Strauss, Richard



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.


The greatest master of orchestration who has ever lived, Strauss has written compositions much after the style of Liszt's symphonic poems, which he calls tone-poems, and which are the musical marvels of his generation. Under the touch of his genius the orchestra becomes one marvelous instrument, capable of expressing with absolute veracity the whole gamut of human emotions. By means of it he places before his audience the most abstruse philosophical questions or startles them with an absolute portrayal of the most intimate human feelings. He is a perfect master of instrumentation and writes for the largest orchestra with an ease and sureness of touch that no other composer has ever possessed. Sometimes clashing, dissonant chords are piled mountain high, and at others the tones die to a shivering whisper uncannily expressive. Sometimes he tells his story in hideous ear-racking dissonances, and he is often purposely ugly for almost a page at a time, but if this is so, it is because just such discords best express what he wishes to tell. He is too mightily in earnest to be considerate of our feelings. His earliest writings show the influence of the classics which formed the studies of his youth. The symphony in F minor, dated 1881, is one of these, as are also the serenade in E flat for thirteen wind-instruments, the piano quartet in C minor, his settings to Goethe's Wanderer's Sturmlied and many of his songs. Aus Italien, the symphonic fantasia written during an Italian trip in 1886, marks the transition from his earlier conventional style to the style of his maturity. Written on popular and characteristic themes, it is fresh, vigorous and even melodious. It was followed by a group of tone-poems which have placed their author among the greatest composers. The first to appear was Macbeth, written in 1887, and followed the next year by Don Juan. For subtle character-painting and expression of intimate human emotions these compositions are deservedly admired, and as the first expressions of Strauss' new development created much discussion. In 1889 he wrote Death and Apotheosis, the only symphony which has a short poem of explanation and introduction. It is a picture of a human soul, which about to face its Maker, reviews the life it has lived, with its hopes and disappointments and achievements. It is one of the composer's greatest works. It was followed by Gutram, written about 1892, and Till Eulenspiegel in 1894. This latter is an attempt to portray the coarse pranks of the historic jester, Tyll Owlglass. Grotesque and eccentric, its broad humor streaked across with passionate and melancholy strains, it is one of the finest descriptive pieces in musical composition.


Also Spake Zarathustra, which followed Till Eulenspiegel chronologically, is generally considered Strauss masterpiece. It is an attempt to set forth in music the philosophical ideas in Nietzsche's great work of that name, an attempt to trace the development of man in his relation to nature, religion and other phases of life and express it in music. It marks a new era in program music, for it is the furthest departure that has been made from customary tone sequences and arrangements. It is not music for its own sake, but music as a means of expressing philosophical and abstract ideas.


Don Quixote, his next symphonic poem, dated 1897, is an attempt at portraying the fantastic Knight of Mancha in all his ludicrous and melancholy adventures. In it Strauss reaches one of the highest points in his artistic career, and there is nothing in musical composition to compare with his treatment of the mus'c depicting   Don Quixote's slowly developing insanity and final madness. Hero Life, composed in 1898, is of all Richard Strauss' works the most unequal and confused. Of some assistance is the slight outline by the author which follows: The Hero; The Hero's Antagonist; The Hero's Consort; The Hero's Battlefield; The Hero's Works of Peace; The Hero's Retirement from Worldly Life and Strife and Ultimate Perfection. In spite of this key it is impossible to follow the weavings of Strauss* fancy through the elaborate scoring of this piece. Full of interest and beauty, although far less pretentious, is the piano accompaniment to Tennyson's Enoch Arden, which Strauss wrote in 1897 or 1898. It has his characteristically unusual thematic combinations and skilful treatment and has a tenderness, a sympathy with the text of the beautiful poem that delights and surprises. After the feverish and abnormal tone-poems it is a relief.


Strauss' writings of more recent date include Feuersnoth, composed in 1901, which was his second opera and dealt with the history of Feuersnoth, a maiden who was the only source of fire or light to her community. Like Gutram the plot reminds us of those chosen by Richard Wagner. Taillefer, composed in the winter of 1902 and 1903, is a setting of the ballad by the German poet, Ludwig Uhland, which recounts the adventures in the battle of Hastings of Taillefer, a serving man, who has been knighted by William of Normandy. Direct and brilliant, it is built around a simple folk-melody and in its complex web of fine descriptive music holds much rich, fierce beauty. Next in order came the Symphonia Domestica, first performed in Berlin in 1904. It is written in one movement and three subdivisions: (a) Introduction and scherzo, (b) adagio, (c) double fugue and finale. It purports to represent a day in the artist's life and is supposed to represent the father and mother and son, but the listener, unaided by any sort of explanation or program, is unable to get at the author's meaning. The Cradle Song in the scherzo and the Love Scene in the adagio are its best parts, but artistically it is not an adequate representation of the subject in its highest possibilities. The latest composition to be produced is Salome, an opera to a libretto from Oscar Wilde's play written around the Bible story of the beheading of John the Baptist. According to Lawrence Gilman this is a decline in his work. Another form of composition in which Strauss excels is in the smaller form of song-writing. In this field he has written some of the most interesting of modern  songs. These are always characteristic, replete with dramatic expression, and written with an accompaniment that is usually symphonic in tone and that is always interesting. These songs have a wholesomeness in character that is refreshing after the sentimentality of most compositions in this form; the effect is produced not by harmony or melodic beauty but by their emotional truth. One of the most beautiful of these pieces is Morgen, with its fine nun's music and its masterly instrumentation, and others are his Wanderer's Sturmlied; Mood-pictures, a collection of four songs; Meditation; Dreams; A Heather Picture; and In a Quiet Forest Path. Strauss is the first true musical realist, and in these short compositions he has been able to obtain wonderful results owing to his remarkable power of exactly translating a mood or an emotion into music. Richard Strauss, the man, is quiet and modest, and very young when one considers all that he has accomplished. Many of the critics maintain that his inventive genius is on the wane, that the mine of his fancy is worked out, and that his late compositions have not followed along the line of Thus Spake Zarathustra and Don Quixote. But should he never write anything more these two compositions, together with Till Eulenspiegel, Don Juan and Enoch Arden, place him among the immortals.