Next: Strauss on Music

Richard Strauss



Franz Strauss, father of Richard Strauss. He was perhaps the most famous horn player in Europe (hence his son's prominent use of that instrument in many of his works!) and was responsible for the musical education of young Richard. Franz Strauss was extremely conservative (he loathed the music of Richard Wagner, for instance), and insisted on a very traditional musical education for his son. He simply could not understand Richard's bold experimental music. Regarding Salome, he had this to say: "Oh God, what nervous music. It is exactly as if one had one's trousers full of maybugs."

Not many composers make the cover of TIME magazine!

Richard Strauss with his father (age 83) in 1905. Franz Strauss died in 1905, the same year as the premiere of Salome. Richard Strauss was very close to his father and grateful to him for his strict musical upbringing, although he rarely took his advice.

Richard Strauss, age 8. Strauss started composing at age 5 (he started piano lessons at age four-and-a-half). By the age of 8 he was ready to tackle orchestration for himself, producing a 33-page Overture. At age 9 he began violin lessons. By the time he was 18, Strauss was the composer of some 140 pieces, including 59 songs, 45 piano pieces, 1 Mass, 6 Overtures, 4 pieces for horn, 5 works for orchestra, 6 trios and quartets, and many other works. Later in life he had this to say: "I composed too much, too early, and so squandered a lot of spontaneity and energy as well."

Richard Strauss visited the United States for the first time in the spring of 1904. He came to New York expressly to conduct the premier of Symphonia Domestica (1903), an orchestral work which caused a stir in the music community by detailing the composer’s own life at home with his wife and child. The American photographer Edward Steichen photographed the composer, and the result was one of the more famous 'expressionistic' (scary?) photos of Strauss shown here. This was the time when Strauss was working on his masterpiece Salome.

Richard Strauss in 1888, age 24. By this age Strauss was already an internationally recognized composer of the first rank. He had just completed Macbeth and Don Juan, the first of his series of tone poems that would launch him to the forefront of contemporary German composers. One can tell from this photo that this was a very self-assured young composer!

Alexander Ritter, one of the most important influences on the life and music of Strauss. Recall that Strauss had an extremely conservative musical education at the hands of his father Franz. Ritter, a violinist and composer, was married to the niece of Richard Wagner and was thus a staunch Wagnerite. Ritter introduced Strauss to the music of Wagner (much to the displeasure of Franz Strauss) and urged Strauss to move in the direction of pictorial program music and the symphonic poem form that had been invented by Franz Liszt. Without Ritter, it is unlikely that we would have works such as Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben, and others.  

Richard Strauss with his wife Pauline at the time of their marriage in 1894. According to Strauss biographer Kurt Wilhelm, "she had enough temperament for three. It was her habit to say what she thought, uninhibitedly and with disarming directness. She was the subject of endless talk.  They were in a horse-drawn cab once, when Pauline was giving her husband yet another fiery lecture. Strauss, as always, remained calm. Suddenly the driver turned round: 'Are you going to stand for that? Throw the cow out!'  They all had to laugh. Pauline herself circulated this story.  Many found her unfathomable, and she did not make it easy for them. At a large social gathering in the 1930s, she made the acquaintance of Baldur von Shirach, by then high up in the Nazi hierarchy. He proved to be an agreeable and amusing conversationalist, so that eventually Pauline was moved to ask, in a loud voice, overheard by all the other guests, 'Tell me the truth, you're not a Nazi, are you?'  On numerous public occasions, she had her husband quaking in his shoes." Their marriage was a supremely happy one and lasted 55 years.

Strauss the conductor. Richard Strauss was one of the most famous and important conductors of his era, along with the likes of Gustav Mahler. Strauss held important conducting positions for many years, including prestigious posts in Weimar and Berlin. As a young man, his conducting style was very energetic, with large motions and movements. Later in life he pared it down and became famous for his very understated conducting style. One of his famous "Ten Commandments" for conductors is: "Don't perspire while conducting - only the audience should get warm."

The Strauss family. Richard and Pauline had only one child, a son named (you guessed it) Franz, born in 1897. He lived until 1980! You can tell from this photo that Richard Strauss was a tall man, standing close to 6'4". Note the domineering aspect of his wife Pauline!

Strauss and Mahler (at right) were both outdoorsmen who loved hiking in the Alps. These two good friends supported each other and fought hard for the promotion of each other's works. They were two of the most important and famous conductors of the era, as well as being two of the titanic giants of late 19th century and early 20th century composition. As noted earlier, Mahler was much more well known as a conductor than as a composer for most of his life, whereas the opposite might be said of Strauss (sort of). The two men had radically different ideas about the nature of composing: Mahler turned away from programmatic music after the disaster of his Symphony no. 1 premiere performance, whereas Strauss embraced highly descriptive program music. Mahler also found Strauss too materialistic when it came to writing music--according to biographer Kurt Wilhelm, "Mahler was often repelled by Strauss's sangfroid, his boisterous humor, his down-to-earth attitudes and his concern with the commercial side of their profession. Art was Mahler's religion, and he was genuinely shocked when Strauss talked about royalties, while Mahler preferred to contemplate higher things." Although it is hard to tell from the scale of these two photos, Strauss also towered over Mahler (6'4" vs 5'4")....see photo below that shows Strauss walking out of the Vienna State Opera House with Mahler to his right in the photo.

Strauss conducting at an advanced age. Quite different than his earlier conducting style. I include here a wonderful video clip of his conducting at age 80. Have a look: fascinating video!!

The darker side of Strauss's later years: the composer pictured here with Joseph Goebbels. Strauss had a complex relationship with the Nazis due to the fact that his aim was to protect his daughter-in-law, who was Jewish. Goebbels invited Strauss to take up the post of Reichsmusikkammer president on 15 November 1933. Strauss was adamant that he wished to use his influential position for the good. “I hoped that I would be able to do some good and prevent worse misfortunes,” he said later. Ultimately, Strauss was forced to resign from his position. We turn again to Kurt Wilhem, Strauss's biographer: "Strauss’s daughter-in-law Alice was Jewish, as were (according to Nazi racial law) his grandchildren. He was able to use personal connections to prevent his family from the full force of harassment during Kristallnacht in November 1938, and in 1942 he moved with them to Vienna, where they benefited from the

protection of Hitler Youth leader and Vienna Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach. Towards the end of the war, however, while Strauss was away, Nazis arrested Alice and held her for several days; Strauss was barely able to secure her release, moving her and the family to Garmisch, where they were kept under house-arrest until the War’s end. In addition, many members of Alice’s immediate family were deported to Theresienstadt. When Strauss’s letters asking for their release were unsuccessful, the composer drove to the camp personally, but to no avail; all died or were murdered, in Theresienstadt and other camps." Strauss himself was cleared in the de-Nazification process after WWII, but his music was banned in Israel.

Strauss was a favorite subject for cartoonists and caricaturists. Here is a small sampling. The basic theme should be apparent!