Composer of the month : Richard Strauss


by Nathan Bessis

Welcome to Composer of the Month!

Each month, we celebrate the anniversary of a composer by highlighting their work and history, as well as giving you nice arrangements of some of the artist’s most iconic pieces that you can download directly into your Newzik library! This time, let’s talk about the great Richard Strauss.

We have prepared a dedicated setlist for our Premium users that contains all the scores that we will study in this article, so if you are already a Newzik Premium subscriber, go ahead and download it right away. If you are a free user, it’s best you download the pieces you want from our selection later in the article (mind the 15-file import limit of your free account). Subscribe to Newzik for unlimited import!

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A few words about Richard Strauss

Childhood and beginning

Richard Strauss was born on June 11th, 1864 in Munich. Son of a talented horn player and of the heiress of a famous brewery, he grew up in a comfortable family. Thanks to this, he was able to develop his culture and his love for music at a very young age. From the age of four, after his first piano lessons with August Tombo, Strauss demonstrated an incredible talent on the piano. At only 6 years old, he then began the violin and composing for piano.

During his primary school years, he regularly accompanied his mother, Josephine Pschorr, to concerts and opera performances and his interest in music continued to grow. In 1875, after attending the Ludwig High School in Munich, Strauss began to take instrument and composition lessons. His teacher, Fr. W. Meyer, was a conductor at court.

Even before he started university, some of the young man’s compositions were already being performed. The director of the Munich Opera, Hermann Lévi, conducted his Symphony in D minor in 1881. He published his first opus, Fetsmarsch for large orchestra, composed in 1876, that same year.

After high school, he continued his studies in philosophy at the University of Munich. It was during this period that, despite his father’s aversion to Wagner’s music, Richard Strauss was attracted to the latter.

However, he never joined the musical revolution, undertaken by Debussy (1862-1918) or Schoenberg (1874-1951), for whom he showed total disdain. In 1884, Strauss went to Berlin, where he had the opportunity to meet Gustav Mahler.

“The Jupiter Symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the most beautiful work I have ever heard.”

Richard Strauss

The first step of his career and success

At the age of only 24, in November 1889, his second symphonic poem, Don Juan, was performed in Weimar. It was a huge success and the beginning of an intense career. In the same year he was appointed musical assistant at the Bayreuth Festival. In a very short time, he managed to win over a large audience that will never tire of his art. Strauss later composed Death and Transfiguration (1891).

“He superimposes the most desperately distant tonalities with an absolute composure that cares not for what they may be heartbreaking, but only for what he asks of them while they are alive. […] There’s sunshine in the music of Richard Strauss. ”

Claude Debussy

Confirmation of success

Later, Strauss became conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and began a dazzling series of symphonic poems: Till the Mischievous (1895), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1896), A Life of Heroes (1898). Following this, he turned to opera, composing Feuersnot (1901), which was a great success, and Salomé in 1904, which despite its success was controversial because the work was at once religious, erotic and orientalist. It is, however, thanks to the latter that Strauss achieved worldwide fame.

In 1909, Strauss’s explosive music in Elektra reaches a level of violence unknown in opera. This is another triumph. The composer is considered at the height of his talent in 1911 with Der Rosenkavalier (The Roser-Bearer). The success of this opera in Dresden is remarkable, and no other work by the composer will experience such glory.

“In music, there are a lot of crazy people who are only crazy in their imagination, and I only admire the authentic crazy people.”

Richard Strauss

With the approach of the great war of 1914-18, part of Strauss’s fortune deposited in England was confiscated. At the end of the war, he realized that his music was not at all in tune with that of other composers such as Béla Bartók. His inspiration dries up and his production slows down considerably.

His last works and the end of his life

Strauss’ life and the prestige of his career were unaffected by the wars and Nazism.

In 1941, at the age of 78, he wrote Capriccio: an opera about opera, a reflection on the respective importance of words and music in lyric art.

The Munich Opera House was destroyed by bombs in 1943. This disastrous episode deeply saddens the artist and leads him to compose The Metamorphoses for 23 strings where we can hear the funeral march from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. Played for the first time in 1946, it is certainly the masterpiece of his career.

At the end of his life, Strauss experienced some financial difficulties and went into exile in Switzerland. He composed two more great works: the Oboe Concerto and the Four Last Lieder, melodies for orchestra and soprano.

On September 8, 1949, after returning home to Garmisch, Strauss died. At his funeral, the final trio of the Rose-Bearer sounded: “Why did a man who had written such music have to die one day?”.

And now, the music!

We selected some of our favorite pieces by Strauss and spent a little bit of time analyzing them. We also offer you free sheet music for all these works, so you can practice your instrument with Newzik!

Cello Sonata in F major, op. 6

He was only nineteen years old (1883) when Richard Strauss wrote his Cello Sonata in F major. This piece is dedicated to the cellist Hans Wihan whom played during the premiere on the 6th of December 1883 in Nuremberg. This sonata is composed of the traditional three parts : Allegro conbrio, Andante ma non troppo and Finale – Allegro vivo.

The opening of this sonata could be described as heroic: resounding four-notes chords make way for a lyrical theme. In the first measures, Strauss uses the whole upper range of the cello! This first movement is striking as very different emotions arise from it: a heroic opening and full of vitality while keeping a subtle expressiveness all along the piece. We can even hear a moment built on the structure of a fugue (style very prized by Beethoven)!

The second movement is radically different from the first one. The composer substitutes the heroism and vitality for a dark introspection. Nevertheless, Strauss keeps defying cellists by avoiding the instrument’s lower ranges.

