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R.Strauss

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R.Strauss
Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss was the most clearly programmatic composer of the nineteenth century, and he used the freedoms of musical pictorialism to create sounds that bring us into the twentieth century. While many of his works have classical underpinnings, they are driven by descriptive techniques. Strauss exploits these to create musical representations ranging from bleating sheep to the transfiguration of the human soul.

Strauss was composing by the age of six, having received basic instruction from his father, a virtuoso horn player. This was, however, his only formal training. The elder Strauss instilled in his son a love of the classical composers, and his early works follow in their path. Strauss' first symphony premiered when he was seventeen, his second (in New York) when he was twenty. By that time, Strauss had directed his energies toward conducting, and in 1885 he succeeded Hans von Bülow as conductor of the orchestra in Meiningen. For the next forty years, he conducted orchestras in Munich, Weimar, Berlin, and Vienna.

As a conductor, Strauss had a unique vantage point from which to study the workings of the orchestra. From this vantage point he developed a sense for orchestration that was unrivaled. He immediately put this sense to use in a series of orchestral pieces that he called "tone poems," including Macbeth (1888), Don Juan (188889), Tod und Verklärung (1889), Till Eulenspeigels lustige Streiche (1895), and Don Quixote (1897). These works are intensely programmatic, and in the last two Strauss elevated descriptive music to a level not approached since the techniques of text painting during the Renaissance. He also used his knowledge of orchestral techniques to produce a revised version of Hector Berlioz's important orchestration treatise; this edition remains a standard to this day.

After the turn of the century, Strauss began to shift his focus to opera. With his principal librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he created two forward-looking and shocking works: Salome, based on Oscar Wilde's controversial play, and Elektra, Hoffmannsthal's version of the classical Greek tragedy. In these works, the intense emotions and often lurid narrative elicited a more daring and demanding musical language full of extreme chromaticism and harsh timbres. But with his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss seems to have left this aside, turning to a more focused, almost neoclassical approach in his later works. With this, Strauss settled into a comfortable place in German musical society, perhaps too comfortable, given his willingness to acquiesce to the artistic maneuverings of the rising Nazi regime. In the end, he broke with the Nazis on moral grounds, and died virtually penniless in the aftermath of the Second World War.


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