Richard Strauss is the most prominent figure in the musical world today. Fifty years ago Wagner labored to reconstruct opera on a new foundation, casting aside the traditional Italian Opera with its formless jumble of aria, chorus, dance and recitative all entirely unrelated musically and often as totally unrelated dramatically. His idea of opera is best described by the expressive term, music-drama. And now Richard Strauss has arisen with new ideals of the purposes and scope of orchestral music, which he is fearlessly and resolutely setting forth through his compositions. His premise is that orchestral music is capable of expressing the subtlest emotions and the most involved trains of thought, and with the self-confidence of genius he is proving his theory. At the hands of the critics he is receiving much the same treatment as Wagner received. Unable to look into the heart of the man and there read his puposes and ideals or to see the good toward which he is aspiring, the critics are at a loss to know whether his tremendously eccentric composition is the result of profound sincerity or is prompted by a desire to arouse the wondering interest of the public.
The result of course is an almost equal amount of praise and blame. It is generally agreed that Richard Strauss is a genius, but whether his compositions show a healthy progressiveness or are examples of the modern decadent tendencies is matter of much discussion. Richard Strauss was born in Munich, June 11, 1864. His father, Franz S. Strauss, had been first horn in the Bavarian Court band at Munich and seems to have been an intelligent and able musician. According to his son, he could play almost every instrument in the orchestra, and had written some compositions and studies for the horn. His mother, the daughter of a wealthy brewer named Pschorr, was very well educated, and gave him his first piano lessons when he was about four and a half years old. Later he studied under a harp-player named August Tombo and took violin of Benno Walter, and when he was only six composed a three-part song, a valse, and a polka, which he called the Schneider Polka. In 1870 he entered elementary schools, and after four years was transferred to the Gymnasium, where he studied until 1882. In 1875 he began a five-years' course of strict counterpoint, theory and composition under Court Conductor F. W. Meyer. From 1882 to 1884 he studied at the University, acquiring a wide knowledge of literature and belles-lettres. His musical education during this period was founded strictly on the classics, of which he himself says, "you cannot appreciate Wagner and the moderns unless you pass through this grounding in the classics."
The first public hearing of any of his compositions occurred in 1880, when three of his songs were sung in concert. The following year his string quartet in A was played by Benno Walter's Quartet, to which it was dedicated, and his first symphony was conducted by Herman Levi. In 1883 von Bülow showed his appreciation of his serenade in E flat by putting it on the repertory of his orchestra at Meiningen, where Strauss became violinist, and in 1885 succeeded von Bülow as conductor. In 1886 he took a trip to Naples and Rome, and during this vacation wrote his Italian symphony. On returning he went to Munich to become third conductor after Levi and Fischer.
About 1890 he was called to be Court conductor at Weimar, where his radical tendencies showed themselves in his sympathetic conducting of Liszt and Wagner compositions. Overwork caused an affection of the lungs which necessitated a long trip through Sicily, Greece and Egypt in 1892. On the return from his trip, in 1894, Strauss became conductor at the Munich Court Opera, and also led the Berlin Philharmonic concerts. Gutram, a three-act opera, which he had written during his travels, was produced at Weimar in 1894 and at Munich the following year; it was never thoroughly successful in spite of much interesting music and an unusual plot. In 1894 Strauss was married to Pauline de Anna. In 1897 he went to London, Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona, and in 1898 to Zurich and Moscow. During this same year he became director of music at the Royal Opera in Berlin. As one of the greatest contemporary conductors, Richard Strauss has led orchestras in all the musical centers of Europe, including Bayreuth. His own radical ideas lend to his conducting of modern works a broad understanding and sympathy, while to the conducting of works of such classicists as Mozart he brings a brightness and sweetness that is delightful. His first American appearance was in 1904 at Carnegie Hall, New York, where he conducted Till Eulenspiegel and Death and Apotheosis. He led a Philharmonic Society concert and gave concerts in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburg. During this tour his wife sang groups of his songs with great artistic taste and ability. He returned to America in 1907 to conduct his opera, Salome, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, but this opera was given only one performance by that company.