The 150th Birthday of Richard Strauss Self-Will and Establishment

The composer Richard Strauss about 1925.
The composer Richard Strauss about 1925. | Photo (detail): Richard-Strauss-Institute, Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Richard Strauss was born on 11 June 1864 – a composer who, his continuing worldwide success notwithstanding, can still be re-discovered today.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was markedly surprised and displeased: a monarch who lusts for his stepdaughter, who in turn lets all veils fall for him and demands as a reward the severed head of a prophet to be proffered to her on a sliver platter to be kissed – this was really too much. The composer would only “badly damage himself” with this, the Kaiser said after the premiere. The premiere in question could nevertheless take place in 1905 in Dresden, after it had been prevented in Vienna by the censor. “From this damage”, said Richard Strauss later, “I was able to build my villa in Garmisch.” The premiere night audience applauded the opera Salome, based on a play by Oscar Wilde, for 36 curtain calls, and today there is no director of rank who has not staged the work.

The reason for this success is not of course the scandal that the theme provoked in the early 20th century, but rather the quality of the score. “This is the apex of your achievement so far!”, exulted Gustav Mahler already after reading the partitur. “Every note is right! I’ve always known it: you are the born dramatist!” Even if Strauss had only been that, and not also the creator of many playful tone poems, a vast, coherent musical world of 300 works from eight decades of life, spanning the Wilhelminian era to the Federal Republic, we would still be celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth. In the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons, over 40 theatres worldwide are offering premieres of ten of his fifteen operas, ranging from venues from Amsterdam to Zürich and from Buenos Aires to Santa Fe (New Mexico/USA).

The “Great Composer”

Richard Strauss is one of the few composers about whom colleagues, critics and public could agree during his own lifetime (if not always about every work) – in this comparable only to his contemporary Thomas Mann. Like the “great writer”, the “great composer” also had a mercantile background: his mother came from the famous Pschorr family of beer brewers. His father Franz, however, was a musician, a horn player in Munich and an ardent despiser of the music of Richard Wagner – the composer whose Tristan score the seventeen year-old Strauss “feverishly devoured”. At this time, the sixth former’s D Minor Symphony was already premiered by the important conductor Hermann Levi.

Strauss was no child prodigy, but his compositional craft, fostered by his parents, seemed to come easy to him. His Wind Serenade attracted the attention of Hans von Bülow, who fetched him to Meiningen as a conductor. Here the young man gained the practical experience that gave his break-through work its unexampled sure touch in instrumentation: the twenty-three year-old Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan is an orchestral work of brilliant élan. The listener hears an evil, fierce predator that makes everybody happy. The continuing success of the work, as often with Strauss, is indebted to its complexity, which the listener does not immediately perceive behind the catchiness and musical coherence. It would be some time before Strauss attained to such qualities as an opera composer. The thirty year-old’s debut work in this genre, Guntram, was not a success, but through it he did meet the love of his life: he married the lead female singer, Pauline de Ahna.

Composer and businessman

The composer who in 1900 already enjoyed worldwide recognition was still the creator of tone poems, which were later even to make it big in the movies: in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Strauss’s Zarathustra is used to mark the dawn of human consciousness. Yet while Strauss was becoming the enterprising pioneer of copyrights and founded in 1898 the precursor of the present-day German collecting society GEMA, without which many composers could not make ends meet, he was threatened with artistic stagnation. The thirty-five year-old composer’s symphonic Heldenleben is a self-portrait, as virtuoso as it is vain. The man with the meteoric career had to redefine himself musically, and this he did in 1905 in his third opera Salome with a radicality that seemed to be even exacerbated in its companion piece, Elektra, three years later.

As if terrified by the existential intensity of this tonal language, Strauss delivered, in 1911, his still most popular opera: the Rosenkavalier smoothly unites a fictional Mozartian world with Wagnerian dissolutions. What Strauss hereby deepened is his psychological exploration of dominant female figures who leave the norms of society behind them. It is exactly this that Strauss himself refrained from doing: whether during the Wilhelminian empire, the Weimar Republic or the Third Reich, he adapted to the changing circumstances. For him, there was nothing contradictory about being both the President of the Reich Chamber of Music and engaging a Jewish librettist such as Stefan Zweig (for The Silent Woman), but it cost him the office in 1935.

As an artist he remained unmolested, composed his serene artists opera Capriccio during the attack on the Soviet Union and even conducted Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks before the camera as late as 1944. After the war and with the end of the dictatorship, he composed such fine later works as Four Last Songs and the Metamorphoses for 23 Solo Strings. Klaus Mann, who, unrecognized in the guise of an American reporter, visited the eighty-one year-old composer at his villa, was dismayed to find the maestro without remorse and without doubts. The post-war avant-garde equated his difficult to decode cooperation with the Nazis with his “reactionary” aesthetics, which of course did not prevent the British from already devoting an entire London festival to his work in 1947. Much sooner than the composers proscribed by the Nazis, Strauss was again present on the podium.

Yet the man who died on 8 September 1949 remained long suspect to the intellectuals. As recently as 25 years ago his “artistic ideology” was condemned as “affirmative” and “inauthentic”. Since then, we have discovered a new relevance in the psychologist in his operas, his play with his materials, his art of colour and the issue of the established social position of the artist. The avant-garde-tested SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg is working on a recording of all Strauss’s nine tone poems. Patrice Chéreau’s 2013 Elektra, the last production of the French director, is a brilliant legacy, which is now on DVD. And Metzler / Bärenreiter has recently published a comprehensive 583 page handbook on Strauss, in which the elite of musicology make up for lost time with a nuanced discussion of this major figure.