Influential People: Richard Strauss

No orchestra could exist without his tone poems, written to celebrate the glories of the post-Wagnerian symphony orchestra.

Strauss! Finally.

He’s here. One of the many composers I’ve been ignoring the past few years, and how can we discuss symphonic poems and not discuss one of the greatest composers of the form? So here he is.

His Wikipedia page states:

Strauss, along with Gustav Mahler, represents the late flowering of German Romanticism after Richard Wagner, in which pioneering subtleties of orchestration are combined with an advanced harmonic style.

Also, he’s not related to the polka Strausses.

Richard Georg Strauss was born on 11 June 1864 in Munich.

Richard Strauss’s father, one Franz Strauss, was a composer and accomplished musician, a virtuoso horn player, and overall classicist. R. Strauss, from a young age, was directed by his father in a classical, more conservative direction. In the way a conservative, even prudish parent might have prevented their children from listening to Elvis or The Beatles, Father Strauss prevented his son from studying Wagner’s operas, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, which Little Strauss first heard in 1874, leaving a profound impact on the young man that would thankfully stick with him. While he came later to resent his father’s conservativeness and disdain for Wagner, he was greatly influenced by his father, as Wikipedia states, “not least in Strauss’s abiding love for the horn.”

In 1882, at 18, he entered the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, having already composed his Violin Concerto in D minor (among other works), but he entered to study philosophy and art history. He did this for a year before moving to Berlin to study with Hans von Bülow, a man who should also eventually get his own Influential People article, a man to whom he would later dedicate at least one of his works, about which we will speak tomorrow.

He learned conducting from Bülow, and at the time, many of his compositions were of a far more traditional nature. Think of German composers who would have been en vogue or wildly famous during Papa Strauss’s time: Schumann and Mendelssohn for sure, and R. Strauss’s works betray a similarity to them. His earliest works were mostly solo or chamber pieces, some of which still managed to garner attention. Bülow was fascinated with Strauss’s serenade for wind instruments, a composition he finished at only sixteen years old.

He composed a few concertante works: his two horn concertos and the violin concerto, the late oboe concerto, and the Burleske for piano and orchestra. They’re all quite well-known, but this is not a biography of Strauss (if it were, I should have mentioned by this point that he’d married a famous soprano who, despite her reputation, seemed to bring the composer great joy and inspiration, and they had one child, Franz. For his full biography, just read his Wikipedia article.) As for his greatest influence as a composer, we must turn to his symphonic poems and operas.

It was one obscure-sounding Alexander Ritter who somehow managed to encourage Strauss to do his own thing, and Wikipedia says:

The new influences from Ritter resulted in what is widely regarded[3] as Strauss’s first piece to show his mature personality, the tone poem Don Juan (1888), which displays a new kind of virtuosity in its bravura orchestral manner. Strauss went on to write a series of increasingly ambitious tone poems: Death and Transfiguration (1889), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1895),Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), Ein Heldenleben (1898), Symphonia Domestica (1903) and An Alpine Symphony (1911–1915). One commentator has observed of these works that “no orchestra could exist without his tone poems, written to celebrate the glories of the post-Wagnerian symphony orchestra.”

There are a few main points here I’m going to gloss over, those being Strauss’s operas and his association (or not) with Nazi Germany. For one, I am unashamedly unfamiliar with Strauss’s operas; looking at his list, though, aside from a decided failure and a controversy, his operatic output shows some highly regarded, very successful works that have since become staples of the repertoire.

As for the political stuff, go figure it out yourself.

I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.

His works are consistently some of the most-loved, recognized and oft-performed in modern concert halls, and easily one of the most influential, successful, memorable composers of the twentieth century. Even as early as the ’30s and ’40s, he made recordings of both his works and those of others. Wikipedia says the following:

Pierre Boulez has said that Strauss the conductor was “a complete master of his trade”.[36] Music critic Harold C. Schonberg writes that, while Strauss was a very fine conductor, he often put scant effort into his recordings.

Regardless, Richard Strauss’s name is one to know in the classical music world, everything from his concertos, his chamber works, operas, to his conducting, but what we will focus on this week are the earliest of his symphonic contributions to the symphonic poem repertoire, of which he is undoubtedly a master. See you tomorrow.

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