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Classical Composers A-Z: Richard Strauss

Peter Wintersgill presents a word portrait of Richard Strauss, the German composer who wrote his first symphony at the age of 16.

Born
In Munich 11th June, 1864.

Father
Franz Joseph, horn player in Munich Opera.

Mother
Josepha, brewer's daughter, mentally unstable, father's second wife.

Family
Sister Berta, three years younger. Aunt Johanna, good mezzo soprano. He wrote songs for her.

Childhood
Started piano lessons at four, started composing at six, entered cathedral choir school at seven, started violin lessons at eight and wrote the overture Highland Loyalty.

At 11 he started composition lessons with F.W. Meyer, and at 16 wrote his first symphony and string quartet. Thus we can see that he grew up surrounded by music, which was the centre of his life.

His general education was not neglected, he entered the local grammar school at ten. By the time he left school at 18 he had composed 140 pieces, mainly songs and piano pieces.

Adolescence
As a boy, like his father, he hated Wagner and his music, but grew to like them both as he grew older. He was a life long admirer of Mozart and was also influenced by Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.

At 21 he became assistant and later successor to Hans von Bulow as conductor of the Meiningen Court Orchestra. Previously, in 1822, they had performed the premiere of his Serenade for Wind in Berlin. He conducted the premiere of his Suite for Wind op 4 in 1884, having written his second symphony the previous year.

Early Adult Life
Became conductor of Munich Opera in 1886, where he stayed for two years, after visiting Italy and writing Aus Italien. This was not thought to be a good impression of Italy. He moved to a similar post in Weimar in 1889.

He met Brahms, who advised him about composition, but he was not impressed by the advice. Hans von Bulow had persistent headaches. His doctor sent him to Cairo with no benefit, and he died soon after of a brain tumour in 1894.

One of Strauss' main claims to fame was his series of symphonic poems, which boosted his reputation, MacBeth in 1888, Don Juan in 1889, Tod and Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration) 1890, Till Eulenspiegel 1895. Also Sprach Zarathustra 1896, Don Quixote 1898 and Ein Heldenleben 1899.

Like Liszt before him he helped younger composers, e.g. Mahler and Engelbert Humperdinck. The premiere of the latter's Hansel and Gretel he conducted in 1893, his fiancee Pauline playing Hansel.

Like many musicians, e.g. Handel and Beethoven, he had a quick temper, which was equally quick to subside. He was either loved or hated, seldom provoked indifference.

In 1891 he caught pneumonia, in those days a very serious disease, taking several months to recover. The condition recurred the following year, so he was sent to convalesce in Egypt, later staying in Italy, Greece and Switzerland. He was away eight months altogether, so had plenty of time to rest, think and generally find himself. He saw all the sights, e.g. museums and monuments, being a very meticulous sightseer.

His first opera Guntram had its premiere at Weimar in 1894, which was a failure. The leading lady was soprano Pauline de Ahna, a general's daughter, whom he married later that year. They had a long and happy marriage lasting 55 years. He wrote songs for her, which he accompanied on the piano. As a result he wrote much music for the soprano voice, writing with great insight and understanding.

He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the season 1894/95. In 1897 his son Franz was born. His autobiographical Synfonia Domestica had its premiere

in New York in 1904, the year he visited the USA, having visited the UK the previous year.

In 1905 his father died. In 1908 he moved to Garmisch- Partenkirchen, where he had a house built. In 1910 his mother died.

Later Adult Life
His other claim to fame was his collection of 15 operas, the three best known being Salome, 1905, which at first was considered obscene, Electra, 1909, which was considered brutal, and Der Rosenkavalier, 1911, which was considered immoral, but later became a great favourite, and was probably his greatest opera.

The librettist for five of his operas, including Electra and Rosenkavalier, was Hugo von Hofmanstal. His opera Ariadne auf Naxos and its orchestral suite Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme were written in 1912, and the Alpensinfonie in 1915.

In 1920 he carried out a conducting tour of South America.

In 1924 his opera Intermezzo with his own libretto was produced. It was based on an incident in his own marriage.

In 1933 the new Nazi regime made him president of the Reichmusikkammer, Reich music Chamber. They removed him two years later because the librettist of his opera, The Silent Woman, was a Jew. The opera was quickly banned. Apart from this he was tolerated by the Nazis, but was kept under observation because his daughter-in-law was Jewish.

Visiting London in 1936, he conducted the premieres of two of his operas, Friedenstag and Daphne, at Covent Garden. He was also awarded the Gold Medal of the Philharmonic Society. Later operas included Arabella 1933, and Capriccio 1942, his last. He went to Switzerland after World War II, returning only after being cleared by a denazification court.

During and after World War II his works included the second Horn Concerto, 1942, the Oboe Concerto, 1946, the orchestral work Metamorphosen, 1946 (inspired by the destruction of opera houses in bombing raids), and a few songs, including the Four Last Songs 1948 for soprano and orchestra.

He visited London in 1947 to conduct some of his own works.

He died in Garmish-Partenkirchen on 8th September, 1949, shortly after his 85th birthday, following a bladder operation (prostate?), followed by uraemia and heart failure. The funeral at Munich four days later was attended by a large crowd, including civic dignitaries and several musicians. The 94-year-old George Bernard Shaw, who attended many of his concerts, paid his own particular tribute. Pauline died eight months later in May 1950.

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