Re-rating Richard part II: Strauss, innovation and absolute music.

Part II- Strauss and Modernity, Strauss and Program Music

(Part I- “He was no Mahler, he was no Wagner” is here”)

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, but to look at whether too many of us have been listening to his music with ears and hearts only partly opened.


3- Strauss turned his back on modernity

I hinted at this in my discussion of Mahler and Strauss. It was long accepted as a truism that Strauss had somehow betrayed history and sold out when he went from the hyper-intensity and violence of Elektra to the sophisticated lyricism and humane wit of Der Rosenkavalier. I remember one of my teachers saying “Strauss had promise, but he spent the last 38 years of his career discrediting himself as a composer.” Really?

First of all, Strauss was modern way before Salome and Elektra- his very modern sounding Burleske for Piano and orchestra was, amazingly, written in 1885.  Strauss had had been deploying a tremendous facility with dissonance and dislocation for over 25 years by the time he wrote Rosenkavalier- he was smart enough to realize that  he had to continue to grow and develop, which for him, meant making his style more classical and melodic. Strauss always said that the musical language of Salome and Elektra had been a response to the stories they told, not the outgrowth of an aesthetic program. He didn’t want to keep retelling the same stories, retreading the same emotional territory.

Strauss’s real contributions to modernity go far beyond the searing dissonances unleashed in Elektra.  Strauss was the first great composer to see the bankruptcy of the Romantic project. Take Don Juan, one of his earliest major works. What first seems like the quintessential Romantic  and heroic orchestral showpiece turns out to  be more like a vivisection of the genre. After 20 minutes of Romantic clichés on steroids, Strauss kills his Don in one of the most shockingly nihilistic endings in all of music. Not for Strauss a cathartic funeral march, or a searing death aria- just the cold realization that it is over.  Almost all of the endings to Strauss’s early tone poems avoid a sense of closure and fulfillment. He’s not one for catharsis. The beginning of Also Sprach is infinitely more exciting and satisfying than the bleak and ambivalent ending.  Till is executed, Quioxte dies.  In many ways, Strauss saw the world with more “modern,” clear-eyed skepticism than Mahler. Strauss understood that life is messy, complex and confounding. Where Mahler almost always manages to solve all the problems of the universe by the last bar of a symphony (and nobody ever did it better), Strauss’s endings are truer to life- sometimes incomplete, sometimes violent, sometimes enigmatic, and with the very notable exception of Death and Transfiguration, almost always hinting that problems remain to be solved.

What the case of Strauss illustrates all-too-well is just how comically narrowly people defined musical modernity and innovation for most of the 20th c.. Dissonance and innovation are not the same thing. Yes, Ariadne auf Naxos is not as dissonant a piece as Elektra or Lulu or Erwartung, but it is a hugely original and innovative piece- it breaks more new structural, philosophical and instrumental new ground than any of those three modernist masterpieces. And how much fresher, more orignal and more interesting is this piece than any number of orthodox regurgitations of serial orthodoxies by composers not on the same level as Berg and Schoenberg?


Strauss got to neo-Classicism before anyone else, and he got to post-Modernism before anyone else.


4-  Strauss was “just” a program music and opera composer who couldn’t write in classical forms.

This is a very common and deeply wrong assumption about Strauss. First of all, Strauss did write a number of marvelous instrumental works in pure classical forms. The two Horn Concertos and the Oboe Concerto mark the pinnacle of the concertante repertoire for those instruments. Fortunately, they’re fairly well known (although it’s a pity the 2nd Horn Concerto isn’t played as often as the 1st. It’s a far greater piece, but extremely, extremely difficult for the orchestra).

(Strauss’s 2nd Horn Concerto makes mincemeat of the violins of a very good orchestra, but Radek Baborak nails it to the wall)

If you don’t know them, run, don’t walk to your local CD store and get recordings of the wonderful Violin and Cello sonatas. They’re infinitely fresh, exciting lively and very classical works. I love the Cello Sonata and play it every chance I get- I read it just the other day with a friend and was really struck by just how much the young Strauss manages to demonstrate a complete knowledge of the genre, with lovely shoutouts to Mendelssohn and Beethoven, while at the same time giving us a work that could only be by Strauss.

