Born in Munich on 11 June 1864, Richard Georg Strauss grew up in a comfortably well-off, musical and educated household. His mother was a member of the wealthy brewing family and his father, Franz, was Germany’s most celebrated horn player. He was a conservative influence on Richard’s early musical education, although the young Strauss did attend the premieres of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger when his father played.
Richard Strauss proved to be precociously talented, playing the piano from the age of four, the violin at six and composing. By 18 Strauss had composed over 130 works – lieder (art songs) and orchestral pieces. Strauss capitalised on his father’s musical connections, including the conductor Hans von Bülow. So impressed was Bülow by the young Strauss’s compositions, that he commissioned him to compose and conduct a piece for the Meiningen Orchestra. As a result, Bülow offered Strauss the position of assistant conductor. Strauss’s eminence as a conductor matched his rise as a composer after this. By 1885 Strauss was conducting the premiere of his first Symphony in F Minor.
At Meiningen, Strauss became friends with Alexander Ritter, a violinist who was married to Richard Wagner’s niece. It proved to be an influential friendship: Ritter introduced Strauss to the ‘Music of the Future’ and encouraged Strauss to try a new style of composing similar to Liszt and Wagner. In 1886 Strauss went to Munich Opera, where he met and later married the soprano Pauline de Ahna. A formidable wife, she often ordered: ‘Richard – go compose!’ whenever he was at a loose end. He often conducted with Pauline singing, including the premiere of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival.
By 1898 Strauss was Chief Conductor of the Royal Opera, Berlin, where he wrote a sequence of seven magnificent tone-poems, including Don Juan; Till Eulenspiegel; Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Also Sprach Zarathustra (famously used as music for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968) and Don Quixote. They represent Strauss’s most important orchestral works.
However, it was with opera that Richard Strauss achieved international fame. In 1905 he enjoyed his first operatic success with Salome. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde, it was considered blasphemous and obscene, yet despite criticism, Salome triumphed in every major opera house, except for Vienna, where the censor forbade Gustav Mahler to stage it. In New York it was reviewed as ‘a loathsome opera’. Strauss noted ironically years later, in terms of royalties, the ‘loathsome’ Salome had allowed him to build his family villa at Garmisch in the mountains of southern Bavaria. Then followed Elektra (based on the Sophocles play). Musically, Salome and Elektra owe much to Mahler with their sensuous, overblown late Romantism. Strauss’s music often caused sensation. He demanded ever-larger orchestras to play his work and many thought his music outrageous and dissonant.
Elektra in 1909 had brought together Strauss and the Austrian dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. They went on to collaborate on five operas over the next 20 years, including Ariadne auf Naxos. Their most successful was Der Rosenkavalier in1911. The opera was so popular after its Dresden premiere that special trains were chartered to bring whole audiences from Berlin.
During the political and economic turmoil after the First World War, Strauss’s music began to fall out of fashion. The death of Hofmannsthal in 1929 was also a real blow. Strauss began working with the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig in 1933, but the hostile political climate of the Nazis forced him to stop. Considered to be the greatest living German composer, it took all of Strauss’s influence to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and children. Strauss spent most of the war years in Vienna and then Switzerland, out of the limelight. In 1948 he wrote his Four Last Songs for soprano and full orchestra. Many consider the piece a final flourish of late Romanticism from a great composer.
In 1949 Strauss and his family moved back to their villa in Garmisch, Bavaria. He died just three months later, peacefully, after his 85th birthday celebrations.