A is for Alpine Symphony. In what one might call Strauss’ winter masterpiece, a party of mountaineers sets forth to scale the peak of some giant alp or another. In the course of a single day, the party, setting out at sunrise, wanders by a brook and waterfall, flowering meadows and alpine pastures, slides across a glacier, reaches the summit (a moment of de-oxygenated splendour described by a solo oboe over a violin tremolo); then, coming down through rising mist, walk through a storm with their heads held high, marvel at a glowing sunset and arrive home at night. Even Strauss was impressed with his skills. He wrote to his librettist, Hofmannsthal (see H): ‘‘You must hear the Alpine Symphony on Dec. 5th; it is really quite a good piece.’’
B is for Bourgeois. Undoubtedly this was Strauss’ stock-in-trade. Master composer that he was, he often self-deprecatingly regarded himself more as a journeyman who preferred playing cards with his friends (usually skat – a game incomprehensible to anyone born outside Bavaria) to working. He also, notoriously, kept one eye on the score, the other on the royalties. In 1911, the diarist, Count Harry Kessler, wrote of talking with Strauss about the success of the recently premiered Der Rosenkavalier. ‘‘I said that the criticism now is in general favourable. Strauss: What the critics say is quite immaterial, the box office success is the only thing that matters.’’
C is for Conducting. By all accounts, Strauss was a superb conductor, particularly of Mozart and Wagner. ‘‘One can conduct the prelude to Tristan only if one has the tempo of the last bar exactly in one’s head,’’ he said. Mean of gesture (‘‘Conducting with one’s tie,’’ was how he put it), but with an overall grasp of the score that produced astounding results for seemingly little effort. On the podium he preferred works by other composers to his own music, a task he found quite boring. In 1925, Strauss listed his Ten Golden Rules for the Album of a Young Conductor. Rule 2: ‘‘You should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm.’’ Rule 4: ‘‘Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.’’ Rule 5: ‘‘But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all they are still too strong.’’
D is for Death. Something Strauss did personally just the once. But he described dying with uncanny exactitude in his tone poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). One hears in the music the arrhythmic heartbeat, the draining of life and, at the very moment of death, the ghostly sound of a gently struck gong. On his deathbed, the composer said to his daughter-in-law, ‘‘Funny thing, Alice. Dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.’’
E is for Elektra. The ‘‘unity of structure’’ of Sophocles’ tragedy attracted Strauss to composing his one-act opera along the same lines. Scored for a leather-lunged soprano, who is on stage practically throughout its 95 minutes, and huge orchestra, it is indeed a challenge, even for the audience. At a rehearsal of Elektra in Dresden before the world premiere in January 1909, Strauss was persuaded to direct a passage. He quickly stopped the orchestra, saying, ‘‘I was able to compose it but I can’t conduct it yet.’’
F is for Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder) perhaps the most beloved and popular song cycle of last century. It was not just the world’s farewell to romanticism, but to its greatest contemporary exponent. The final song, Im Abendrot (At Twilight), is unsurpassed in its majestic depiction of life’s ending: indeed, in the concluding bars, Strauss quotes from his much earlier work, Tod und Verklärung (see D, for Death).
G is for Goebbels, Josef, well-known Nazi, who, in his diaries, dismissed Strauss as ‘‘this√ decadent neurotic’’. Later, Goebbels would say to the composer’s face, ‘‘You, Herr Strauss, belong to yesterday’’. Wrong on both counts, Herr Goebbels.
H is for Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. Master poet and playwright and librettist of six Strauss operas: Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Ägyptische Helena, Arabella. The two men met comparatively rarely, but frequently corresponded – always “Dear Dr Strauss”/“Dear Herr von Hofmannsthal”. Despite such formality, each remained indispensable to the other. As composer wrote to librettist early in their professional relationship: ‘‘We were born for one other and are certain to do things fine things together if you remain faithful to me.’’ Their association, alas, ended in July 1929 when Hofmannsthal, an hour after attending the funeral of his son, who had taken his own life, died of a stroke.
I is for Intermezzo. Strauss’ purely autobiographical opera is based on a slight but telling episode of confusion between a composer, Robert Storch, and his wife, Christine, over a supposed extramarital dalliance during a skiing holiday. This did not please Strauss’ wife, the termagant Pauline (see P), in the slightest.
J is for Jeritza, Maria, the Moravian soprano and favourite singer of Strauss. He who composed his final song for her in late 1947. In March 1946, Strauss sent her the manuscript of Malven dedicated thus: ‘‘to beloved Maria, this last rose’’. Jeritza, who died in 1982, carried the secret of Malvern to her grave.
