In addition to being the fourth anniversary of Counter-Currents going online, June 11, 2014 was the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss, the German Romantic composer and conductor. Strauss belonged to the last generation of the Romantic era, along with such composers as Edward Elgar  (1857–1934), Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), Gustav Mahler  (1860–1911), Jean Sibelius  (1865–1957), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943).
Strauss was a great composer, one of the last great composers in the European classical tradition. But he was not on the level of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Wagner, and he knew it, quipping, “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.” (Clearly Strauss was one to reject false modesty along with false pride. His autobiography in the form of a tone poem is called Ein Heldenleben — “A Hero’s Life.”)
Strauss was born in Munich, the son of Franz Joseph Strauss (1822–1905), the principal horn player at the Court Opera in Munich, and Josephine Strauss (1837–1910), born Pschorr, from a wealthy family of brewers whose Munich-based brewery was founded in 1417. Richard was a musical prodigy. He never went to a conservatory. Beginning in his childhood, his father and a circle of professional musicians gave him a thorough musical education, albeit a conservative one. Wagner, for instance, was forbidden by Strauss’s father. His education focused on the classics: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven.
Richard began playing the piano at the age of four. He wrote his first composition at the age of six, and he continued composing for 79 years, until his death, some 300 works in all. He took up the violin at eight. Beginning at eleven, Richard received a thorough grounding in music theory, harmony, and orchestration from Friedrich Meyer, one of the court conductors in Munich. At the age of sixteen, as if smuggling home a piece of pornography, the young Strauss clandestinely acquired the score of Tristan und Isolde and was converted to Wagnerism.
By the time Strauss matriculated at Munich University to study philosophy and art history, a number of his compositions had been publicly performed. After a year, he dropped out of college to pursue conducting and composing full time.
Strauss was a rarity among musical prodigies. He was emotionally well-balanced, intellectually well-rounded, and highly practical. He excelled at the business of composing and conducting. He was a consummate professional: genial, self-assured, unflappable. These qualities, combined with enormous talent and energy, made Strauss a famous and wealthy man. Given that Strauss was a genius, his father was highly irascible, his mother was mentally unstable, and his wife was a handful, his biographers have carefully examined his life for signs of neuroses and inner turmoil. Finding none, they naturally conclude that Strauss’s good cheer, energy, and practicality were merely compensations or masks for some really deep conflicts.
Strauss possessed one of the surest signs of high intelligence and self-esteem: a sense of humor and a razor wit, even about himself. Some memorable lines: “Never look at the trombones. You’ll only encourage them.” To an orchestra he was conducting: “Louder, I can still hear the soprano.” On Schoenberg: “He’d be better off shoveling snow.” As he lay dying, he remarked that death was exactly as he had written about it in Death and Transfiguration. Ein Heldenleben is often castigated as a work of egomania, but only by people who are immune to Strauss’s sense of humor.
Strauss’s early works resembled early Romantic composers like Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Weber. Good, but rather conservative and stuffy sounding in the post-Wagnerian era. That began to change in 1885, when Strauss took up his full-time conducting post at the Court Orchestra in Meiningen. One of the orchestra’s violinists was the composer Alexander Ritter (1833–1896). Ritter was married to Richard Wagner’s niece Franziska. He had known both Wagner and Liszt and was a fervent advocate of their works and ideas.
Ritter introduced Strauss to the writings of both Wagner and Schopenhauer, which had a powerful influence on the young composer’s worldview. Later he would fall under Nietzsche’s sway. Ritter’s musical influence was even more profound. He persuaded Strauss to adopt the expanded tonal language of Wagner and Liszt and to dispense with standard symphonic forms for a new, free-form medium created by Liszt: the Symphonic Poem. It was as a composer of “Tone Poems” that Strauss first achieved world-wide fame, which has lasted to this day.
The Tone Poems
Symphonic Poems are “program music” as opposed to “absolute music.” Absolute music carries its meaning within itself. Program music is associated with an external meaning or program, such as an image, poem, or story. This text is not set to music and sung, but merely evoked by the music itself. To evoke stories and images with music alone, Liszt — whose imagination was not hampered by any formal education in orchestration — dramatically expanded the tonal palate and expressive powers of the orchestra.
Strauss carried this trend to perfection. He used every trick in the book and invented some new ones — new orchestrations, new harmonies, extra instruments, even a wind machine — to evoke everything from the peaks of spiritual, philosophical, and emotional sublimity to droll parodies of carping music critics, the pranks of Till Eulenspiegel, and the follies of Don Quixote, right down to the latter’s battle with a flock of sheep, hilariously brought to life in the brass. Strauss even boasted he could write a musical knife and fork.