(Oscar Shumsky and Glenn Gould play Strauss)

Another piece I’ve been playing a lot is his wonderful 5-minute long String Trio “’s deandl is harb auf mi.” It’s just a very straightforward Theme and Variations, but incredibly clever, tuneful and very, very funny. Strauss was absolutely one of music’s great humorists- people see the humor in a piece like Till Eulenspiegel because it is explicit in the  program, but not in a lot of his operas and other tone poems. Like Haydn, Strauss loves to undermine expectation at every turn. Till may be a funny, light-hearted work, but it’s the product of a deeply serious musical mind. As Gunther Schuller wrote in The Compleat Conductor, “Strauss’s constant re-invention of the main thematic materials results on one of the most tightly (and, perfectly) constructed works in the entire 19th-century repertory. Not since Mozart’s Jupiter Finale and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had there been anything quite as succinctly integrated as Till. Nor– looking forward towards the 20th century– was there to appear anything as rigorously developed as until until some of Webern’s scores of the 1920’s”

Also, most of his programmatic works are actually written in or around classical forms. There is the Theme and Variations of DonQuioxte, the Sonata Rondo of Till Eulenspiegel, and a Sonata form for Death and Transfiguration.  While one can make a case that some of Liszt’s tone poems are organized almost entirely by their programs, in Strauss, the music always stands on its own as a musical design, and there are always levels of meaning not included tin the programs to explore. This is why the Strauss Tone Poems have endured in a way that Liszt’s, for all their excitement and drama, have not.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

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.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

8 comments on “Re-rating Richard part II: Strauss, innovation and absolute music.”

  1. Erik K

    Great posts. Much needed.

    A quick comment on the Horn Concerti…the 2nd is indeed a masterpiece, and difficult for the orchestra, but also incredibly difficult for the soloist. I’ve heard a couple live performances by very fine hornists that resulted in near catastrophe because of the unforgiving solo part. I obviously am biased, but I can’t imagine a higher degree of difficulty in music-to-solo-instrument in the whole repertoire.

    Good stuff on his non-program music. A couple other really fine examples: from his early days the op. 4 Suite and more so the op. 7 Serenade, which is still widely performed and has a melody that I will whistle for weeks if you let me, and from his last days the Duet-Concertino for clarinet, bassoon, and strings.

    Keep them coming!

  2. Michael G

    “it’s a pity the 2nd Horn Concerto isn’t played as often as the 1st. It’s a far greater piece, but extremely, extremely difficult for the orchestra” – and the horn soloist!!

  3. Kenneth Woods

    @Erik K
    I think there are other concertos that are just as unforgiving- the Haydn D Major Cello Concerto springs to mind- but the Strauss has the extra issue of endurance.

    I’ve conducted the piece 3 times- it’s a miracle. On one occasion, we were working with a brilliant young player. In the rehearsal he was amazing. Before the rehearsal, and every time we stopped, I told him I was perfectly happy if he marked or laid out for everything in the rehearsal, but he was young and keen and strong, and played like a god all afternoon. I can’t tell you how many times I said things like “this is just for the violins, so don’t play.” You can see where this is going. In the concert, he completely lost it- there was no lip left.

    Strauss knew it was almost beyond human endurance for most horn players, which is why the horn player has such a long break after the 1st mvt. The funny upshot of this is that this puts the Strauss 2nd in a select group of concerto’s where the very best bit of the piece (in this case, the beginning of the slow mvt) doesn’t involve the soloist at all. He’s in good company- Bloch’s Schelomo and the Brahms D minor Pno Concerto both come to mind.

    I love the op 7 Serenade. It’s a joy to conduct.

  4. Erik K

    Seriously. Endurance was never my strongest suit as a player, and I was often reduced to about 30% after the first page of the solo. Literally no letup until that descending 5th in half notes, at which time my face felt like it had been beaten with a medieval torch so that it also caught fire.

    On a non-related note, I must know what part of Schelomo is the best bit, because the spot I have in mind (depending on how you break it up, I suppose) most definitely involved the soloist. But we can discuss that after Strauss gets his continuing due!

  5. Kenneth Woods

    @Erik K
    To give some indication of the difficulty of the orchestra writing, I added a YouTube clip of the 2nd Hn Con finale. The violins really suffer, but Baborak makes it sound like the easiest piece ever written. Bastard! How can anyone make the horn sound easy?

  6. Erik K

    Well, in Baborak’s case, God owed him otherworldly horn prowess in exchange for his looking like an albino Donald Trump/Sean Astin gay love child, but I can’t speak to the ease of the horn because a) I’m incredibly good-looking and b) I was never good at it.

  7. David G

    Thanks Ken. The Kennedy is a good biog read and is balanced in it’s arguments. Is RS underated by non-opera going music-lovers only, because don’t most opera-goers appreciate his worth?

  8. Kevin Lindsay

    I believe that the 2nd Horn Concerto was dedicated to and premiered by the then-principal horn of the Vienna Phil (Gottfried von Freiburg?); God knows what it must’ve been like to try to play that solo part on a single-F Vienna horn! Brutal part for the soloist indeed; for the longest time Brain was the only player to record it, and I don’t think he played it live very often. Gorgeous music, though, I love the late Strauss, also the Four Last Songs, and the wind symphonies (Happy Workshop).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *