Richard Strauss

Biography

Born: Jun 11, 1864; Germany   Died: Sep 8, 1949; Germany   Period: 20th Century
Though the long career of Richard Strauss spanned one of the most chaotic periods in political, social, and cultural history of the world, the composer retained his essentially Romantic aesthetic even into the age of television, jet engines, and atom bombs. Born in Munich in 1864, Strauss was the son of Franz Joseph Strauss, the principal hornist in the Munich Court Orchestra. Strauss demonstrated musical aptitude at an early age, and extensive Read more training in piano, violin, theory, harmony, and orchestration equipped him to produce music of extraordinary polish and maturity by the time he reached adulthood. His primary teachers had been his father, who was a musical conservative, and Ludwig Thuille, a Munich School composer and family friend. Strauss' Serenade for 13 Winds, Op. 7 (1881), written when he was 17, led conductor Hans von Bülow to pronounce him "by far the most striking personality since Brahms." Bülow was able to give Strauss his first commission and an assistant conductor position. Through new friendships, Strauss learned to admire the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the music of Wagner and Liszt. He embarked on a long career of conducting and composing, which take him all over Europe and the U.S.

From the beginning of Strauss' career as a composer, it was evident that the orchestra was his natural medium. With the composition of the "symphonic fantasy" Aus Italien in 1886, Strauss embarked on a series of works that represents both one of the pivotal phases of his career and a body of music of central importance in the late German Romantic repertoire. Though he did not invent the tone poem per se, he brought it to its pinnacle. In such works as Don Juan (1888-1889), Ein Heldenleben (1897-1898), and Also sprach Zarathustra (1895-1896) -- whose first minute or so, thanks to its use in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the composer's most readily recognizable music -- Strauss displayed his abundant gift for exploiting the coloristic possibilities of the orchestra as a dramatic device like few composers ever had (or have since).

With the arrival of the twentieth century, after becoming conductor at Berlin's Hofoper, Strauss' interest turned more fully to opera, resulting in a body of unforgettable works that have long been fixtures of the repertoire: Salome (1903-1905), Elektra (1906-1908), and Der Rosenkavalier (1909-1910) are just a few of his best-known efforts for the stage. In 1919, Strauss became co-director of the Vienna Staatsoper, but was forced to resign five years later by his partner, Franz Schalk, who resented being left with many of the operational duties while Strauss was frequently away guest conducting or being feted as a great composer. When the political situation in Europe became malignant in the 1930s, profound political naïveté led to Strauss' confused involvement with the Nazi propaganda machine, and the composer eventually alienated both the Nazis and their opponents. With the end of World War II, however, he was permitted to resume his professional life, although it would be a mere echo of his previous fame. He began to have serious health problems, his financial situation had been compromised, and the monuments that embodied great German art for him -- Goethe's Weimar house; the Dresden, Munich, and Vienna opera houses -- had been destroyed. Throughout his last years, works such as the Oboe Concerto (1945) and the gorgeously expressive Four Last Songs (1948) attest to Strauss' unwavering confidence in his singular musical voice.
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Richard Strauss: Don Juan; Death And Transfiguration; Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks
Release Date: 11/12/2013   Label: Reference Recordings  
Catalog: 707   Number of Discs: 1
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Strauss: Friedenstag / Bass, Marc, Roloff, Collegiate Chorale & Orchestra
Release Date: 10/1991   Label: Koch International Classics  
Catalog: 7111   Number of Discs: 1
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Notturno - Strauss: Songs / Thomas Hampson, Wolfram Rieger
Release Date: 05/06/2014   Label: Deutsche Grammophon  
Catalog: 002037002   Number of Discs: 1
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Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier / Solti, Te Kanawa, Bonney, Howells, Haugland
Release Date: 01/13/2004   Label: Kultur Video  
Catalog: 2029   Number of Discs: 1
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Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - A Film By Paul Czinner
Release Date: 11/16/2010   Label: Kultur Video  
Catalog: 4684   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Elektra, Op. 58

 

About This Work
Coming immediately after his one-act shocker, Salome (1905), Elektra (1909) took Richard Strauss further into a musical world that stood in bleak contrast to nineteenth century Romantic opera. This tale of multiple murder and bitter vengeance also Read more proved crucial to Strauss' later development as a composer of opera, since it marked the beginning of his collaboration with the young Viennese poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose German translation of Sophocles' Greek tragedy originally inspired Strauss to take up the subject, and with whom he would craft his most lasting masterpieces.

The story is simple. Elektra is mourning the death of her father Agamemnon, murdered by her mother, Klytemnestra. She tries to persuade her sister Chrysothemis to help her avenge his death. Their brother Orestes, whom they feared dead, returns home and is persuaded to kill both Klytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. ("Very unlike" -- as one English nobleman is supposed to have remarked after seeing the opera -- "the home life of our own dear Queen.")
As with his setting of Oscar Wilde's Salome, Strauss' Elektra is not merely an adaptation for musical purposes, but a "play set to music." As in Sophocles' original, the climax of the opera is not the murder of Klytemnestra and Aegisthus, but the tense relationship that develops between Elektra and Orestes as she incites him to action.

Strauss always favored the soprano voice and, in a cast of 14, indulged himself in no fewer than six, in both major and minor roles. The subliminal effect of this high tessitura, together with lavish orchestration and a certain amount of atonality, is to intensify the psychological conflicts that emerge as Elektra pursues her vengeful plan. "The struggle between words and music has been the problem of my life right from the beginning" wrote Strauss in a letter to the famous Wagner singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who sang Klytemnestra at the first performance. If Elektra wins that hidden struggle it is through the sheer power and conviction of the music.

Aside from their somewhat scandalous subject matter, there are few similarities between Elektra and Salome. As von Hofmannsthal wrote, "In Salome much is, so to speak, in purple and violet. In Elektra...it is a mixture of night and light, or black and bright." The events leading up to Orestes' deed are not matched by anything corresponding, or even faintly similar, to those in Salome and lead to "victory and purification -- a sequence I can imagine as being much more powerful in music than in the written word."

The first night was not a success. The critic Julius Korngold sarcastically wrote "How beautiful was the Princess Salome tonight!" Strauss riposted "When a mother is slain on stage do they expect me to write a violin concerto?" Following its presentation at Covent Garden the English critic Bernard Newman wrote of "a strain of coarseness and thoughtlessness" in Strauss which persuaded him to "take up so crude a perversion of the old Greek story as that of Hugo von Hofmannsthal," and Bernard Shaw asked "Is there [anywhere] such an atmosphere of malignant and cancerous evil as we get here?" Inexplicably the first New York performance in 1932 was in French.

Yet in many ways Elektra is Strauss' most successful opera, though not his most popular. Its one-act structure leads to a concise, relentless and fast-developing drama of a sort not conspicuous in the composer's more Romantic works.

-- Roy Brewer
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