xxxxxThe German composer and conductor Richard Strauss, the last of the Romantics, is especially remembered today for his mastery of the symphonic poem and his operatic works. His ten tone poems, which began with Don Juan in 1888 and included Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Don Quixote of 1897, and A Hero’s life, were brilliantly orchestrated, but their vastness and powerful, expressive music shocked his contemporaries. And this “modernism” was continued in Salome of 1905 and Elektra four years later, two operas which offended public good taste. However, after the composition of his love story Knight of the Rose, produced in 1911, his operas - such as Ariadne on Naxos, The Egyptian Helen, Arabella, Daphne and Capriccio - proved acceptable and popular. In addition to these works, Strauss wrote horn and oboe concertos, pieces for string orchestra, and some ballet music. He produced, too, over one hundred songs (lieder), many of which have stood the test of time. In addition to composing, Strauss gained an international reputation as a conductor. He tried his hand at conducting as a young man and then, with the encouragement and help of his mentor, the German conductor Hans von Bulow, took on a number of important posts throughout Germany and Austria, ending his career as joint director and conductor of the Vienna State Opera from 1919 to 1924. Under the Nazi regime he was music minister for a short time, but fell out of favour due to his Jewish contacts and was dismissed.

RICHARD STRAUSS  1864 - 1949  (Vb, Vc, E7, G5, G6)


Strauss: detail, by the German painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935), 1918 – Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Bulow: 1870s, photographer unknown – National Portrait Gallery, London. Quixote: by the French artist Honoré Daumier (1808-1879). Caricature: by the German-born Austrian artist Hans Schliessmann (1852-1920), published in Schliessmann’s Conductors of Yesterday and Today, Vienna 1928. Mahler: by the Bohemian painter and etcher Emil Orlik (1870-1932), 1902 – Galerie Bassenge, Berlin. Caricature: by the German-born Austrian artist Hans Schliessmann (1852-1920), publised in Schiessmann’s Conductors of Yesterday and Today, Vienna 1928. Silhouettes: by the Austrian artist Otto Boehler (1847-1913), published in Dr. Otto Boehler’s Silhouettes, Vienna 1914. Mahler (cartoon): from the Illustrated Vienna Special Edition, a Viennese daily newspaper (1872-1928), November 1900, artist unknown. Dukas: date and photographer unknown. Apprentice: The Walt Disney Company.

xxxxxThe German composer and conductor Richard Strauss is primarily remembered today on two counts: His mastery of the symphonic poem - a form in which, by his brilliant orchestration, he captured in music every scene, action and mood -, and for his sensational, outrageous operas Salome and Elektra. For some 30 years the shocking modernism of his music, enthusiastically admired or vigorously opposed, dominated the musical world and kept audiences wondering just what might come next. And alongside his career as a composer went that of a conductor, a profession in which he showed great technical skill and by which he earned a worldwide reputation.

xxxxxStrauss was born in Munich, the son of a celebrated horn player. He attended the local gymnasium for his general education, but he had inherited his father’s musical skills. He was playing the piano and violin by the age of five, composing by the age of six, and studying theory by the age of eleven. As a young man he played in a local amateur orchestra, and it was then that he first tried his hand at conducting. By then he had written a large number of pieces, including the Festival March, a serenade for wind instruments, a symphony and a violin concerto. Like all his early works, these leaned heavily upon the classical and romantic masters. In 1882 he attended Munich University, but he never worked for a degree and left the following year. By 1884 he was in Berlin, studying part time and playing the piano at various musical functions.

xxxxxIt was while in Berlin that Strauss met the renowned conductor Hans von Bulow (illustrated) - the legendary interpreter of Wagner - and this marked the beginning of his musical career. The German was impressed with the young composer’s Serenade for 13 wind instruments and had his next work, Suite for 13 wind instruments, performed by his Meiningen orchestra later that year - in Munich and with Strauss conducting. It was so well received that in 1885 Bulow made him his assistant conductor. He held that post for just a few months. Later that year Bulow resigned, and at the age of 21 Strauss found himself in sole charge of the Meiningen orchestra. Hisxfuture seemed assured and routinely set, but it was at this time that he came under the influence of the German composer and violinist Alexander Ritter (1833-1896), then a member of the orchestra. Extolling the virtues of Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz, he persuaded Strauss to abandon his conservative style and look for new ways of writing. Soon after this, Strauss was appointed third conductor at the Munich Opera House, and it was there, with the production of his symphonic fantasy Aus Italien - composed after a visit to Italy - that the first signs of change began to show. When it was premiered in 1887, the unbridled orchestration of the last movement caught the musical world by surprise and attracted some scathing criticism. Strauss was unperturbed. It simply confirmed his view that this was the road he wanted to take.

