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Timeline: Richard Strauss

U.S. Public Domain
Composer Richard Strauss spent the early years of his life being compared to Brahms and Wagner. His works continued the rich tradition of German opera.

What would you do if you spent your childhood being declared the next Brahms or Wagner? Well, if you were composer Richard Strauss, you would rise to the occasion.

Richard’s father played first horn for the Munich court orchestra. He greatly disliked the modern music of Wagner and shielded his son from the vulgar emotionalism of Wagnerian opera. That was until Richard was a teenager. Against his father’s wishes, he attended performances of Tannhauser, Siegfried and Lohengrin and devoured the score of Tristan. The damage was done and Wagner’s music became a huge influence on Strauss for the rest of his life.

By the age of 21, Strauss was a sensation across Germany; this was also the year of his first conducting appointment at Meiningen. Strauss became one of the most celebrated conductors of all time, making guest appearances around the world. Also during this time, Strauss began to read the writings of Wagner and Schopenhauer. Of particular interest was the concept of “Zukunftsmusik” or “Music of the future”. Strauss believed that “new ideas must search for new forms”.

Strauss found success on the opera stage with Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. His works became so popular that special trains would run into Dresden just so the public could see the original production. His opera career came to halt when war was declared in 1914. After the Great War he took a high profile conducting job in Vienna.

Credit US-PD
This is a photograph of Richard Strauss, his wife Pauline and son Franz taken in 1910.

For most of his life Strauss had ignored politics, but in the 1930’s that wasn’t an option anymore. In 1933, he stepped in to conduct the Bayreuth Festival after Toscanini had refused in protest of the Nazi regime. Richard was painted as a Nazi sympathizer. Goebbels even appointed him as the president of a new state music bureau. Strauss strived to not choose sides. However, his librettist was a Jew and continued to collaborate with Richard secretly. Also Strauss used his position several times to protect Jewish friends and family members.

In early 1945, Strauss composed his Metamorphosen, an elegy of German musical life which devolves into Beethoven’s funeral march. After the war was over he and his wife went into voluntary exile for holding a position during the Nazi regime.

Strauss found redemption in 1947 as a festival of his music was declared in London. Two years later, he was cleared of all charges. By this time he was very ill. He passed away just after his 85th birthday. On his death bed Strauss was quoted to say, “Dying is just as I composed it”.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Follow the Timeline on our new web app where you can hear all of the episodes in order.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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