Strauss, Richard (1864–1949)

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STRAUSS, RICHARD (1864–1949)


German composer and conductor.

The long life and career of Richard Georg Strauss spanned Germany's formal unification and post–World War II division, its accelerated industrialization and urbanization, and two world wars. He began composing as a child, showing extraordinary promise, and wrote his last compositions in 1948. His oeuvre was distinguished by a flexible style in which the form of each work was unique and often generated by extramusical ideas; dissonance was used liberally and freely; melodies were released from the strictures of predetermined phrase lengths; and instrumental techniques were extended to depict an array of extramusical sounds.

In 1889, when Strauss was only twenty-five, critical and audience response to his tone poem (a symphonic work structured according to a literary program) Don Juan catapulted him to national recognition as the premier German composer of his time and established his credentials internationally as a musical modernist. He continued to write tone poems steadily, premiering six more over the next fourteen years. All of them remain in today's orchestral repertory, although they were often the objects of controversy in their time because of their subject matter (for example, Strauss as antihero), overwrought pictorial techniques, or jarring dissonances and abrupt shifts in tonality.

After the turn of the century, Strauss became renowned as an operatic composer with the 1905 premiere of Salome, which caused an international sensation. This highly chromatic, compact, one-act opera was based on Oscar Wilde's play, a stylized, decadent work that focused on the princess Salome's sexual obsession with her stepfather's prisoner, John the Baptist. Elektra, a highly dissonant one-act tragedy, followed in 1909. Based on the play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), Elektra marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between them, in which Hofmannsthal served as Strauss's librettist until Hofmannsthal died. Strauss was never to return to the dissonance, jagged vocal lines, atonal passages, and extreme orchestral effects of these two operas. His next opera, Der Rosenkavalier (The cavalier of the rose), which premiered in 1911, was a bittersweet comedy set in eighteenth-century Vienna that, in the view of many commentators, marked a retreat to the lushness, elegant melodies, and orchestral beauty seen more often in the nineteenth century. Rosenkavalier was nevertheless his most popular opera and remains so in the early twenty-first century. Ten more operas followed, and his final opera, Capriccio, was completed in 1941.

Strauss was also one of Germany's most important conductors, holding positions in Munich, Weimar, Berlin, and Vienna and appearing as guest conductor in numerous venues throughout Europe. His fame led to his appointment as director of the Reichsmusikkammer (National Music Chamber) under the National Socialists (1933–1935), a position that he was forced to resign after authorities intercepted a letter in which he criticized the treatment of his librettist at the time, the Jewish author Stefan Zweig. The extent of Strauss's involvement with the National Socialist government remains unclear to this day, although most scholars agree that Strauss never held strong allegiances to any political movement or regime.

Strauss's career has provoked scholarly controversy for both musical and political reasons. After Elektra, contemporaries and commentators through most of the twentieth century (most notably Theodor Adorno) thought that he failed to fulfill his promise as a modernist because he never embraced the move to atonality, and later composition based on twelve tones, that was promoted by other composers of his era such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.

Since the 1990s, however, scholars and critics have offered a revised and expanded assessment of Strauss that began essentially with two major collections of scholarly essays edited by Bryan Gilliam, published in 1992. Studies have been produced on such topics as the relationship between German literary modernism and Strauss's musical style; the influences of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche on Strauss's work; and detailed musical analyses of his operas, tone poems, and art songs. Especially noteworthy is Leon Botstein's reassessment (in Gilliam, Richard Strauss and His World) of Strauss's post-Elektra musical style as a precursor to postmodernism, with its use of parody, irony, and the juxtaposition of musically and dramatically disparate elements in such operas as Ariadne auf Naxos (1911–1912; revised 1916) and Rosenkavalier. In addition, whereas Strauss's role in Germany's National Socialist government had been deemphasized in earlier twentieth-century writings, work by such commentators as Pamela Potter (in Gilliam, Richard Strauss: New Perpectives) and Matthew Boyden has brought to light a number of details about Strauss's involvement with the Nazis and his motivations for accepting the position of director of the Reichsmusikkammer.

See alsoAdorno, Theodor; Berg, Alban; Germany; Schoenberg, Arnold.


Adorno, Theodor W. "Richard Strauss: Born June 11, 1864." Translated by Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber. Perspectives of New Music 4, no. 1–2 (1965–1966): 14–32, 113–129.

Ashley, Tim. Richard Strauss. London, 1999.

Boyden, Matthew. Richard Strauss. Boston, 1999.

Del Mar, Norman. Richard Strauss, a Critical Commentary on His Life and Works. 3 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1986.

Gilliam, Bryan. Richard Strauss and His World. Princeton, N.J., 1992.

——. Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, Sources of Music and Their Interpretation. Durham, N.C., 1992.

——. The Life of Richard Strauss. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Kennedy, Michael. Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Schmid, Mark-Daniel, ed. The Richard Strauss Companion. Westport, Conn., 2003.

Schuh, Willi. Richard Strauss: A Chronicle of the Early Years, 1864–1898. Translated by Mary Whittall. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.

Wilhelm, Kurt. Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait. Translated by Mary Whittall. New York, 2000.

Suzanne M. Lodato

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Strauss, Richard (1864–1949)

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