xxxxxIn 1889 Strauss became the director of the Weimar Court Orchestra. He continued to compose traditional works, but it was in that year that his symphonic poem Don Juan, premiered in the November, gave final notice that a new force in music had arrived. Charged with a score that demanded an orchestra of unprecedented size, its powerful, expressive music, and its variety of passages - many restless and discordant - launched him on his career as a “modernist”. Over the next twenty five years he produced a series of symphonic poems, each bigger and more sensational than the last, in which his music brilliantly illustrated the chosen theme, be it the adventures of Don Quixote, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the portrait of a dying man, or simply the bleating of sheep, a sunrise, or the sound of a violent wind. And in perfecting this musical form, Strauss introduced new techniques in harmony and instrumentation, and often made use of Wagner’s “leitmotiv system” whereby recurring short musical phrases are chosen to represent characters, objects, ideas or emotions. Among this outstanding contribution to programme music were the symphonic poems Macbeth, Death and Transfiguration, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (which inspired Nietzsche’s book of that name), Don Quixote of 1897, A Hero’s Life, and Symphonia Domestica (a musical picture of married life).

xxxxxThese works, characterised by audacious, colourful orchestration and seen by Strauss as “the musical expression and development of my emotions”, shocked audiences by their disturbing non-conformity, but worse was to come. At the turn of the century he moved on to opera. He had, in fact, tried his hand at this genre earlier. Under the influence of Wagner he had produced Guntram in May 1894 and Feuersnot in 1901, but these had been complete failures, and had made him reluctant to return to the stage. When he did so, however, his notorious productions of Salome in 1905 and Elektra in 1909, offended both by their decadent content and their discordant music, as well as posing serious problems for the singers and the orchestra. Salome, based as it was on the play by the disgraced Irish writer Oscar Wilde, aroused a howl of protest. Containing the erotic Dance of the Seven Veils, and ending with the scene in which Salome declares her love to the severed head of John the Baptist, it was roundly condemned for its blasphemous treatment of a Biblical subject. Newspapers had a field day, and one described the opera as “moral stench”. (On the other hand the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler regarded it as a “live volcano” and a work of genius!). Then four years later, Sophocles’ Elektra, a gloomy drama of bloodthirsty revenge, stunned its audiences by its near atonal music, its attempt to create a new kind of melody, and its bewildering use of leitmotivs. New ideas, Strauss responded, must “search for new forms”.

xxxxxAfterxSalome, Strauss went into partnership with the Austrian poet and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), and it was with him - despite their differences - that he produced some of his finest operas. The bittersweet love story Knight of the Rose (Der Rosenkavalier), set in 18th century Vienna and produced two years after Elektra, proved especially popular and marked the return - one might say retreat - to a more traditional style. His days of violent experiment and excitement were over. His later works, noted for their allegory and symbolism, showed talent, but were without that earlier touch of genius. They included Ariadne on Naxos, The Woman without a Shadow, The Egyptian Helen, and Arabella. After Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929, his major works were The Silent Woman in 1935, Daphne, three years later, and Capriccio, premiered in 1942.


xxxxxStrauss is particularly well known for his symphonic poems and his operas, 16 in total, but he also wrote a variety of other works, including two horn concertos - an instrument he was particularly fond of -, an oboe concerto, works for string orchestra, a piano quartet, and some ballet music. In addition he composed more than one hundred songs (lieder), mostly for sopranos, and many of these, such as Dedication and Morning, have remained extremely popular. His haunting Four Last Songs of 1948 are considered by many to be one of his finest works. And worthy of special mention is his Metamorphosen, a work for 23 solo strings, based on a poem by Goethe. Composed in the closing months of the Second World War, it was a lament over the misery caused by the conflict, and over the destruction of German culture during twelve years of Nazi rule.

