Richard Strauss


Romantic/20th Century

Richard Strauss started out as a ‘bad boy’ of German music. His early operas, Elektra and Salome, had shocking, violent music that depicted murder and madness. He ended up writing rich, sad, humorous operas like Der Rosenkavalier, the sunset of the great Romantic tradition that gave us Wagner and Mahler. So he began as a rebel and ended more gently.

In between, he composed a number of big, rich orchestral works that we call tone poems (or symphonic poems): they are descriptive – almost like poems-in-sound. Strauss was brilliant at using the instruments in the orchestra, producing massive walls of sound with the brass, the most delicate bird-calls with the woodwind, great waves with the strings. It was as if the whole orchestra was his own instrument, and he played it like a virtuoso.

He wrote dozens of songs, and he adored the soprano voice – his wife was a soprano, and many of his operas have a big soprano role. His father had been a professional horn player in Munich, and Strauss made himself popular with horn players – who don’t have a lot of solo music – by writing two horn concertos.

Strauss was a conductor, too, and a good businessman. He wanted his music to be popular and make money, and he succeeded. During the Second World War, he stayed in Germany and was accused later of having helped the Nazis. But it was such a difficult and complicated time that any judgement is not simple to make. The truth is that Strauss loved Germany and German music. At the darkest time of the war, he wrote Metamorphosen for string orchestra, which expresses the anguish he felt at the destruction of German art and culture.

Aged 84, in 1948, he wrote the unbearably beautiful Four Last Songs. With lush orchestral sounds and soaring soprano lines, they express a calm acceptance of dying… and the following year, that is just what he did.

Richard Strauss, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Pick a track by Richard Strauss…

Also sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’), Op. 30, TrV 176: I. Also sprach Zarathustra

This is the beginning of the best known of Strauss’s symphonic poems: it was used in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a work of great power.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Zdenĕk Košler

Taken from Naxos 8.550182

Salome, Op. 59, TrV 215: Salome’s Dance (‘Dance of the Seven Veils’)

This dance sequence comes towards the end of the opera Salome and was immediately notorious because the scene – the beheading of John the Baptist – was so violent.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdenĕk Košler

Taken from Naxos 8.550182

An die Nacht (‘To the Night’), from 6 Lieder, Op. 68, TrV 235

This is a typical Strauss song, written for the soprano voice. It is a setting of a poem by the poet Clemens Brentano about the mysterious power of night.

Performers: Ricarda Merbeth, soprano; Weimar Staatskapelle; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.570283

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Strauss was accused of helping which political party?

a. Communist Party
b. Nazi Party
c. Labour Party

 At the end of his life, Strauss wrote a set of beautiful songs. What were they called?

a. Four Serious Songs
b. Four Season Songs
c. Four Last Songs

 The start of one of Strauss’s works was used in which famous film?

a. 2001: A Space Odyssey
b. Raiders of the Lost Ark
c. The Lord of the Rings

 Strauss’s father played the instrument for which Strauss wrote two concertos – which instrument was it?

a. Clarinet
b. Bassoon
c. French horn

 Strauss particularly loved the sound of which singing voice?

a. Baritone
b. Contralto
c. Soprano

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Strauss couldn’t study Wagner’s music until he was 16 – his father thought its bold new ideas were a bad influence.
  2. Strauss was a conductor as well as a composer.
  3. Richard Strauss is not related at all to Johann Strauss and his family, who wrote waltzes in Vienna.
  4. Strauss stayed in Germany after the Nazis took power: many people felt that he did not show enough objection to them.
  5. The opening of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra was used by Stanley Kubrick in his popular film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Tone Poems

Don Juan, Op. 20, TrV 156

In this tone poem, Strauss pictures the life of the legendary Don Juan. He wrote it when he was only 24 and it made him famous. In this version, Don Juan searches fruitlessly for the perfect woman and, as often happens in modern music, becomes sad because he can’t find her! As well as huge, energetic sounds from the orchestra, Strauss draws out tiny ones too: listen at 1.56, just before a violin solo: can you hear the tinkling of a glockenspiel?

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdenĕk Košler

Taken from Naxos 8.550250

Ein Heldenleben (‘A Hero’s Life’), Op. 40, TrV 190

Strauss’s tone poems carry forward the ideas of Liszt and Wagner, developing musical themes in a spun web of orchestral sound. Ein Heldenleben (‘A Hero’s Life’) is an autobiographical work – the composer himself is the ‘hero’. His strong theme begins the whole thing, and Strauss quotes music from his other pieces all over the place. The writing for the orchestra is excellent: Strauss knew how to use the various instruments at their best, so all kinds of colours and moods are drawn out. Listen to the start of track 2, with flute and oboe hopping about – it couldn’t be more different from the start – and track 5: you know there’s a battle afoot here from the trumpets’ fanfare; by the beginning of track 6 there are snare drums too. The work moves through heroism and love, and in the end finds peace. As Strauss himself said when he was working on it: ‘…it does have lots of horns, horns being quite the thing to express heroism.’ These are heard in many places, though sometimes they are less easy to spot because the whole orchestra is playing too. At 5.37 in track 6 you can hear the horns blasting out part of the ‘hero’ theme that was first heard right at the beginning from the string instruments.

