In the iconic movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, for the opening scene, its director Stanley Kubrick, turned to Richard Strauss–the opening ‘Sunrise’ section of the piece aptly conveyed Kubrick’s vision of the past, the future and the terror of human existence and artificial intelligence
Richard Strauss, born in 1864, was a leading German classical composer, conductor, pianist, and violinist of the late Romantic and early modern eras best known for his operas Der Rosenkavalier and Salome, based on the play by Oscar Wilde. The musical repertoire of Strauss was indeed deep– as a composer including symphonic poems, operas, Lieder, and other works.
Brilliantly crafted, especially from a conductor’s point of view, the real challenge of Strauss’ scores is ensuring that the orchestra performs exactly the way he wrote the pieces. His union of music and texts with their emotional and psychological depths demand their portrayal.
The richness of his orchestral texture was at the core of the beauty of his works; and when performed by a sensitive conductor, it could reach great heights, opening new frontiers of line and timbre. Strauss was a gifted composer as well as an entertainer, and a genius while operating at the peak of his career. He has since become a source of great inspiration for the modern generation of musicians
Born into a family of musicians in Munich, Strauss had started composing at the age of 6. No wonder, by the time he was 18, he had created around 140 pieces – about 40 piano works and 60 Lieders. The Festive March for Large Orchestra” (Opus 1) was composed when he was 17. He composed a choir Elektra which was based on the Sophocles tragedy at 16; and at 18 the Violin Concerto (Op. 8).
Also sprach Zarathustra
When Strauss was just 20 years, he was invited to conduct his first performance in Munich, after which his eminence as a conductor paralleled his rise as a composer. Among the conducting posts which he went on to hold were those of third conductor of the Munich Opera (age 22-25); director of the Weimar Court Orchestra (25 -30); second and then chief conductor at Munich; conductor (and later director) of the Royal Court Opera in Berlin at 34; and musical co-director of the Vienna State Opera at 55.
Strauss was regarded as an influential conductor who interpreted his own scores and also championed the new music of his contemporaries, as well as reviving the music of earlier generations. His compositions, Strauss’s early tone poems proved controversial for their daring harmonies, bold scoring, and hermeneutic challenges as program music. The uniqueness of his works lay in the fact that he turned to opera as a mode of expression, and his efforts resulted in similarly provocative scores of Salome, Elektra, and other works for the stage. Yet, Strauss’s depiction of the 18th century in Der Rosenkavalier allowed him to arrive at an idiom that remains aurally representative of his style.
Der Rosenkavalier (excerpt)
Endowed with a remarkable ability to convey psychological detail, Strauss had an unrivalled descriptive power which was the defining feature in his operas. His first opera at the age of 28 was Guntram; the next stage work at 36 being the satirical comic opera Feuersnot (Fire-Famine) which employed impish humour to mock small-town prudery and hypocrisy.
While in his early 40s came Salome, wherein Strauss transferred his mastery of the orchestral tone-poem to an opera. During the same time period was his next opera, Elektra, a one-act study of revenge as a female obsession. In this score, Strauss went as far toward atonality as he ever desired. This was followed by the opera, Der Rosenkavalier, a ‘comedy in music’ that is set in 18th-century Vienna and features an anachronistic string of waltzes and characters, which remains Strauss’s most popular stage work.
Throughout his life, Strauss wrote songs; among his best known are The Four Last Songs. Strauss left behind a phenomenal output of work. Some of the other notable works were: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64; Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major; Oboe Concerto; Don Juan; Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Death and Transfiguration; Ariadne auf Naxos; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks; Don Quixote; and Symphonia Domestica
Strauss who married soprano, Pauline de Ahna when he was 30, had a formidable musical partnership with her, and she was a great source of inspiration. Strauss passed away after his 85th birthday in 1949 in West Germany, and a few months later she also died.
Music aficionados regard Richard Strauss as a gifted entertainer who dedicated his life to music and affirm that just as Bach was the last of the great baroque composers, Strauss marked both the apex and culmination of the Romantic era. But he himself is famously quoted as saying: ‘I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.’