The third and last movement resumes the heroic approach of the first one with great cello flights. That last movement will be a proper endurance test for the bold cellists who’d want compete against the intensity of this ending.

The Cello Sonata is one of the essential cello pieces of Strauss and represents a real challenge for pianists as much as for cellists.

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Horn Concerto in E flat

The Horn Concerto in E flat was once again written during Richard Strauss’s youth: he writes it when he is only eighteen years old. The orchestral version of this piece was first performed on the 4th of March 1885 in Meiningen but the piano reduction was played in 1883. We need to underline the fact that it is very natural for Strauss to put the horn forward in one of his works as it is his father’s instrument. The Concerto is one of the hardest ones to play for the horn: you have to be able to play the lowest and the highest notes and, even worse, you need to be able to quickly string those opposed notes together! On paper, the piece is divided in three movements. However, it is important to note that the public only feels two movements as there is no break between the first two (which is called an attacca).

After two orchestral fermatas, the horn enters on powerful rising and falling arpeggios. The orchestra retakes and elaborates on the horn’s theme during most of this part.

During the second movement, the string instruments’ part reminds us of the horn’s part while the soloist begins a softer, more reflexive part. The woodwinds take up more space at the expense of brass instruments and timpani (which we widely heard in the first movement).

The finale of this piece goes back to the victorious aspect of the opening. While less exuberant, this last movement confirms the truly dramatic tone of this concerto in its entirety.

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Piano sonata in B minor

The Piano Sonata in B minor was written between 1881 and 1882 in the romantic style which is typical of Strauss’s youth. It is divided in four parts : Allegro molto Appassionato, Adagio Cantabile, Scherzo Presto – un poco piu Trio Lento et Finale, Allegro vivo.

Regarding the structure, we must notice that the first and last movements are built on the traditional sonata model. The Adagio is built on a triple time with an ABA structure while the Scherzo follows a developed ABABA structure.

The first movement is especially notable for its principal theme distinguishable by its four notes on a short-short-short-long structure. That reminds us once again of Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony. Larry Todd tells us about the second movement that it is a Lied ohne Wrote of Mendelssohn. He also describes how “the reliance to Mendelssohn comes more and more to the fore” in the last three movements. Apart from the first movement, we can feel real echoes of Mendelssohn in terms of structure as well as of thematic materials.

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Violin Concerto in D major, op. 8

Richard Strauss’s Violin Concerto was written between 1881 and 1882 as the composer was only seventeen and was attending his last years of school. During the premiere in Vienna on the 5th of December 1882, Benno Walter (who was the dedicatee of this piece) played the violin and Richard Strauss himself played his own piano reduction of the orchestral parts. The orchestral version was played eight years later in 1890 in Cologne. The concerto is divided in three parts: Allegro, Lento ma non tropo and Rondo Presto.

Even though it is less striking than his later orchestral works, it contains bold moments that already hint at the composer’s mature style. The Violin Concerto honors the romantic tradition of its time but still contains references to classical composers such as Mozart or Beethoven. After the dramatic orchestral opening with a small flute solo, the violin begins with a seizing semiquaver flight. The Lento ma non tropo starts with a ripping theme built on a mat of orchestral chords. The last movement – Rondo Presto – begins with a fast and playful violin theme accompanied by the orchestra’s staccato notes. About this piece we can notice on some levels the very modern personality of Strauss’s music: we can already feel his taste for the cutting-edge styles of Wagner or Lizst.

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Elektra

How could we speak about Richard Strauss without speaking about one of his most famous pieces ? Elektra is an opera based on the play written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal whom collaborated with the composer to write the six librettos. Elektra was premiered on the 25th of January 1909 in Dresde.

The opera’s intrigue happens in Mycenae, right after the War of Troy. Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Klytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Agamemnon and Klytaemnestra’s daughter, Elektra, wants to protect her brother Oreste and takes him out of the country.

The orchestral part of Elektra was written for huge orchestras. The particularity of this opera can already be identified in the composition of the orchestra which echoes to Strauss’s admiration of Wagner. Indeed, in the original scores we can find Wagner tubas, bass trumpet, contrabass trombone along with other very rare instruments such as the heckelphone, the small clarinet in E flat or the contrabassoon. We must also note that alti and cellos are divided in sections. Finally, one must realize Strauss’s use of the Wagnerian concept of leitmotivs which are small and recurrent musical phrases that materialize a character, a place, or an idea in particular.

We could write pages about the melodic construction of Elektra. However, let’s try and come up with a few things that need to be underlined. We can hear various themes materializing each main characters (leitmotivs): Agamemnon (energic, powerful in the first measures, in minor key but modulating to a major key at the end), Aegisthus (his two themes’ purpose seems to be to make him look ridiculous), Oreste’s presumed death (firstly minor, but turning to major when he kills his mother and her lover). Generally speaking, this opera is marked by true violence. Many melodies are disturbing, dark, particularly in some scenes such as Oreste’s arrival in the castle or when he kills his own mother. Nevertheless, we can hear in the opera some clear and great themes in particular when it comes to the children’s hope of vengeance on their mother – which tells a lot about the violence of this opera – or for the piece’s ending.

While we don’t have a free edition to provide you with for Elektra, you can consult the full score at Universal Edition.

We hope you liked this Composer of the Month and that you will have a great time practicing these tunes! See you next month for another episode of Composer of the Month!

Disclaimer: all the scores provided in this article were found online and all listed as either Public Domain or Creative Commons and encouraged to be shared freely by their creators. If you want to learn more about the best online sources for legally getting sheet music, go ahead and read this article. Also, if despite our best effort to respect the will of the original creators, you are one of these creators and disagree with our use of your work, please contact us.

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