Strauss’s ten Tone Poems are Aus Italien (From Italy), Op. 16 (1886), based on his Italian travels in 1886; Don Juan, Op. 20 (1889), his first international success; Macbeth, Op. 23 (1888/90), based on Shakespeare; Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24 (1888–89), with a poem by Alexander Ritter; Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks), Op. 28 (1895); Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Op. 30 (1896), based on Nietzsche; Don Quixote, Op. 35 (1898), based on Cervantes; Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40 (1899), a musical autobiography featuring portraits of his courtship and marriage, his battles with the critics, and his successful compositions thus far; Symphonia Domestica (Domestic Symphony), Op. 53 (1904), a portrait of his happy family life; and Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), Op. 64 (1915), the story of a mountain-climbing expedition.
Strauss’s most immediately appealing Tone Poems are Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben, and Don Quixote. From there, try Death and Transfiguration, Don Juan, and Till Eulenspiegel. The other four — Macbeth, Symphonia Domestica, Eine Alpensinfonie, and Aus Italien — are weaker works, but still afford many pleasures.
Herbert von Karajan was one of the great advocates of Strauss’ Tone Poems, recording many of them multiple times. The different versions inevitably attract their partisans, but his last digital recordings have been remastered and collected in a very inexpensive 5-CD set: Richard Strauss: Orchestral Works . An even better bargain than the Karajan set is Rudolf Kempe’s Strauss: Orchestral Works , a 9-CD survey of practically all of Strauss’s orchestral works — tone poems, concertos, symphonies, ballets, suites, etc. These are superbly performed and engineered analog recordings from the 1970s with the Staatskapelle Dresden, one of the finest orchestras in Europe. The set is available from Amazon Marketplace for less than the price Karajan’s smaller set.
The second phase of Strauss’s career is an opera composer. He composed 15 operas in total, many of which have permanent places in the repertoire. Among 20th century opera composers, Strauss is second only to Puccini in the number of performances. Strauss had a long, happy marriage with soprano Pauline de Ahna and a life-long love-affair with the soprano voice, and his operas contain some of the most demanding soprano roles of the 20th century.
Strauss’ first two operas — Guntram (1894) and Feuersnot (1901) — were critical and commercial flops. They are still seldom heard, despite the fact that they contain a great deal of beautiful music, probably because — as Strauss biographer Michael Kennedy suggests — they do not contain the kind of virtuoso signature roles that great singers clamor to conquer.
However, in 1905, with 9 of his 10 Tone Poems behind him, Strauss had his first operatic success, Salome, based on the play by Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s Salome is decadent, neurotic, and drolly anti-Semitic. Strauss’s music is as sumptuous as Gustav Klimt’s gold-worked canvases: dissonant, sinuous, ravishingly beautiful, building inexorably to an emotionally shattering conclusion.
Along with Tosca, Salome is the first opera I recommend to individuals brought up on film and television, for both of them are relatively short (2 hours for Tosca, 100 minutes for Salome) and unfold like movies — movies with really good soundtracks. For one’s first introduction to Salome, it must be seen on stage or on video, not heard on CD. The best Salome on video by far is a 1974 television production  directed by Götz Friedrich. This is not just a filmed stage production, within the static space of the proscenium arch. It is filmed on a soundstage, and the cameras dynamically roam and sweep the full 360 degrees. The performance is conducted by Karl Böhm, one of the greatest Strauss interpreters, with Teresa Stratas as Salome and Bernd Weikl as John the Baptist. As for recordings, the best are Georg Solti’s  vintage Decca recording with Birgit Nilsson as Salome and Giuseppi Sinopoli’s  Deutsche Grammophon digital recording with Cheryl Studer in the title role.
Strauss’s next opera, Elektra (1909) is based on Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s 1903 play of the same name, which is in turn based on Sophocles’s Elektra. Strauss’ Elektra is intense and unsettling expressionist drama, but unlike Salome, the unsettling dissonances are not wedded to beautiful melodies. So for all its cleverness, to my ears, Elektra fails as music. I can’t imagine listening to Elektra on CD for pleasure. But it must be seen on stage or on screen. (On DVD, the indispensable performance is another Götz Friedrich television production  conducted by Karl Böhm, with Leonie Rysanek as Elektra, Astrid Varnay as Clytemnestra, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Orest. Another superb performance is Birgit Nilsson at the Met .)