xxxxxAlong side Strauss’ brilliance as a composer went his skill as a conductor, influenced in the main by his mentor Bulow. For most of his life he conducted important orchestras throughout Germany and Austria, and in 1891, at the invitation of Cosima Wagner, he conducted the first performance of Tannhauser to be given at the Bayreuth Festival. He was conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1894 to 1898, conductor and musical director of the Berlin Royal Opera from 1898 to 1919, and co-director of the Vienna State Opera from 1919 to 1924. In 1925 he compiled his own ten golden rules for the album of a young conductor, and his later recordings - notably when conducting the works of Mozart and Wagner - greatly enhanced his reputation.

xxxxxDuring the Nazi regime Strauss was appointed music minister in 1933, but was dismissed two years later for working with a Jewish librettist. The opera in question, The Silent Woman, was banned by the government. After the war he was cleared of any collaboration with the Nazi party, and spent the rest of his life at his country home at Garmisch in Bavaira. He died there in September 1949.

xxxxxStrauss was the last great composer of the romantic tradition, and a worthy successor to Wagner in the field of German opera. Despite his period of modernism, he perfected a form - the symphonic poem - which had run its course. By his technical agility, his brilliant orchestration, and his skill at composing for the human voice, he earned his place among the musical giants, but the future of European music lay with the likes of Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky.

xxxxxIncidentally, Strauss, a quiet, modest man by nature, married the opera soprano Pauline de Ahna in 1894. She was a forceful woman, but she encouraged his work, and the marriage appeared to be a happy one. They had one son, Franz, and his marriage to a Jewish woman in 1924 made matters difficult for the family during the Nazi regime. ……

xxxxx…… Strauss composed the Olympic Hymn for the opening of the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. The theme was taken from a symphony he planned but never finished. While writing it he confessed to a friend that he had no time for sport of any kind!



Gustav Mahler

and Paul Dukas

xxxxxThe Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a contemporary of Richard Strauss and studied under the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. He began his conducting career in 1880 and over the next seventeen years worked at theatres and opera houses across Europe, including Prague, Leipzig and Budapest. His first permanent appointment was at Hamburg in 1901, and it was there that his constant search for perfection impressed Strauss and the German conductor Hans von Bulow. Six years later he was made director of the Vienna Court Opera and during his ten-year stay there he made Vienna a leading city in the operatic world, and gained for himself international recognition as a conductor of outstanding merit. He completed his conducting career at the Metropolitan Opera House and the Philharmonic Orchestra in New York. As a composer he produced nine large-scale symphonies, some with voices, and seven song cycles, including Songs of a Wayfarer in 1883 and Songs on the Deaths of Children in 1902. His vast, emotional symphonies - troubled works concerned in the main with death and the meaning of life - were not readily understood in his day, but together with Strauss he represented the late flowering of German Romanticism, extending the symphonic form initiated by Beethoven in his ninth choral symphony, and developed by Wagner in his musical dramas. In addition, however, as a brilliant orchestrator and musical innovator, his new, unconventional harmonies anticipated the “modernism” of the early 20th century.

xxxxxA contemporary of Richard Strauss who was also a competent composer and conductor was the Austrian Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). During a brief career, he wrote nine large-scale symphonies, some with voices, and seven song cycles. Like the works of Strauss, they provided a link between the late Romantic era and the modern idiom of the 20th century. His compositions did not gain a great deal of favour in their own time, but during his musical career he gained an international reputation as a brilliant conductor, fully dedicated to his task and constantly striving for perfection. As such he became a model for many famous conductors of the 20th century.

xxxxxMahler was born at Kaliste in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), the son of a Jewish shopkeeper. A few months later the family moved to the nearby town of Jihlava, and it was there that Mahler grew up. His early years were not particularly happy ones. As a Jew he was conscious of being an outsider, and his home life was marred by strained relations between his parents. These racial and family tensions might well account for his somewhat troubled personality, and his difficulty in relating to other people. Nonetheless, he showed early talent as a pianist and, influenced by local band and folk music, was trying his hand at composition by the age of six. He made his debut as a pianist when he was ten, and was accepted as a pupil at the Vienna Conservatory just five years later. On completing his musical studies, he attended lectures at the city’s university, and it was there that he was taught and influenced by the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. After leaving the university he earned his living as a teacher, but was anxious to make his way as a composer. However, his first significant attempt, his cantata The Song of Sorrow, completed in 1880, failed to win the Conservatory’s Beethoven Prize and, on the advice of his piano teacher, he took up a career as a conductor, confining his composition to his leisure time.  