Performers: Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casadesus

Taken from Naxos 8.573563

Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’), Op. 24, TrV 158

This is a dark tone poem written for a large orchestra. It depicts the death of an artist and his thoughts before, at the end, he achieves the transfiguration that he has always longed for. Transfiguration means a kind of change into a more beautiful, radiant state of being. As he lies dying, the man remembers his childhood, his struggles through life, and his achievements. As Strauss himself lay dying 60 years later, he told his daughter: ‘Alice, it’s a funny thing; dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.’

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdenĕk Košler

Taken from Naxos 8.550250

Till Eulenspiegels lustige streiche (‘Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks’), Op. 28, TrV 171

This tone poem is, for a change, comic. A peasant, Till Eulenspiegel, experiences various misadventures and pranks: he knocks over market stalls, pokes fun at clergymen, flirts, makes fun of professors… until he’s arrested, sentenced to death and executed. Strauss depicts all this with clever use of the orchestra. The horn plays a big part, of course (Strauss loved horns): at 0.17 a solo horn pops up with a theme that comes again and again in the music. The other theme we hear a lot is the one from the very start – it comes on various instruments as if they’re saying ‘boo’ from behind a door: listen to the clarinet at 1.09, for example.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdeněk Košler

Taken from Naxos 8.550250

Other Orchestral Works

Sinfonia Domestica (‘Domestic Symphony’), Op. 53, TrV 209

This ‘Symphony’, as it is called in the title, is also a tone poem: written for a large orchestra, it depicts family (‘domestic’) life. You hear the family gathering, the child, the husband bustling about, and even a clock striking seven. The work was so successful that Strauss conducted it to large crowds in a department store in New York! Some people thought this was vulgar, but Strauss insisted that it was fine (partly because he made a good amount of money from doing it). Like Wagner, Strauss loved a big orchestra – especially a big brass section. This work is for: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, oboe d’amore, cor anglais, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contra-bassoon, 4 saxophones, 8 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tenor drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, antique cymbals, tambourine, glockenspiel, 2 harps and – of course – violins, violas and cellos (lots of them!). (As a comparison, a symphony by Mozart might have: 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns and a smaller group of violins, violas and cellos.)

Performers: Weimar Staatskapelle; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.570895

Metamorphosen, TrV 290

This ‘study for 23 solo strings’ was written by Strauss in between 1944 and 1945. Germany had been badly bombed by this time, and it is thought that this work was a kind of elegy. Strauss couldn’t bear the destruction of German culture. The piece is incredibly intense – tragic and at the same time irresistibly beautiful. It is the sort of music that can sometimes make you cry, even if you don’t know anything about it.

Performers: Weimar Staatskapelle; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.570895

Songs and Opera

Vier letzte Lieder (‘Four Last Songs’), Op. Posth., TrV 296

These four songs, for solo soprano and orchestra, are Strauss’s sublime gift to the world in his old age. Perhaps nobody else so old (Strauss was 84) has written such wonderful music. He knew he would die before long, and this music expresses a calmness about it. The poems he uses are by Herman Hesse (tracks 1–3) and Joseph von Eichendorff (track 4). The first song is about spring, and includes bird-calls from the flute; ‘September’ has a feeling of the end of summer (it includes the words ‘The garden mourns / cold falls the rain on the flowers’); the third song suggests the sleep of death; and the fourth asks, right at the end, ‘Is this perhaps death?’, as you hear the trilling birdsong (e.g. at 7.10). It is a very special work – a masterpiece.

Performers: Ricarda Merbeth, soprano; Weimar Staatskapelle; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.570283

Der Rosenkavalier (‘The Knight of the Rose’), Op. 59, TrV 227: Suite

Strauss allowed a suite (a collection of pieces) for orchestra to be published, using music from his popular comic opera Der Rosenkavalier. It begins with the opera’s prelude (horns feature again!) and goes through various music from the full opera. There’s quite a bit of waltzing: a waltz is a dance in triple time. This is very clear at 12.45, for example, and also the very end – from 21.41.

Performers: Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta

Taken from Naxos 8.572041

Der Rosenkavalier (‘The Knight of the Rose’), Op. 59, TrV 227 (excerpt)

Der Rosenkavalier is a German opera, but in it there is an Italian singer who sings in Italian to a princess: this is what he sings. The words basically mean that the singer falls in love, despite trying not to! It ends on a very high note for a tenor (a top C sharp, to be precise), which you can hear at 1.51.

Performers: Janez Lotrič, tenor; Ukrainian National Opera Symphony Orchestra; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.555920