In addition to being perhaps the most important composer of the first half of the twentieth century, Richard Strauss was a conductor of vast skill and reputation. In purely historical terms, he was the first composer of note -- and the only composer of his standing -- to leave behind his own recordings of virtually all of his major orchestral works. Additionally, we have recordings of Strauss conducting the music of Mozart and Wagner, which he approached with a love and enthusiasm greater than for his own works. Such was his reputation at the podium from the 1920's onward, that one leading critic remarked that if Strauss had never written a note of his own music, his conducting would still have placed him among the most important musicians of his generation.
Strauss was born in Munich, the first child of the second marriage of Franz Joseph Strauss, who was regarded as the greatest French horn player in the world. Although he played--admirably by all accounts--in the premiere performances of Wagner's Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg, and Tristan und Isolde, the elder Strauss was a confirmed musical conservative and dedicated opponent of Wagner's music. He held in highest esteem the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and abhored Wagner's work.
Richard Strauss, who could read music before he could read words, received one of the finest and most comprehensive musical educations that it was possible to get. He learned the piano and later the violin, and was a first-chair player by the time he was in his early teens, with an amateur orchestra which he was occasionally permitted to conduct. He had written a considerable amount of music while still in his teens, including a symphony and an serenade for 13 wind instruments, and a violin concerto. And, in secrecy from his father, he became a dedicated Wagnerian.
Strauss made his professional conducting debut with his own Serenade in 1884, at the podium before Munich's Meiningen Orchestra. Originally the performance was to have been conducted by the orchestra's own chief conductor, Hans Von Bulow--the most renowned conductor of his generation--but Von Bulow insisted that the composer lead the orchestra in the work. Despite his unease and reluctance, Strauss got through the experience, eand earned a recommendation from Von Bulow to fill the assistant conductor's post with the orchestra. Within a month, following Von Bulow's resignation, Strauss found himself as chief conductor, and six months after that, he was working at the Court Opera, where he quickly became a major force in the musical life of Germany. Among his many achievements was the restoration to the repertory of Mozart's neglected opera Cosi fan tutte, which he accomplished almost single-handedly. For much of the rest of his life, he balanced his tandem careers as a composer and conductor, reserving special attention in the latter capacity for the works of Mozart As a conductor, Strauss' peers included Gustav Mahler, but his artistic model was Hans Von Bulow (1830-1894), the legendary nineteenth century interpreter of Wagner, who was also one of the first great musician/scholars, preparing the first definitive editions of various scores. From Von Bulow, Strauss acquired a respect for and reliance on the content of the score as written--he believed that nothing that a conductor should do with a piece of music should spring from any inspiration other than the music as written by the composer. In this regard, Strauss stood in the opposite camp from such figures as Willem Mengelberg--whom he admired, and to whom Strauss' Symphonic Poem Ein Heldenleben was dedicated--who was prone to making considerable amendments in the scores with which he worked. Among the highlights of his conducting career, Strauss was at the podium for the first Bayreuth performance of Wagner's Tannhauser in 1894, and he also led the Vienna State Opera in 1919 in a joint-directorship with Franz Schalk.
Richard Strauss knew how to test the limits of an orchestra to their fullest, and shape its sound into something unbelievably delicate. His rules for conducting, written down in 1925, included instructions for the doubling of tempos where it hardly seemed possible, and the careful muting of the winds and horns. He also gave one piece of obvious but oft-overlooked advice to conductors of his own work, which applied equally well to any part of the repertory: "Above all, don't be dull."
His approach seems borne out by the success of his own records, which are among the finest of his period. Strauss' recording career ended with the conclusion of the Second World War--he never got to work during the long-playing or stereo eras, and the only masters that exist on many of those recordings are from less-than-ideal disc sources, but his records hold up remarkably well despite these limitations. His 1929 recording of Don Juan, his 1928 recording of Salome's Dance from the opera Salome, and the Alpine Symphony from 1941 rank among the best ever done of these works. Strauss' recording career included work with the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Bavarian State Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic, the latter especially during his period of internal exile within the Reich.
Strauss' role during World War II should be mentioned, if only for the controversy that it has engendered through the decades. At the time that the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Richard Strauss was 68 years old. A humble man by nature, he had seen his music acclaimed at the turn-of-the-century as the finest produced in Germany since the days of Wagner, and his symphonic poems and early operas were among the most popular works of their eras. But by the 1920's, with the growth of modernism, especially in the guise of atonalism, and the reality of his own advancing age, he saw his position and security as increasingly precarious.
Additionally, as is little known, Strauss had a Jewish daughter-in-law whom he loved dearly, and grandchildren who, under the Nazi regime, were regarded as non-Aryan. He was also extremely naive where political matters were concerned--any political thoughts that he had were shaped during the end of the nineteenth century. He and his family might have left Germany in 1933, except that this was inconceivable for the aging Strauss, and evidently wasn't considered necessary by his family. By the time he realized what he had gotten himself into, it was too late--Strauss, as the most exalted composer in Germany, had joined the Reichsmusikkammer upon invitation from the new government, and was declared its President by Joseph Goebbels without Strauss being consulted first.
Strauss, as a result of his naiveté, was not suited to the position. He insisted upon using the services of his Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig, for his opera Die Schweigsame Frau. Additionally, he was found by the government (which was opening his mail) to have told Zweig in a latter of his belief and hope that the National Socialist Party would soon be out of power. Strauss was forced out of a position that he hadn't asked for, and quietly retired to Bavaria. He continued to write music, including one opera, the beautiful and haunting Daphne, with a politically acceptable librettist, Dr. Joseph Gregor, and one with a libretto co-authored by the conductor Clemens Krauss.
Even so, by the early 1940's, Strauss and his family found themselves in considerable jeopardy. He was denied a passport to travel to Switzerland to conduct, and was under threat of arrest for his refusal to follow the Nazi Party line. He and his family left Germany for Austria, where he resided in Vienna for the remainder of the war, conducting the Philharmonic on occasion and living under the protection of Baldur von Schirach, the appointed governor of Vienna. After the war, Strauss spent much of the postwar period in exile in Switzerland, and was villified in various quarters for his decision to participate in the cultural life of Nazi Germany. He died in Germany in the late summer of 1949, after completing his final works, the Four Last Songs, which are considered among the most beautiful works of his entire career.
Richard Strauss was the last great composer/conductor. A case could be made for Leonard Bernstein or Pierre Boulez as successors, except that neither Bernstein's nor Boulez's compositions have found especially large audiences. He was unique among composers, as a serious rival at the podium to the likes of Furtwangler, Toscanini, Walter, and Mengelberg. Among his recordings, apart from those of his own work, which occupy a special place in the history of music, his recordings of the Mozart symphonies nos. 39, 40, and 41 are most extraordinary documents--the No. 39, recorded in an inadequate early electric system, has some deficiencies in sound, but all three are briskly placed, sharply nuanced, and rich in detail. They may remind one of Toscanini's recordings in their pacing, but are, on the whole, infinitely warmer and more pleasurable to listen to. ~ Bruce Eder