Celebrating the 150th birthday of my favorite second-rate composer: Richard Strauss

So it’s the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss, the German composer who famously declared himself a “first-class second-rate composer”, since he considered himself not in the rank of Mozart and Beethoven.

Nevertheless, I would certainly consider him one of the great composers of all time, because of his innovative explorations of color, and the tension between counterpoint and tonality.

Here’s a tour of some of my favorite performances of his music.

My first discovery of Richard Strauss: “Also sprach Zarathustra”

Probably like everyone else born after 1968, the first time I heard any music by Strauss was surely while watching the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I watched it sometime in the 1980s. Kubrick took the opening “Sunrise” of Strauss’s 1896 symphonic poem [Also sprach Zarathustra](“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Also_sprach_Zarathustra_%28Richard_Strauss%29") as the opening musical theme of the film:

It took years until I actually learned this music wasn’t composed for the film, but was a fragment of something old, and had a name. At some point, I finally heard the whole piece, on the radio. And then I listened to it more deeply in college, as I grappled with Strauss’s playing with tonality, using B major against C major in the piece to contrast humanity with the universe.

If you’ve only heard the opening fanfare, you must listen to the whole piece. It’s a story in itself.

A video of Mariss Jansons conducting this work:

My second discovery: “Im Abendrot”

In college, I watched the 1990 film “Wild at Heart” with friends as it came out. I was wowed by the opening music theme and wondered what that gorgeous music was. Well, it turned out to be the beginning of Richard Strauss’s “Im Abendrot”, one of his “Four Last Songs” composed in 1948 when he was 84 years old.

Check out the opening of the film, if you haven’t seen it before or don’t remember:

The music clip from that film was an excerpt from one sung by Jessye Norman, conducted by Kurt Masur. It turns out that she sang it really slowly, and I prefer the music as a whole to go more quickly, in the context of it being a whole song, not just an instrumental introduction. Here is a classic recording by Gundula Janowitz in 1973 conducted by Herbert von Karajan that may be my favorite one of this beautiful song, which is about reflections on approaching death: “We have gone through sorrow and joy hand in hand; now let us rest from our wanderings above the silent land.”

Listen to the whole thing:

I find it marvelous and touching that Richard Strauss continued to give the world the gift of lovely music in his old age.

Some youthful music: piano sonata in B minor

Now, for something completely different: a piano sonata he wrote at age 16, in 1880. (Yes, 1880. One thing to remember about Richard Strauss is just how long he lived, and how many eras of musical and political change he survived through.)

Glenn Gould was a big champion of Richard Strauss, and I’m grateful he recorded a bunch of his Strauss’s piano music. Obviously, this youthful piano music is not among Strauss’s greatest work (it tends to be very repetitious, not yet fully individualist and economical), but it still has its charm, as a transitional late Romantic attempt of the 19th century. I can’t possibly listen to the whole thing without falling asleep, but it’s interesting to click around to get a glimpse of where he was coming from:

His masterpiece at the end: Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings

In 1944, near the end of his life, 64 years after the last musical selection I linked to, Strauss composed his final masterpiece, Metamorphosen, which he subtitled “in memoriam”. “In memory” of what? He refused to say, so there is debate about this: it could be a statement of mourning over the Dresden destruction in World War II, or could be a more abstract statement about the horrors of war in general. See this recent article for more discussion.

This is my favorite music by him. It is a feat of emotional contrast and expression, and gorgeous orchestration, writing for strings.

Here is a wonderful video of Nathalie Stutzmann conducting Metamorphosen:

Other work

I have completely omitted any mention of decades of Strauss’s most prominent masterpieces, because, ironically, most of them do not speak to me. I realize that by saying this, I am saying that Strauss is a problem for me: much of his music leaves me cold, however technically brilliant they might be. So I do not love that music. I remember him for his accomplished, nostalgic later work that I actually love.


Richard Strauss was influential as a conductor.

His own music

Here is a video clip of Richard Strauss conducting his own music in 1944:


Strauss loved Mozart. Here he is in a 1926 recording of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony, no. 41:

It’s not a great performance (I do not like the sloppiness or the rushing), but it is interesting how “modern” it sounds, in that it takes a brisk tempo and focuses on overall structural integrity and drive. Apparently he did not treat recording as a serious activity, however, so one cannot extrapolate from this recording how his live performances sounded in general.


There are two controversies over Strauss: one is over music and one is over politics.

Musically, Strauss for a long time was considered to have fallen into conservatism, as he began as a radical innovator but did not follow through: he rejected the 20th century developments in atonality and serialism. I am not sure how entirely fair it is to level this charge against him, since he lived so long that one could not expect him to stay a radical forever. I also do not believe musical conservatism is necessarily horrible. Not everyone has the temperament or desire to be perpetually be on the cutting edge. I am perfectly happy that he wrote the “conservative” Metamorphosen and Four Last Songs that only he, who had lived half his life through the late Romantic era in the 19th century, could have created the way that they are.

Politically, there are charges of his conveniently going along with the Nazi regime for his own career gain. He is not alone, of course, in being a German musician under a cloud for not fleeing Germany or actively opposing Hitler. So there will always be discussion of this aspect of his life. I think it’s clear that he had no Nazi ideological convictions, but was a career opportunist.


On Richard Strauss’s 150th birthday, I decided to celebrate the music of his that I love most, and share it here. I hope you have checked out some of it.

Do you like the music of Richard Strauss? If so, what are your favorite pieces by him? Are they among those I mentioned, or those I did not? What do you think about him as a person?

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