xxxxxOver the next 17 years, by dint of constant hard work and a ruthless determination to succeed, he battled his way to the top of his chosen profession. He began his career as assistant conductor in a summer theatre at the Austrian spa town of Bad Hall, but then gradually gained experience by way of theatres and opera houses across Europe. During the 1880s these included theatres at Ljubljana, Olmutz and Kassel and opera houses in Prague, Leipzig and Budapest. In 1901 he gained his first permanent position as chief conductor with the Hamburg Opera House, and three years later, following the death of Hans von Bulow, was appointed conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra.

xxxxxIt was while in Hamburg that he was seen by Richard Strauss and Bulow, both of whom were impressed by his skill as a conductor, and the way in which he had enhanced the reputation of the Hamburg Opera. In 1892 he took the company to London to give the first performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and in December 1895 he premiered his own Resurrection Symphony in Berlin. It must be said that in many of these appointments his uncompromising stance on achieving the highest of standards, and the despotic regime he imposed to this end, did not win him many friends. A number of orchestras were pleased to see him move on! Personality apart, during this time he did succeed in promoting the operas of Mozart, Weber and Wagner.

xxxxxMahler was appointed director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897 at the age of 37. Over the next ten years, by his ruthless quest for perfection, he made Vienna supreme among the opera houses of the world. These were Vienna’s golden years. He cleared the company of its debts and provided performances which set the standards by which others could be judged. In so doing he alienated many by his long, gruelling periods of preparation and rehearsal, but no one could question his immense dedication and determination. And the tours he made across Europe during his time as director added to his fame as a conductor of outstanding merit.

xxxxxExhausted and weakened by overwork and the beginnings of a serious heart condition - and well aware that there were those inside and outside the company who were intriguing against him - he resigned as director in 1907 but, characteristically, looked for a new challenge. He found it in the United States. For the next four years - save for summers spent in Austria - he was conductor of the Metropolitan Opera House and, later, of the Philharmonic Orchestra in New York City. He gained a reputation for the brilliance of his performances, but, as in earlier appointments, the demands he made upon singers and musicians, and disagreements over quality and the means of production, brought about friction with the management. Having been all-powerful in Vienna, he found it difficult and, eventually, impossible to take orders from others. He returned to Europe in 1911, just a few months before his death.

xxxxxAs far as composing was concerned, Mahler regarded himself as a part-time composer. His works were few in number but vast in scale. He produced nine long epic symphonies, a number of songs, and seven song cycles, including Songs of a Wayfarer in 1883 and Songs on the Deaths of Children in 1902. These works, the outpourings of a troubled, sometimes tormented mind, were not readily understood or appreciated in his day. He followed in the romantic notes of Liszt, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, but he was obsessed with death and the meaning of life, and this coloured both his symphony and song. By his brilliant orchestration he attempted to build a world which encompassed every kind of human experience and emotion and, in so doing, he produced a bewildering range of musical moods. Some of his works were interspersed with popular-style music - peasant tunes, student songs, military marches - and some with sounds from nature, whilst others contained exciting new harmonies which anticipated the “modernism” of the early 20th century.

xxxxxHis first three symphonies were programme works and incorporated themes from the German folk anthology entitled The Youth’s Magic Horn. They sought to find a reason for human existence in a world which was dominated by pain, despair and the uncertainties of death. The First, composed in 1888, lent heavily upon his song cycle Songs of a Wayfarer, and is noted especially for its macabre funeral march. The Second, his Resurrection, complete with soloists and chorus, and based on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, opened with a funeral ceremony but ended optimistically with its spectacular choral finale, a joyous confirmation of the Christian belief in immortality. The Third, completed in 1896, a vast work of six movements, again with soloist and chorus - much in the vogue of Wagner’s musical dramas - was one great hymn to the creative force in the universe world, ascending, as he put it, from inanimate nature to the love of God.

xxxxxHis next three symphonies were composed while he was in Vienna. The Fourth, the portrayal of a child’s vision of heaven, was based upon a song he had written in 1892 entitled The Heavenly Life. This provided themes for the first three movements and is sung in full in the fourth. The Fifth Symphony is remembered especially for its opening trumpet fanfare - followed by a funeral march - and its third movement, the beautiful Adagietto for harp and strings, one of his best known pieces. His Sixth, classical in construction, is the darkest and most despondent of his symphonies, and is appropriately labelled Tragic. The three measured hammer blows of the last movement bring a brutal ending. The world comes crashing down and all is lost.

