About the Composer

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss was an easy-going fellow with a great sense of humor who liked playing cards. His music, the overripe fruit of Late Romanticism, is anything but easy-going; it is alternatively exciting, eerie, noisy, tempestuous, erotic, terrifying, and sublime. But the world changed during Strauss's lifetime, and Germany in the time period between 1864 and 1949 embodied more contradictions than Strauss did himself. When his career began, he was an upstart, a radical, and a dangerous subversive; when he died, he was the grand old man of classical music, the last composer carrying the age-old torch of tonality.

Strauss, who was born in Munich in 1864, grew up in a respectable bourgeois family. His father played the French horn and his mother was insane. Papa Strauss had conservative musical tastes and disapproved of music that told a story, especially the operas of Richard Wagner. (He played the challenging horn parts in Wagner's operas year after year anyway.) Needless to say, the elder Strauss was annoyed by his son, who adored Wagner and only wrote music that told a story. When Richard played his father the score of his opera Salome, the old man said, "It sounds like you have flies crawling around in your pants."

Most of Richard Strauss's works are tone poems and operas, genres which use music to tell a story. Before 1900, Strauss was an assistant conductor and rehearsal pianist with various German orchestras and opera houses. During this time, he composed a series of tone poems, pieces for symphony orchestra that use music to illustrate a story. Everyone knows the opening of Strauss's tone poem Thus Spake Zarathustra, but he also wrote tone poems on Macbeth, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, and A Hero's Life.

The hero in this last work is Strauss himself; the piece is a musical autobiography that quotes from his earlier works and portrays Strauss and his wife in music. Strauss explored his odd relationship with his wife later in his Domestic Symphony and in Intermezzo, an opera about marital bickering. While assistant conductor at the Munich Opera, he had offered voice lessons to an attractive soprano. She took him up on the offer and soon became his leading lady of choice. It is said that during a rehearsal of his opera Guntram, Strauss and Pauline became involved in a screaming brawl so loud they had to adjourn into her dressing room. They emerged shortly after, engaged. Pauline was a strong, determined woman, the daughter of an army general, and she took it upon herself to oversee every detail of her husband's life.

After the turn of the century, Strauss put his efforts into writing operas, still using music to tell a story but now with text and visuals to help with the story-telling. Writing operas turned out to be more profitable than assistant conducting; in 1909, the year of Strauss's opera Elektra, a magazine article said "Richard Strauss is making so much money with his operas that he is likely to become the richest composer who ever lived." The Strauss operas Salome and Elektra, both in one act, shocked, disgusted, horrified, and electrified audiences when they were first performed. Strauss took up less depraved and grisly subjects for his later operas. Der Rosenkavalier, often considered his masterpiece, is a charming comedy set in eighteenth-century Vienna. Strauss wrote a total of fifteen operas, six of which are regularly performed at opera houses around the world. His collaborations with the brilliant Austrian poet Hugo von HofmansthalÑwhich also include the fascinating Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and ArabellaÑare remarkable fusions of text and music.

As the leading German composer during the 1930s, Strauss accepted a post with the Third Reich. His relationship with the Nazi party has confused (and embarrassed) his biographers, many of whom describe Strauss as politically apathetic. The great conductor Toscanini, a noted enemy of fascism, described him thus: "For Strauss the composer, I take my hat off. For Strauss the man, I put it on again." Strauss may have thought that, as a musician, politics was beneath him. His beautiful Metamorphosen, an elegy for string orchestra composed in Switzerland in the late 1940s, is a tribute to the German soldiers killed in the war.

The Music of Richard Strauss

When Richard Strauss was a boy, the undisputed king and high priest of the German opera world was Richard Wagner, who premiered his greatest achievement, the enormous Ring of the Nibelung, when Strauss was 13. Strauss wanted to be the next great Richard of German opera, and his first operas are obvious imitations of Wagner. Salome, his third opera, was the first to feature an authentic Strauss voice. So listen for both the Wagner and the Strauss in the astonishing score of this opera.

The Wagner in Salome

Wagner valued character and drama above pretty tunes and developed a kind of opera that unfolds much like a play. The characters sometimes have long speeches, but they are never arias that end on a bang, with a high note and a pause in the music so the audience can applaud; they are monologues that reveal character and push the story forward. The singers rarely sing memorable tunes. Instead, the vocal lines approximate the ups and downs of how the character might actually say those words in that situation. Meanwhile, the orchestra takes care of the memorable tunes. We refer to the tunes in this kind of opera as motives; often, we hear the same motives again and again, and sometimes they refer to some element of the story (a prop or a character or a situation).

Wagner's chief contribution to the history of music was his widening of the harmonic palette. Western music's glory has always been harmony, the combination of different sounds played simultaneously. And over the years, Western composers have evolved all sorts of strict rules governing harmony, specifying which harmonies were possible in what kinds of situations, and how harmonies were to relate to one another. Wagner broke all the rules. In his opera of 1865, Tristan und Isolde, he explored all kinds of previously forbidden harmonies while his characters onstage explored forbidden feelings and relationships. It changed Western music forever, and Strauss, among other composers, adopted Wagner's expanded harmonic vocabulary. In Salome, Strauss indulges in chromatic harmoniesÐnotes which break the rules of Western European musical order-to breathe a spirit of sultry, voluptuous indulgence to his Near Eastern opera.

The Strauss in Salome

Strauss, famous as a composer of tone-poems, had a knack for signifying real-world events with clever musical effects. (The most famous is probably his graphic musical depiction of sexual climax in the prelude to Der Rosenkavalier.) To do so he increases the size of the orchestra and even comes up with creative new uses for old instruments. Some examples of vivid tone-painting from Salome include the eerie clarinet ascent that opens the opera, the terrifying flutter of the full orchestra when the hallucinating Herod hears the wings of the Angel of Death, and the maddening repetition of repeated stabs on the pinched double bass as the impatient Salome waits for the executioner to kill Jokanaan.

Our Strauss, RichardÑnot to be confused with Vienna's Johann Strauss, Jr., the Waltz KingÑis also renowned for his dances. Anyone who has heard his opera Elektra remembers the ferocious dance of victory that destroys the heroine at the end. Salome also features memorable dances, including the demented waltz sung by the five Jews as they quarrel about the significance of John the Baptist, and Salome's famous Dance of the Seven Veils. The latter, a ten-minute orchestral showpiece, is a musical microcosm of the opera featuring almost all the important motives. And while the orchestra howls away, the soprano must dance herself into a frenzyÑyet save energy for the most challenging singing of the evening, still to come!

Recommended Recordings

Karajan (EMI Classics) with Behrens and van Dam
Solti (London) with Nilsson and WŠchter

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