Re-rating Richard part I: Strauss, he was no Mahler, he was no Wagner.

Part I- He was no Mahler, he was no Wagner.

Richard Strauss’s music is an intergral and popular part of the modern concert repertoire, and yet, he remains one of our most misunderstood and underrated composers.

We all know the case against Richard Strauss: he was no Gustav Mahler, he was no Richard Wagner, he turned his back on modernity, he was “only” a program-music and opera composer, who couldn’t write in classical forms, he was an egomaniac, he was a Nazi, his music lacks spirituality and depth.

My purpose here is not to rehabilitate Strauss as a historical figure (one can argue that no such rehabilitation is needed), but to look at whether too many of us have been listening to his music with ears and hearts only partly opened.

1- He was no Gustav Mahler

It has become all-too-convenient as a form of modern critical shorthand to present Strauss and Mahler as late Romanticism’s bad guy and good guy. In this misreading of history, Mahler was the tormented and sincere musical saint struck down by fate in his prime, who, had he lived, would have invented the twelve-tone method and prevented World War II with a stream of universe-changing atonal masterpieces. Likewise, Strauss was a shallow musician and cynical, commercially-minded composer, who turned his back on early hints of modernity and ended his long life and career as music’s most notorious  reactionary. Mahler was idealist, the visionary, the innovator, the poet and the prophet. Strauss was the cynic, the mercenary, the conservative- the man who turned his back on the future of music.

(Elektra- the piece that made me love opera overnight)
How differently would we see these two composers had Strauss died in 1911 and Mahler in 1949 instead? Strauss would have been remembered for Elektra and Salome as the prophet of modernism who didn’t live to see its full flowering, Rosenkavalier, which would have been his last work, could be comfortably dismissed as satire or an aberration- at the very least, more critics would have noted that Rosenkavalier is more harmonically complex and sophisticated than Elektra.

And had Mahler lived another 38 years? I think anyone who contends he would have joined  or even preempted Schoenberg’s revolution in doing away with tonality and functional harmony is either deluded, deluding or ignorant. Yes, Mahler’s music may have continued to get more dissonant and complex, and his harmonic schemes more fraught, but tonality and tonal structure was absolutely central to everything Mahler did as a composer. Without a sense of a tonal starting point and a hierarchy and progression of tonal centers, Mahler’s whole approach to form couldn’t possibly work, and for Mahler, each key, however extended or obscured, had symbolic meaning. Commentators who cite the famous 10-note chord at the climax of the first movement of the 10th Symphony as proof that somehow Mahler was aiming at a Schoenbergian liberation of dissonance are misunderstanding this amazing moment. It is so harrowing and so moving because of the tonal context in which it is placed- it works as possibly the most agonizing musical illustration of “oh shit, something has really gone wrong here” in history because of the strong sense that Mahler has created of what “right” is in this symphony- the rich, noble, sad sound world of F-sharp Major.

The stories of Strauss’s obsession with money and his general cynicism are legion, but if Mahler had been a such a pure, naïve and completely idealistic man, he would have ended up like Hans Rott instead of as director of the Vienna Opera. Mahler could be a shrewd negotiator, he could be a pragmatic, even cynical, manager. He understood budgets and audiences, and he could be tough as nails when he needed to be. Mahler knew perfectly well how to twist arms until they broke. Likewise, Strauss had his principles, clearly articulated in his music- a disdain for pomposity, a compassion for the human condition, a belief in the importance of savoring the complex riches of every day life rather than consoling oneself with dreams of the fantastic.

(Magic in the mundane- Sinfonica Domestica)

Ultimately, both men were complex human beings and great musicians.

2- He was no Richard Wagner

When I was in school this was an even bigger topic of conversation in music history classes. Again and again, we were taught that Strauss the opera composer was essentially a Wagner imitator who lacked Wagner’s genius for innovation and emotional range. Wagner-lite. Or as we used to say after class- there’s Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, and we all know which was the real big Dick.


(Tristan und Isolde: Is it really fair to compare anyone to the guy who wrote the greatest single opera ever?)

First of all, the comparison is rather pointless- there was only one Richard Wagner, (and thank goodness for that- what would we do with two Rings or to Tristan’s?!?!). Similarly, Strauss was very much his own man as an opera composer. Yes, Wagner was a huge influence on Strauss, particularly in the areas of instrumentation and the use of a symphonic/motivic approach to illustrating the drama and emotional arc of the stage action in the pit.

In the area of instrumentation, Strauss may not have been as innovative as Wagner, but he was certainly more accomplished. Wagner left us some nearly un-solvable technical problems- be honest, when have you ever heard a good live performance of the Prelude to Parsifal, one where the wind and brass writing was really in tune? It’s damn near impossible (but worth the effort). Strauss’s orchestral writing is often more athletic and can sound more over-the-top, but it’s far more idiomatic. The balances work better, the wind chords are organized in such a way that they’re far more likely to be in tune. In the area of motivic structure- Strauss took Wagner’s leitmotif technique and made it a little more flexible, slightly less pervasive and generally managed to ingrate the motives so that we can hear them as extremely important and obvious (as they mostly are in Wagner) or far more subliminal.

So, in many ways, Strauss was able capitalize on being in a generation that could refine, extend and polish the ideas of a great visionary like Wagner. Quite a generation it was, but for all that Wagner’s influence looms large in Strauss, the same can be said for Chausson, Debussy and many others.  Strauss was not a revolutionary, but neither was J.S. Bach.

However, Strauss wasn’t simply a more polished if less innovative Wagner. I would contend that Strauss was more successful in eventually escaping Wagner’s shadow than someone like Debussy (Francophile readers, bring on the outraged comments, please!). His range as a dramatist was far bigger- he could do comedy, he could do epic, he could domestic drama, he could do irony. His characters are more diverse, vivid and human than Wagner’s, and it seems certain that his characters illustrate a far wider breadth of human experience. Strauss did the greatest depictions of madness and evil you could ever hope to hear in Salome and Elektra, but he also gave us characters like the Marschallin. Three-dimensional, believable compelling personalities.

(Three three-dimensional personalities and Carlos Kleiber giving a serious masterclass in making magic.)

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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14 comments on “Re-rating Richard part I: Strauss, he was no Mahler, he was no Wagner.”

  1. Brian

    Somewhere in my reading (I’ve done too much of it over the years) I recall noting that Strauss apparently has a much greater “following” in the U.S. than his Europe. I just did a very cursory check of the current season of the Berlin Phil which noted that performances of Strauss’s works are, in fact, quite limited. While I cannot argue that Salome and Elektra are true masterworks (I saw the latter at the Mariinsky a few years back) it does seem as though the old fella just used himself up after that time, at least in terms of innovation. Maybe my feelings are a reaction to a concert I heard by a major orchestra consisting of a Haydn Symphony, followed by an Elliot Carter concerto and not one but two Strauss tone poems after the intermission. That was certainly too much of a (sort of) good thing!

  2. Michael G

    “Excellent read Ken! Except…he was also not a Nazi. True, he was involved in the regime as head of the Musikverein (or similar) but he was not a supporter of Nazism and was eventually forced to resign from his position for continuing to support and consult his Jewish friends, as well as protecting other Jewish individuals. He could only be called a Nazi in that he did not openly oppose it at the time and therefore can be said to have worked with the Nazi regime. He is also my favourite too!”

  3. Chris P

    Strauss’s daughter-in-law, Alice, was Jewish and so, by the Nazi Racial Laws, were his grandchildren. This would be an overwhelming motivation to “toe the line” for all but the strongest and hard hearted of people. Also, sometimes subversive collaboration can be more powerful than outright refusal.

  4. Chris B

    If you’re willing to wade through some musicological writing, there’s a recent book out (from 2005) by Charles Youmans called “Richard Strauss’s Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition.” It’s a very good exploration of the tone poems and their philosophical influences, and it really contradicts the whole image of Strauss as a boorish, card-playing mercenary.

    Also, if you’re a fan of the operas post-Rosenkavalier, I find the leitmotivic organization in “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” to be extremely compelling. I wish it would get performed and written about more!

  5. Mark Berry

    Not for the first time, we have been thinking along similar lines. These couple of postings might also be of interest, I hope: and

    I used to be much more concerned about Strauss’s aestheticism, or rather it worried me more. Now, increasingly, I think he may have been right all along. As parts of London lay in ruins the other evening, and many people were too afraid to emerge from their homes, it was to late Strauss I turned, to Metamorphosen, the Oboe Concerto, the Four Last Songs, and finally the last scene from Capriccio. (That I then needed to listen to some Mozart is another matter!) As a defence, however halting and compromised, of civilised values and of supreme craftsmanship – so often overlooked – there was some solace to be had, just as he had doubtless derived solace himself.