Strauss dialed back the dissonance for his remaining operas, beginning with Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911), one of his supreme masterpieces. Whereas Salome and Elektra were short, one-act tragedies, Der Rosenkavalier is a sprawling three-act romantic comedy about love, deception, and renunciation. In terms of plot and themes, it is a mashup of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Although the story is set in 18th-century Austria, the music belongs to post-Wagnerian late Romanticism: melodic, lushly orchestrated, life-affirming, sweet but not cloying, and shimmering like a mirage of heaven, with three great soprano roles. Despite its popularity, there are few good recordings of Der Rosenkavalier, simply because it is such a difficult opera to get right. On video, I recommend the 1960 Der Rosenkavalier: The Film  conducted by Herbert von Karajan, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin, and the Munich Opera, conducted by Carlos Kleiber  with Gwyneth Jones as the Marschallin. On CD, I prefer the 1956 Karajan/Schwarzkopf  pairing.
Strauss’s other top-drawer operas are Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos, 1912; video , CD ), Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow, 1918; video , CD ), and Arabella (1932; video , CD ). Less successful but still worthy efforts are Intermezzo  (1923), Die schweigsame Frau  (The Silent Woman, 1934), Daphne  (1937), Die Liebe der Danae  (The Love of Danae, 1940), and Capriccio  (1942). Only Die ägyptische Helena  (The Egyptian Helena, 1927) and Friedenstag  (Day of Peace, 1935–6) are real failures. To celebrate Strauss’s 150th birthday, Deutsche Grammophon has released a 33-CD set of Richard Strauss — Complete Operas , which is available from Amazon Marketplace for about $3/disc. All of these are first rate performances.
Strauss and the Third Reich
After the Second World War, Strauss was widely execrated as a “Nazi” by the usual suspects: Jews, who hated him as a German who remained during the Third Reich; Schoenbergian decomposers, who repaid his cordial contempt for their inane theories and ugly music with hatred; and Marxists, who despised him for being a wealthy, conservative member of the bourgeoisie. But the charge is wholly without foundation: the product of malice and indifference to truth.
On the one hand, Strauss seems a likely candidate for National Socialist sympathies. He was a deep believer in the greatness of German culture. His greatest intellectual influences — his father, Ritter, Wagner, Liszt, Schopenhauer — were ardent anti-Semites. Strauss had a non-religious upbringing and took Nietzsche seriously. Thus he rejected liberal values at their root. He was also an unabashed elitist, but he believed in hierarchies of merit, not mere money or birth.
But Strauss lacked racial feeling. He found racial solidarity irritating in both Jews and National Socialists. He was a staunch individualist as well as an elitist. All that mattered to him was the quality of a man’s work. Over the years, he collaborated with the half-Jew Hugo von Hoffmanstahl on the libretti of some of his greatest operas. Then, after von Hoffmanstahl’s death, Strauss collaborated with Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig on the libretto for Die schweigsame Frau. Moreover, Strauss’ only child, Franz, married a Jewish woman in 1924, thus Strauss’s grandsons Richard and Christian were technically Jewish. When the Nazis came on the scene, therefore, Strauss hardly welcomed them. Strauss was not initially attracted to the National Socialists then disillusioned. He never liked them.
When Hitler came to power, it never crossed Strauss’s mind to leave his homeland. It is the height of Jewish narcissism to expect an entire nation to decamp in protest over what were at the time only the mildest anti-Jewish measures. Strauss had made music under the Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns, and under the republics that followed them, so he was confident that he would fare well under the Nazis and outlast them too. (He expected them to be gone in a few years.)
When Jewish conductors left the Reich, Strauss was happy to fill in. When Arturo Toscanini withdrew in protest from conducting at Bayreuth, Strauss stepped in. When Goebbels (who regarded Strauss as a “decadent neurotic,” no doubt based on Salome) appointed Strauss to lead the Reichsmusikkammer (National Music Bureau), he accepted. (He was miffed that the Kaiser and the Weimar regime had not extended him such honorary positions.) He worked to extend copyright protection for composers and to counteract some of the regime’s more ham-fisted music policies.
Things went well until July of 1935. There was some controversy about Strauss’s upcoming opera, Die schweigsame Frau, with its libretto by Zweig. Strauss insisted Zweig be given full credit on the program. The matter was referred to Hitler personally. He read the libretto, approved of Zweig’s credit, and promised to attend the premiere. But then a letter from Strauss to Zweig, who was in exile in Switzerland, was intercepted and passed on to Hitler. In it, Strauss chided Zweig for his Jewish “racial pride” and “solidarity” and confessed that he felt none himself:
Do you imagine I have ever been guided in any course of action by the thought that I am Germanic (perhaps, qui le sait)? Do you suppose that Mozart was consciously “Aryan” in his composing? For me there are only two sorts of people: those who have talent and those who haven’t, and for me “das Volk” only begin to exist when they become the Audience. Its all the same to me if they come from China, Upper Bavaria, New Zealand, or Berlin, so long as they have paid at the box office. (Michael Kennedy, Richard Strauss [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976], 92)
This was the credo of an apolitical, cosmopolitan artist — poles apart from the National Socialist worldview. Strauss was sacked from the Reichmusikkammer, Hitler and Goebbels boycotted the premiere, and after four performances, Die schweigsame Frau was silenced for good throughout the Reich.