xxxxxHis Seventh Symphony - Song of the Night - was premiered in Prague in September 1908, after he had resigned from the Vienna Court Opera House. Despite the anguish he was suffering at this time, the work is surprisingly optimistic. In five movements he returns to nature for inspiration and, via a weird series of flights of fancy, moves from darkness to light, rejoicing in the wonders of mother Earth. His Eighth, composed in the summer of 1906, was a monumental work requiring two full orchestras, three choirs, a children’s choir and eight soloists. As in earlier works, this choral symphony - the first of its kind - again wrestles with man’s hopes and fears, eventually finding a measure of comfort in the resilience of the human spirit and the continuing beauty of the Earth itself. Dubbed the Symphony of a Thousand, this fusion of song and symphony was well received when he conducted its first performance at Munich in September 1910. His final three works, none of which he heard in performance, were The Song of the Earth, a song cycle created around Chinese poems, and his Ninth and Tenth Symphonies, the last left unfinished. In these he again attempted to understand the meaning of death. The Ninth, in particular, has outbursts of anguish, conjured up by dissonance, but the Adagio with which it ends is quiet and reflective, producing a feeling of calm resignation.  

xxxxxBy the time Mahler returned home from New York he was fatally ill and had only a few weeks to live. He died in Vienna in May 1911, and was buried at Grinzing cemetery in the city. Mahler was first and foremost an inspired conductor who, by his constant search for perfection, raised the standard of interpretation and performance to new heights. As a “part-time” composer he was a man of outstanding originality who excelled as an orchestrator and pushed musical form in a new and exciting direction. Along with Richard Strauss, he represented the late flowering of German Romanticism and, as such, he made a major contribution to the symphonic tradition. He expanded the musical form initiated by Beethoven in his 9th choral symphony and his monumental productions - vast orchestras, large choirs and numerous soloists - carried on from where Wagner’s musical dramas had left off. His fusion of songs and symphony, highly personal and highly emotional, were not readily understood in his time, but his new, unfamiliar harmonies had a major influence upon composers such as the Austrian Arnold Schoenberg, the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich, and the Englishman Benjamin Britten. As such he must be regarded as one of the leading figures in the development of 20th century music.

xxxxxIncidentally, bearing in mind the “curse of the ninth” - the notion that no major composer since Beethoven had completed more than nine symphonies - Mahler chose not to tempt fate. He decided not to give a number to his ninth symphony and, instead, made it into an orchestral song-cycle. Then, having started his tenth symphony, he confidently assumed that he had avoided the curse, but he died before the work was completely finished, and the symphony he had not numbered became known as his Ninth! ……

xxxxx…… The three hammer blows which bring to an end his Tragic Symphony No.6, premiered at Essen in May 1906, were later seen as portending the three tragedies that beset Mahler in 1907. In that year his three-year old daughter Maria died of diphtheria; he himself was diagnosed as having a fatal heart disease; and, reluctantly, he was obliged to give up his directorship of the Vienna Court Opera. Subsequently he removed the final blow from the score - though the three blows are still retained in some performances.

xxxxxIt was in this year, 1897, that the French composer and teacher Paul Dukas (1865-1935) produced the work by which he is best known, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a brilliantly orchestrated piece of programme music based on a ballad of the same name by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His other major work was the opera Ariadne and Bluebeard, produced in 1907. Considered today as one of the outstanding French operas of its time, it was much admired by Richard Strauss.

xxxxxDukas was born in Paris, and studied harmony, piano, conducting and orchestration at the city’s Conservatoire. It was there that he met the young French composer Claude Debussy, and they became close friends. Following his military service, he worked as a successful critic, and in 1910 returned to the Conservatoire to teach composition. Among his other works were his concert overture King Lear, composed in 1883, his Symphony in C major of 1896, his oriental ballet The Genie, produced in 1912, and his Sonnet de Ronsard for voice and piano, written in 1924. His skilful orchestration has been described as an intoxicating mixture of Debussy and Richard Strauss.

xxxxxDukas’ dazzling scherzo The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became internationally famous in 1940 when the American film producer Walt Disney featured it in his symphonic concert entitled Fantasia. The part of the apprentice was taken by his cartoon character Mickey Mouse, and the Sorcerer was named Yen Sid - Disney written backwards!