  6. Evan Tucker

    I’ve always been fascinated by Richard Strauss and I love most of his music. But it’s always been in the back of my head that Strauss was a self-loathing Wagnerian. He had impeccable Wagnerian credentials: his father was Wagner’s favorite horn player (even if Franz Strauss didn’t like Wagner’s music) and Cosima tried to fix Strauss up with Wagner’s daughter. But I always had the sense that he did everything he could to distance himself from Wagner, which led to an enormous amount of music that is tongue-in-cheek parody of both Wagner’s musical style and Wagner’s philosophy.

    I wonder if Strauss ultimately wanted to write music far more like Mozart’s than Wagner’s. For me, his very best music: Eulenspiegel, Rosenkavalier, Four Last Songs, Ariadne et al. is when he ditches the Wagnerian parody for a much lighter, perhaps neo-Mozartian style.

  7. Elaine Fine

    Years ago I read a great memoir by the person who published Richard Strauss’ music in Vienna (Universal Edition), but I can’t for the life of me remember his name. This publisher gives a truly personal account of Strauss, and takes it upon himself to debunk all accusations of Antisemitism.

    From what I have read (in that unnamed book–sorry) and elsewhere, it seems to me that Strauss was rather clueless about anything having to do with politics. He thought mainly about music, and when he wasn’t thinking about music, he was thinking about philosophy, or he was playing cards with the neighbors, who probably had no idea that he was a composer or a musician at all.

    Ravel claims to have learned how to orchestrate by studying Strauss. I doubt that there would be a flute solo like the one in Daphnis and Chloe if there hadn’t been a flute solo in the Dance of the Seven Veils. Check them out. They’re very similar.

  8. Kenneth Woods

    @Michael G
    Glad you enjoyed the post- you’re a little ahead of me, as I thought it best to chop the Strauss essay into bite-sized pieces. We’ll get to the war years shortly, but, in short, I agree with you and Chris P

  9. Kenneth Woods

    @Mark Berry
    Mark- thanks so much for the link. The “Case” essay is really outstanding. Is music allowed to make you feel better after WW II? With a bit of historical distance, it seems funny anyone even posed the question.

  10. David G

    RS worked for the party initially but refused it’s most outrageous demands and stood down as musical adviser. Because he used his influence with the party to protect Alice from the SS, many Jews despise him for protecting his daughter in law (and grandchildren) in that way. But that final act trio, it isn’t Wagner or Mahler, but it is outstandingly beautiful.

  11. Peter

    We are very hard on Strauss’s so-called collaboration with the Nazis, while very forgiving of Shostakovich in similar circumstances, who equally toed the line with the Soviet communists. We say – poor Shostakovich, but bad old Strauss. The truth is simply that both Strauss and Shostakovich could only realistically have made a brave stand against the respective regimes by going into exile. You could say their choice to stay at home was naive or evidence of sympathy with the powers of the day, but in fact their choices were pragmatic and never sycophantic.

    We continue to project into Strauss and his music the sins of fascism, because he apparently identified with Nietzschean Superman. But, as Ken rightly points out, Strauss’s music has a feminine, anti-heroic bias which became more and more pronounced as he reached his mature years, and this belies any fascistic tendency.

    The Nazis appropriated things thatwe should still hold precious – like tonality, like Beethoven and Wagner, like Nietzsche – and bent them to evil ends. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who ever enjoyed, admired or believed in these things is then a Nazi. Most significantly, what defines the Nazi mentality was their rigid ideology of racial superiority derived from Darwin and others.

    If we recall Schoenberg’s statement that twelve tone technique would assure the supremacy of German music for the next ome hundred years, then he demonstrated exactly the apsiration to cultural superiority of which Strauss is often wrongly accused. That doesn’t make Schoenberg a Nazi either, but it seems odd to suggest that Strauss ever was.

    Metamorphosen is a requiem for the death of German culture – and by that Strauss meant the humanistic vision of Beethoven and Goethe, which had been destroyed by Hitler and his cronies. There is an obvious connection between Hitlerian fantasy and the Romantic hero, but Strauss was no aplogist for the regime in his music or his politics. For egoistic claims of redeeming German music and of making musical history through ideological revolution, we should look elsewhere.

  12. Kenneth Woods

    @Chris B
    Chris- thanks for your comment and the tip. I’ve just ordered the book. Look forward to it- your passion for music and learning is always infective. The Frog (as Strauss called Die Frau ohne Schatten) is amazing music, but a very difficult score to cast and produce. I love it.

    Hope all is well with you there!


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