- Richard Strauss - Musical Muralist [Biography]
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Richard Strauss

"I now comfort myself with the knowledge that I am on the road I want to take,
fully conscious that there never has been an artist not considered crazy by thousands of his fellow men.

One of the most important aspects of 19th-century Romantic music was the growth of the orchestra. Some of the greatest Romantic composers - Berlioz, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky, for example - were masters of orchestration. In the closing years of the century, Richard Strauss outshined them all with his orchestral brilliance and boldness. In his symphonic poems, there was no scene, no action that he could not depict in orchestral sound. His daring shocked audiences and branded him as a "modernist". And his equally sensational operas Salome and Elecktra confirmed this opinion. As the 20th century progressed, however, composers such as Schoenberg, Bartok, and Stravinksy came to the forefront of new music, while Strauss settled back into his late romantic style. His image suddenly changed from modernist to conservative. But Strauss's place in musical history was assured as a great composer for the orchestra and as a worthy successor to his namesake Richard Wagner, in the field of German opera.

Richard Strauss was born 11 June, 1864 in Munich, Germany. He was the son of a horn player (no relation of Johann Strauss II). Young Strauss played the piano at 4, composed a polka at 6, and wrote chamber music, a concerto, and a symphony in his teens. In 1882 Strauss began music studies at Munich University, and it was here that he was befriended by conductor Hans von Bülow. A noted conductor at an early age, Strauss went on to excel on the concert platform and in the opera pit. When he was only 21 he was assistant conductor to the great Hans von Bülow for the Meiningen Court Orchestra, and in 1894, he became conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1898 Strauss was appointed chief conductor of the Royal Court Opera in Berlin, where he championed new music, including Sir Edward Elgar's. Known for his restrained podium manner, Strauss once advised would-be conductors that the thumb of the left hand should never leave the waistcoat pocket.

Richard Strauss was the dominant figure of his time in German music and a master of orchestra, drama, and voice. From the squeals of the roguish character in Till Eulenspiegel as he dangles from the gallows, to the bleating of sheep and the sound of rushing wind in Don Quixote, Strauss's orchestral music is as vivid, graphic, and breathlessly exciting as any painting or screen action. During his lifetime, he became a master orchestrator and is reported to have said that music can be used to describe anything - even a teaspoon! One of his biggest concert works, An Alpine Symphony, realistically describes the ascent of a mountain. It is written for a large orchestra consisting of nearly 150 players. The symphony even includes parts for a wind machine and a thunder machine.

The symphonic, or tone, poem was popularised by Franz Liszt, the first composer to use the orchestra to describes scenes or events in a way which broke free from traditional symphonic form. Smetana, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Franck, and many others followed Liszt's example. Strauss developed the idea further to become a master of this progressive and dramatic form, adding significantly to the existing body of German Lieder - most moving of all, redolent with a kind of autumnal nostalgia that is highly characteristic, are his Vier letzte Lieder (The Four Last Songs).

A patriotic German, Strauss was neither a Nazi nor anti-Semitic. Although he accepted the post of president of the newly formed State Music Bureau, the Reichsmusikkammer in Nov 1933 - ten months after Hitler came to power - he was forced to resign in June 1935 after the Nazis complained about his collaboration with the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig. In addition, Strauss's son had married a Jewish woman, which made his own grandchildren half-Jewish. It was probably only his international eminence that saved his family from persecution. The Allies cleared Strauss of Nazi collaboration charges in 1948.

In 1947, noted composer Sir Thomas Beecham arranged an important Richard Strauss Festival in London and invited the composer to attend. Strauss agreed, even though it meant undertaking his first aeroplane flight at the age of eighty-three. Typical of the composer, Strauss arrived at Northold airport, London, in fine health and sang the praises of air travel!

Despite his undoubted brilliance and success, Strauss was modest about his abilities. While rehearsing his music in London he said to the orchestra, "I know what I want, and I know what I meant when I wrote this. After all, I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class, second-rate composer."

Richard Strauss died 8 September, 1949.

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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