Despite official disfavor, Strauss remained one of Germany’s most famous cultural assets. Thus he enjoyed many privileges and connections. His grandsons were made “honorary” Aryans. He continued to write, publish, and conduct his works. After the Anschluss, he spent a lot of time in Vienna, where he enjoyed the protection of Baldur von Schirach. During the war, when his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice was arrested, Strauss had the pull to get her released.
His next opera, Friedenstag, which premiered in 1938, was poorly received, but justly so, as it is his worst effort. Die Liebe der Danae was cancelled in 1944 because of the closure of all the Reich’s opera houses, but as an expensive favor to Strauss, a full rehearsal was mounted. It was the one time Strauss heard it. It was premiered only in 1952 and remains his least performed and recorded work because of its formidable vocal demands. (The music is utterly gorgeous.)
As the war went on, Strauss and his family were spared direct physical deprivations, but emotionally, he was devastated as Germany’s cities were pulverized and incinerated by Allied bombs, including Dresden and its opera house, the seat of some of his greatest triumphs. Somewhat irrationally, Strauss blamed the destruction on the Nazis, not on the Allies. In May of 1945, he wrote in his diary:
Germany 1945. “So, although the body is indeed dead, the spirit is alive.” Luther. On 12 March the glorious Vienna Opera became the victim of bombs. But on 1 May ended the most terrible period of mankind — 12 years of the rule of bestiality, ignorance, and illiteracy under the greatest criminals, who brought about the destruction of 2000 years of German civilization and, though a criminal rabble of soldiers, razed irreplaceable buildings and monuments to art. (Kennedy, 107-108)
These are not the words of a “Nazi.” But, despite the best efforts of biographers like Michael Kennedy, who have thoroughly debunked the legend of Strauss the Nazi, and odor still remains — not the odor of guilt, mind you, but of hatred sustained by the Jewish racial solidarity that Strauss found so baffling.
Strauss’s Last Works
Strauss’s last compositions are among his most beautiful. In August of 1944, when the destruction of Germany was well-advanced, Strauss began sketching his Metamorphosen for 23 stringed instruments. He poured into it all his anguish for his homeland, particularly its destroyed artistic and cultural treasures, completing the work in March of 1945. It was premiered in January of 1946 by Paul Sacher and the Zürich Collegium Musicum.
After the war, an American soldier and oboist, John de Lancie (whose son and namesake is known to the world as Q), suggested that Strauss write an oboe concerto. Although Strauss initially dismissed the idea, the seed was planted, and he wrote the concerto rapidly, finishing in October of 1945 after leaving Germany for an exile in Switzerland. The Oboe Concerto harkens back to Strauss’ earlier, pre-Wagnerian works. It has a conventional three movement form and is scored for a small orchestra. It looks back to the classical era, even though it could only have been written in the 20th century.
More than two-thirds of Strauss’s 300-odd compositions are songs — most of them for soprano — accompanied by piano or orchestra. But Strauss’s Four Last Songs, for soprano and orchestra, are his most famous. Written in Switzerland near the end of his life, they are settings of three poems by Hermann Hesse (“Frühling” — “Spring,” “September,” and “Beim Schlafengehen” — “Going to Sleep”) with the final poem, “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”) by Joseph von Eichendorff. The Four Last Songs form a cycle on the stages of life — Spring, the end of Summer, the advent of old age, and finally death. “Im Abendrot,” paints the picture of an elderly, life-long couple like Richard and Pauline Strauss, contemplating a beautiful sunset and wondering, in the final words, “Is this perhaps death?” It is a beautiful farewell to a heroic and well-lived life.
“Im Abendrot,” the fourth of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs sung by Renée Fleming. The conductor is Christoph von Eschenbach. The orchestra is not named.
“Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”) (Text: Joseph von Eichendorff)
Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.
Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.
Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.
O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde–
Ist dies etwa der Tod?
We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.
Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.
Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.
O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering —
Is this perhaps death?
Composed: May 6, 1948
The Essential Strauss
- Also Sprach Zarathustra
- Ein Heldenleben
- Der Rosenkavalier
- Four Last Songs (Note: Three of the finest performances ever of Metamorphosen, the Oboe Concerto, and Four Last Songs are found on a single CD of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra , with soprano Gundula Janowitz and oboist Lothar Koch)