scandale.
In 1900, when he first saw Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, Strauss made an important contact with playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal’s own adaptation of Sophocles’ Electra later would impress the composer when he saw it in a Max Reinhardt production. Strauss set the play to music, and a fruitful artistic partnership was born. As Strauss elaborated, “Your style has so much in common with mine. We were made for each other, and we are sure to do fine things together if you remain faithful to me.”
Elektra was also a success but not quite to the same degree as Salome. Its relentless dramatic impetus and biting tonality may have been too barbaric for audiences of the day. For their next project, Strauss wanted a comedy in the vein of Mozart. Der Rosenkavalier, complete with basso buffo and en travesti (pants) roles undercut with a persistent Viennese waltz, easily fit the bill. It is perhaps their most popular and enduring work.
For the next collaboration, the librettist envisioned a new adaptation of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, supported with incidental music by Strauss and followed by a short opera. The double bill failed to please, with the theater-going audiences being unreceptive to opera and vice versa. The work was revised considerably, jettisoning the Molière play and refashioning Ariadne auf Naxos into an opera-within-an-opera. The new version fared much better.
Hofmannsthal and Strauss’ next collaborations were varied in their themes and forms. Die Frau ohne Schatten is a Gozzi-esque fairy tale about a mythical empress who must procure a shadow in order to save her husband from turning to stone. Die ägyptische Helena concerns Helen of Troy’s post-war marital problems. Arabella was intended as another Viennese comedy, styled to become a second Rosenkavalier. It was to be their last collaboration. While dressing for his son’s funeral, Hofmannsthal died of a stroke, leaving the words for Arabella’s second and third acts in draft form. Strauss set the unfinished text as an homage to his colleague, and the opera premiered in 1933. Apart from Hofmannsthal, Strauss wrote and composed Intermezzo, based on a real-life misunderstanding between him and Pauline that almost led to divorce.
Much has been made about Strauss’ activities following the Nazi’s rise to power. The composer’s appointment by Joseph Gœbbels to the Reichsmusikkammer as its president and his decisions to conduct in place of Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter attracted criticism, though he emphatically stated it was for the sake of German music and not due to any political agenda.
Like many Jewish artists, Strauss’ next librettist, Stefan Zweig, suffered religious persecution, and their opera, Die schweigsame Frau (based on a play by Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson), encountered some difficulties as a result. Zweig chose to leave Germany but presented Joseph Gregor as a replacement and was still able to influence Strauss’ works from a distance. Together the new team produced Friedenstag, an opera set in 17th-century Austria at the end of the Thirty Years War; Daphne, a subject again steeped in mythology (and Strauss’ tip-of-the-hat to Peri’s Dafne, reportedly the first opera ever written); and Die Liebe der Danae, another mythical tale fusing the Greek legend of Danae with that of King Midas.
Capriccio was Strauss’ last opera, a “conversation with music” based on Giovanni Battista Casti’s 18th-century text for Antonio Salieri’s Prima la musica, e poi le parole. Its premiere occurred before Danae’s, however, as the considerably shorter Capriccio could be played before the nightly air raids commenced. Four years after the war and cleared by the denazification board, Strauss died in his sleep at his Bavarian villa. Pauline died one year later, just nine days before the premiere of Strauss’ monumental Four Last Songs.