1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Strauss, Richard

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STRAUSS, RICHARD (1864-       ), German composer, was born at Munich on the 11th of June 1864, the son of Franz Strauss, an eminent hornist. To some extent a prodigy, Strauss was something of a pianist at four, a composer at six, and at ten he was already seriously studying music under F. W. Meyer, the Munich Hofkapellmeister. Soon the result of this study began to make itself apparent. Singers sang Strauss's songs; the Walter Quartet played his Quartet in A (op. 2); Hermann Levi performed his D minor Symphony — a work that does not figure in the composer's list; and Bülow took the composer under his wing and introduced his early Serenade for wind instruments to the Meiningen public. For obvious reasons Strauss had not yet found himself. He had passed through the gymnasium and the university, and his music studies had been thorough. But all this had made of the youth merely an excellent technical musician, who in his Eight Songs (op. 10) and in his Pianoforte Quartet (op. 13) showed how strongly he was influenced by predecessors, Liszt in the one case, Mendelssohn in the other. Bülow's efforts to kindle in Strauss something of the fire of his own enthusiasm for Brahms's work ultimately proved fruitless. But to Bülow, and even more to Alexander Ritter, Strauss owed the awakening in his own mind of the interest in the modern development of music that eventually in its ripeness placed Strauss at the very top of the composers' tree of his time. In 1885 Strauss succeeded Bülow as conductor of the Meiningen orchestra, but the appointment was held only for a few months, since in April of this year Strauss resigned his post in order to travel in Italy, and on his return in the early autumn he became 3rd conductor of the Munich Opera under Hermann Levi. Four years later he was installed in Weimar as Hofkapellmeister, but once again he held his post only for a brief period, for in 1894, the year of his marriage to Pauline de Ahna, the eminent singer, he was promoted to be 1st conductor at Munich. Between these various appointments and that of Hofkapellmeister in Berlin (1899) Strauss travelled considerably in the near East and over Europe, now in search of health, anon in propagandism. His first professional visit to London was in 1897, and laid the foundation of a local English cult that culminated six years later in a Strauss festival. From that time Strauss's path lay in pleasant places. He frequently returned to London, notably to conduct a performance of Elektra, in Beecham's season at Covent Garden in the spring of 1910, and a part of a concert at Queen's Hall, when he achieved a genuine triumph by his conducting of Mozart's music.

Of the early period of Strauss the composer there is little of importance to be said. His early works were neither better nor worse than those of scores of talented students of an advanced skill in matters of technique. Indeed it has often been said, with some show of authority, that the ultimate development of Strauss is seen to any appreciable extent first in the symphonic poem Macbeth (op. 23). Here, in spite of the earlier Don Juan (op. 20), Strauss is himself, thematically and orchestrally, for the first time, for Aus Italien (op. 16) is a comparatively poor and quite unrepresentative effusion apart altogether from the faux pas contained in it by the mistaking of a popular song composed in St John's Wood, London, for a Neapolitan folk-song. A year only divides Macbeth (1887) from Don Juan (1888) — “Tondramen ohne Worte,” as they have been called. But there is an age between them and Tod und Verklärung (1889) — the bridge from one part to the other and the opening of the second section of which are amongst Strauss's most glorious inspirations. Between the last-named work and Till Eulenspiegels lustigen Streiche (1894), Strauss's first opera, Guntram finds place (first performance, Weimar, 1894), the latter a work that in spite of much réclame for the composer failed to maintain a position upon the stage. In Till Eulenspiegel is to be found a sense of fun that is worthy of note (as of emulation), and it is perhaps worth recording that no more noteworthy example of the Rondo form exists in modern music, while its approximate successor, Don Quixote (1897), is an absolutely outstanding example of the Variation form. Further, Strauss reached in Don Quixote his zenith as a musical realist. In between there occurred the Nietzschean poem Also sprach Zarathustra (1895), which stirred up more temporary strife than any of its predecessors, if not so much perhaps as was engineered later on by the production of Ein Heldenleben (1898), or by the comparatively ingenuous Symphonia domestica (1904). For various reasons these compositions roused the somewhat sleepy academics of musical Europe from their lethargy. They revived, with the usual negative results, the ancient fight as to the legitimacy or otherwise of programme music. But though performances were comparatively rare in England up to the middle of 1910, those that had occurred proved undoubtedly attractive, while their rareness might quite reasonably be attributed to the very large fees demanded for their performance.

Up to 1910 Strauss had composed four operas. Of these, Guntram was on frankly Wagnerian lines. Feuersnot, on the other hand, a satirical, purely Munich work a page out of the Munich annals, as it were, so closely is it identified with the Bavarian capital in its musical and personal reference, though produced at Dresden in 1901, remained sufficiently alive to have merited performance at His Majesty's theatre, London, again under Thomas Beecham's direction in July 1910. The same enthusiastic musician had previously produced Elektra with immense yet equal success in London (Covent Garden) in the early spring of 1910. Perhaps none of these operas enjoyed the réclame of Salome (Dresden 1905), which in England was originally barred by the censor of plays, but was performed several times at Covent Garden under Thomas Beecham in the autumn of 1910.

As a composer of songs Strauss enjoys the widest popularity in the conventional sense of the word. Many an example could be given from the hundred and more of his “Lieder” of Strauss's lawful right to be considered a lineal descendant of the royal line of German song writers. Some are transcendently beautiful. But this very fact has been thought to militate against his supreme greatness as a composer in the widest sense. The question, indeed, though in itself ridiculous, has been asked: which is the true Richard Strauss, the composer of the cacophonous Ein Heldenleben or of the exquisite Morgen or Traum durch die Dämmerung? But by 1910 he had at any rate won his place in the musical Walhalla. Whether the composer's name will survive by means of his many exquisite “Lieder,” by means of his satire and grim humour, by means of his realism or his original classicism, remains to be seen. That his position is assured among the immortals is clear if only on account of his absolute independence of thought and of expression, of his prodigious breadth of artistic view and of his capacity to say his say in the musical language of his own day. His heartiest detractors admit that Strauss has enlarged the means of musical expression even if they cavil at his somewhat realistic utterance on occasion. To put it no higher, he must rank as a 20th-century Berlioz with a vastly wider musical knowledge and equipment.