Richard Strauss

Strauss in 1918Richard Strauss was the foremost German composer living at the time of the First World War. Composing in a range of genres, he was best known for his tone poems which were mainly composed in the late 19th century, and his operas which date from the early decades of the 20th century.

Strauss celebrated his 50th birthday in May 1914, for which he was awarded a second honorary doctorate from Oxford University, and he was in England around this time. He had hoped to be financially independent by the age of fifty and had thirty years worth of savings in British banks, but these were confiscated by the government after outbreak of war meaning that he could not now retire.

When war actually broke out, Strauss was in St Martino di Castrozza and had to travel back to Austria over the Brenner Pass, which entailed moving in the opposite direction from Austrian troops who were advancing towards the Balkans.

Strauss was obviously too old for military service. His attitude towards the war though is unclear. He was a cosmopolitan composer and received honours in Italy, France and England, but he wrote in his diary on 8 August 1914, ‘War and victory! Hail Germany! They won’t make us back down.’ Throughout his life he was generally apolitical, seeing himself solely as an artist. In addition to losing his financial stability, he tried to keep his son from being conscripted, but was happy to write military marches. His librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal was conscripted which annoyed Strauss, but more because it slowed down the composition of his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. On the whole he seems to have regarded the war as an inconvenience. Within Germany, therefore, his patriotism was sometimes questioned.

Interestingly, Strauss refused to sign the petition which became known as the ‘Manifesto of the Ninety-Three’. On 23 October 1914, 93 prominent German scientists, scholars and artists gave their unequivocal support to German military actions, and denied the charges of atrocities committed against Belgian civilians. Part of their argument was that Germany was a civilised nation which had produced Goethe, Beethoven and Kant, and therefore could not possibly commit such atrocities. It is not clear whether Strauss’s refusal to sign the petition was because he didn’t share its view, or, whether as an artist, he felt he should not be involved.

Die Frau ohne Schatten was Strauss’s major composition during the war. He described the work as his ‘last Romantic opera’. It was conceived in peacetime, composed during the war, and first performed after Treaty of Versailles. The opera explores themes of humanity and fidelity, and the idea of the end of Romanticism parallels the end of the period of the Court of Wilhelm which rapidly disintegrated in November 1918.

Also in November 1918, Strauss left the Royal Court Opera in Berlin where he had been chief conductor for twenty years. Shortly after his departure, the Royal Court Opera collapsed along with the Court of Wilhelm itself. Strauss took up the post of co-director of the newly created Vienna Staatsoper, thus avoiding the turmoil of revolution that overtook Germany at the end of the war.

A new generation of German composers was to emerge at the end of the First World War who explored new styles of music and embraced the new Weimar Republic. There was a move away from the Romanticism which had come to be seen as representing the old world of Wilhelm. However, Strauss continued to remain popular and composed right up until his death in 1949.

Information from the above summary can be found in the following books and online resources

Bryan Gilliam: The Life of Richard Strauss
Michael Kennedy: Richard Strauss
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise
Grove Music Online (free access for members of Westminster Libraries)



To find out more, click on the links

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