Richard Georg Strauss was a German composer. Born on June 11, 1864, in Munich, Strauss’s father, Franz, was a famed French horn player who held great influence over his son’s life path, educating him in music from an early age. At six years old, Strauss wrote his first composition. And as a child, he received private lessons in music theory and orchestration from one of the assistant conductors of the Munich Court Orchestra. Strauss’s father, who admired the talents of Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn, didn’t allow his son to expose himself to the music of the German Richard Wagner, even though he had played principal French horn in many Wagner premieres. Strauss studied philosophy and art history for one year at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich before moving to Berlin to pursue a career in music conducting and composition.
In 1885, Strauss met composer, violinist, and nephew by marriage of Wagner, Alexander Ritter. Ritter encouraged Strauss to allow himself to be influenced by those other than the classics, and Strauss began to compose tone poems, art songs that told stories. Some of these tone poems included Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the “Sunrise” section of which has been immortalized in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1894, Strauss married soprano Pauline de Ahna. She was known for being brash, eccentric, and loud, in contrast to Strauss’s quiet and aloof nature, but the two got along famously until his death, and he wrote several considerable soprano roles in his operas for her and others.
As the turn of the century neared, Strauss began to devote himself to opera. His first two operas were controversial and didn’t garner much success. It wasn’t until 1905 when Strauss premiered Salome, based on the Oscar Wilde play of the same name, that he began to gain recognition as a composer for the opera. His next opera, 1909’s Elektra, based on ancient Greek mythology, was the first of many operatic collaborations during a 23-year partnership between Strauss and Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Though Strauss continued to write orchestral works throughout his lifetime, he also established himself as a writer of opera. During World War I, Strauss deposited his great life’s fortune in the Bank of England, and the United Kingdom confiscated it all from him, deeming it enemy funds. However, Strauss’s most recent opera, The Woman Without a Shadow, was profitable enough to keep his family more than comfortable. In 1920, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal, with others, founded the annual Salzburg Festival.
Although World War I proved to be difficult for Strauss, the rise of the Nazi regime brought even greater challenges. Strauss had always been apolitical and continued to be, and he only involved himself in politics when he could help promote music, culture, and the arts. Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels appointed Strauss to the honorary position of the president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the Reich Music Chamber. However, Strauss was closely affiliated with many Jewish people (his son married a Jewish woman, and through them, he had two Jewish grandchildren, and he wrote operas with the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig). Strauss, who was never a member of the Nazi Party, was able to use his considerable influence in the administration to prevent his daughter-in-law and grandchildren from being sent to concentration camps, but he could not help his daughter-in-law’s extended family, many of whom were murdered. After the war, Strauss continued to compose orchestral pieces and concertos. At age 85, Strauss died from heart failure on September 8, 1949. He is considered one of the last of the great German composers, having bridged the gap between the late Romantic and the modern periods.