In 2014 we celebrate the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss (June 11, 1864 – September 8, 1949). He is considered by many to be the natural musical successor to Richard Wagner and the leading German composer of the post-Romantic period of music.
Like Wagner, he was a master orchestrator known for combining large orchestras with drama and voice. Although he began as a Late Romantic composer of absolute music in the vein of Brahms, he later followed the path of Wagner and Liszt, shocking the world with a series of tone poems and operas that pushed the boundaries of accepted musical practice.
He used the tone poem as a vehicle to create a unified work that had a “program” to convey a certain mood and story for the audience to follow. Some say that Liszt created the tone poem, but Strauss perfected it. Among his best-known tone poems are Thus Spake Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, and Don Juan.
Perhaps the leading twentieth-century opera composer, his comic opera Der Rosenkavalier may be his greatest work, and one that was supposedly “inspired” by Mozart in its charm and character. That contrasts with his extremely realistic interpretation of the Greek tragedy Elektra, which many found to be too gruesome for the theater.
The son of a famous virtuoso horn player, Strauss wrote his first horn concerto before he was 20. His second horn concerto would come nearly 60 years later toward the end of his long, industrious career. His only other notable instrumental music consists of an oboe concerto, a sonata for violin, a sonata for cello, and his Burleske in D minor for Piano and Orchestra.
A tribute to Richard Strauss would not be complete without mentioning his skill as a gifted songwriter, often placed in the same breath as Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. He wrote more than 150 art songs (Lieder) throughout his career. Among his most popular are “Allerseelen” and “Morgen” in his earlier years and the celebrated Four Last Songs written in the final year of his life.
Some place Strauss among the top 20 composers of all time. He lived at a time when composers were searching for new ways of expression. His biggest contribution ultimately lies in fusing established genres like tone poems, opera and art songs with fresh tonality and lyricism to create a truly unique and lasting voice.
Try these selections available from J.W. Pepper: Works by Richard Strauss