Richard Strauss was born into a line of many famous people such as Franz Strauss, Johann Strauss, Johann Strauss (who was so famous he must be mentioned twice), and Levi Strauss. His father, Franz Strauss, was forced to play the French horn to make ends meet, thus affecting the whole of Richard's artistic output, as well as much of his other music. Franz blamed his lack of success as a jeans tycoon on the music of Richard Wagner, which he forbade Richard from ever listening to.
Strauss married soprano Pauline de Ahna on September 10, 1894. She was famous for being bossy, ill-tempered, eccentric, outspoken and altogether a bitch (which is indicative of Strauss' masochistic Oedipal desires) but that didn't prevent the marriage from being awful. Throughout Strauss' life, she was a great source of irritation to him.
Something of a shadow was cast over Strauss's reputation in later life: Not only was he once coldly polite to someone who had something to do with Hitler (nobody can quite remember who or what, but this seems like pretty incriminating evidence nonetheless), but he also had an unfortunate lifetime fascination with scat. He died on September 8, 1949, and his funeral was attended by a number of his grief-stricken favourite sopranos, who were so overcome by his music that one by one they each had to break off from weeping in order to sing it. The demented Pauline memorably threw herself on his coffin in her distraction, but the gravediggers weren't quick enough and she outlived her husband by a further six months.
Initially Strauss concentrated on tone poems such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Till Eulenspiegel Gets Hanged For His Merry Pranks (Spoiler Alert!), Ein Heldenleben, and his popular Don trilogy, Don Juan, Don Quixote, and Don McLean. Later, he became known primarily as an opera composer, as this seemed an excellent way of getting even more notes into the same length of time and because ever since seeing Der Ring des Nibelungen he had acquired an obsession with Gods in pointy hats singing about Nietzsche.
Strauss' first two attempts at opera, Gun Tram (later turned into the hit movie Speed) and Feuersnot (in which the hero dies horribly of severely inflamed sinuses and his girlfriend succumbs to embarrassing flatulence), were complete and total failures. Nevertheless, Strauss insisted on writing a further thirteen before being satisfied that he wasn't very skilled in that genre.
A first-century event originally documented by Oscar Wilde, the legend of Salome (pronounced "salami") was later translated into French by the lesser-known St. Matthew in his gospel. Matthew fell into obscurity, dying penniless after spending all his earnings on expensive jeans, but his reputation was rescued by Strauss when he set the play to music.
Salome's 'Dance of the Seven Whales' is often performed, with disastrous results, in concert by artists such as Deborah Voigt.
Inspired by classical drama from Strauss's homeland, Prisoner Cell Block H. Birgit Nilsson is bent on revenge when her mother, Klytämnestra, cuts short bathtime, and is driven further into raging insanity by her sister, who can't help making noises like a demented sheep. They are rescued by their brother, Orinoco, who butchers Klytämnestra, then tidies up before settling down to forty winks.
The first of Strauss's operas to take up a horticultural theme, the work charts the shockingly blasé attitude of the Viennese middle classes to garden upkeep. The plot centres on a lesbian love-triangle and includes some of Strauss's most famous music, such as the Birkenstock Trio and the Presentation of the Hose. The opera incorporates a number of anachronistic dance tunes with high leg-kicks, most popular of which is known as the quin quin (pronounced 'waltz'). Strauss went on to rework the charming Act I breakfast scene in his Alpen Symphony, and the opera also inspired a number of less successful spinoffs, such as Baron Ochs's Experiment.
Ariadne auf Naxos
An excellent early example of dissatisfaction with a package holiday to Greece. Ariadne arrives on Naxos only to find that she doesn't get on with any of the other guests, all of whom are considerably lower class. Worse still, her hotel room is little better than a cave, and is beset by an irritating echo. Eventually she enjoys a holiday romance with J. S. Bach, who is so drunk on his own wine that he mistakes her for Mary Magdalene. As they leave the island, the lower classes continue their revels. The opera is controversial, in that many believe the attribution to Strauss is wrong, and that there are significant clues in the prologue that the opera was in fact written by another composer entirely. However, it must be noted that Strauss's initial impetus for the composition of this work was to fill a commission by the twentieth-century budget recording company of the same name (Naxos).
Die Frau ohne Schatten
Based on a novella by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, it tells the tale of the fairy empress unable to fulfil her husband sexually until he is encased in concrete and she receives a golden shower (see also Die Liebe der Danae, below). The role of the nurse was famously created by Hattie Jacques, while the character of the dyer's wife was based on Strauss's own wife, apparently because every moment he spent in her presence made him want to die.
A less successful working of Ariadne, in which the ghastly Christine books a skiing holiday by telephone, goes on the holiday, and returns disappointed.
Die Aegyptische Helena
Never a great success, as the most three-dimensional character is a giant talking shellfish who exits the action after twenty minutes. The work's most famous passage is the duet for Helena and Menelas, 'We'll always have Paris'. Less successful, but nonetheless noteworthy, is the chorus for elves, 'Ha ha ha, hee hee hee, little brown jug how I love thee'.
Generally dismissed as a poor imitation of Der Rosenkavalier, this opera is indeed very similar to its predecessor, except that now there are fewer lesbians. The plot centres on the beautiful Arabella, a teetotal prostitute closely based on the singer Lisa Della Casa. The shocking Viennese disregard for roses remains.
Die Schweigsame Frau
A comedy with so many notes that Strauss was forced to leave some characters with no music at all. Debate continues as to just how many characters this applies to.
Never performed, as it lasts over thirty years and is almost entirely populated by tenors.
Another gardening opera, and spinoff from the Hanna Barbera cartoon, Scooby Doo. The work takes an environmentalist, if somewhat impractical, view on improving forestation. Aside from Daphne's transformation scene, the work is also famous for the monologue during which Apollo reveals his true identity, 'And I would have got away with it if it hadn't been for those pesky kids and that stupid dog'.
Die Liebe der Danae
Feel-good opera in which the tedious Danae rejects the love of all-powerful Jupiter in favour of the penniless donkey-driver Midas and his stinking hut. Yeah, right.
Considered by many to be Strauss's finest stage work, this highly dramatic opera covers an afternoon in an eighteenth-century drawing room during which some rich French people drink cocoa and talk about Gluck. In the thrilling denouement, we mercifully come almost two hours closer to the Revolution, during which everyone is sure to be guillotined (see Salome above), and the tension is almost unbearable as the countess, ignorant of her probable fate, looks in a mirror, wonders about something, and then has her dinner.
Strauss was also a successful composer of songs, amongst the most famous of which are 'Ich wollt' ein Sträusslein binden' (I could have throttled the little sod) – an affectionate tribute to his son, 'Hochzeitlich Lied' (It's high time too) – narrated by a man looking forward to his wedding night, and 'Gestern war ich Atlas' (But I'm sure the map said it was here) – a bitter-sweet remembrance of an outing with his beloved wife, Pauline.
Strauss died in 1949 following a routine de-Nazification procedure.
|Decomposed German Composers|
|Johann Sebastian Bach | Ludwig van Beethoven | Johannes Brahms | Paul Hindemith | Gustav Mahler | Felix Mendelssohn | Robert Schumann | Karlheinz Stockhausen the Turd | Richard Strauss | Richard Wagner|