K is for Karajan, Herbert von; Keilberth, Josef; Kempe, Rudolf; Kleiber, Erich and Carlos (father & son) and, of course, Karl Böhm, who squeezes in by virtue of his first name. All of them in the first rank of Strauss conductors beginning with K. But others, of all letters, abound.
L is for Lieder. If Strauss was the last romantic, he was also the last great melodist of song. His many songs (see Four Last Songs) were extraordinarily plangent and wedded to their texts as surely as his operas were linked inextricably to their libretti.
M is for Mahler, Gustav. Strauss’ fellow composer and champion. ‘‘Strauss and I tunnel from opposite sides of the mountain,’’ Mahler said. ‘‘One day we shall meet.’’ The yin-and-yang aspects of their relationship is fascinating to behold: Mahler, the conflicted man and musician, and Strauss, the comfortably affluent Munich-born composer whose music was established from the beginning. Mahler’s time as a composer took longer to happen. After Mahler’s untimely death, in May 1911, Strauss said presciently, ‘‘Mahler’s death has affected me greatly. Now you’ll see even in Vienna he’ll be a great man.’’
N is for Nazi. There were strong links, to be sure, between Strauss and the Nazi party. But he had a Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice, whom he shielded, with success, from persecution. Yet, wartime sensitivities remained. In October 1947, in London, my late stepfather George Harewood met the composer during the interval of a concert at Drury Lane theatre. They talked briefly, in German, and Strauss asked George why he spoke it so well. ‘‘Ich war Kriegsgefangener,’’ (‘‘I was a prisoner of war’’) he replied. Whereupon Strauss, perhaps still cognizant of his country's recent murky past, turned his back on him.
O is for Omniscient. As in the Omniscient Mussel (Der Alles-wissende Muschel). This curious character in Strauss’ opera Der Ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen) is a cross between a crustacean and a clairvoyant – a hollow-voiced confidante, predicting the destiny of Helen of Troy, as well as supplying a role whose name no self-respecting contralto would wish to include in her CV.
P is for Pauline, Strauss (nee de Ahna). Strauss’ devoted but feisty Frau. A former soprano and notorious for her sharp tongue, especially when directed at her long-suffering husband. ‘‘Yes, men,’’ she said, ‘‘the main thing is to keep a tight rein on them.’’ As Strauss said of his wife: ‘‘She is very complex, very much a woman, a little depraved, something of a flirt never twice alike, every minute different to what she was the minute before.’’ Even so, the two were inseparable for almost 60 years of marriage. Pauline died just nine months after her husband.
Q is for Quinquin (see R for Rosenkavalier), nom-d’amour of Count Octavian Rofrano, randy young nobleman and lover of the Marschallin and later Sophie. Octavian’s full name (courtesy of Sophie, whom, enraptured, lists them when the count arrives at her house bearing the silver rose) is: Octavian Maria Ehrenreich Bonaventura Fernand, Hyacinth.
R is for Rosenkavalier, Der. Not only Strauss’ most popular opera, but the one that would save him from ignominy. As United States occupying troops marched up the driveway of his villa at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1945, they were met by a tall, stooped, moustachioed old man, who said in English, ‘‘I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Der Rosenkavalier. Leave me alone.’’ They did.
S is for Salome. This could have been Strauss’ most unpopular work. Even in the early 1960s, one English critic described it as ‘‘the nastiest opera in existence’’. Its Biblical theme, let alone the portrayal of John the Baptist’s decapitated head being smooched by the opera’s lust-laden, veil-shedding anti-heroine, guaranteed the work’s controversy from its beginning. The first Salome, Marie Wittich, walked out of the production, saying, ‘‘I’m a decent woman’’. But sensation, as ever, worked its magic. The opera’s much delayed premiere, in Dresden, in late 1905 (it was supposed to be Vienna, under Mahler, but the court censor struck early) heralded a storm, but one mollified, two years later, when Strauss himself conducted it in Graz. By then, word had spread, and the audience that night included Mahler, Puccini, Schoenberg, Berg and – it was rumoured – a 17-year-old Austrian music-lover called Adolf Hitler. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany predicted that Salome would do Strauss’ career a lot of damage. ‘‘The damage,’’ the composer drolly remarked years later, ‘‘enabled me to build my villa at Garmisch.’’
T is for Tone Poem. Strauss’ term for what is otherwise symphonic program-music: that is, telling a story. Thus his finest tone-poems: Ein Heldenleben, Alpine Symphony, Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan, Don Quixote and Tod und Verklärung. Not forgetting the early Macbeth and the soap-opera of its day, Sinfonia Domestica - a thinly disguised account of the Strauss family life. By the way, the full title of Till Eulenspiegel takes almost as long to say as the piece does to perform: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche nach alter Schelmenweise in Rondeauform für grosses Orchester gesetz (Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks, after the old rogue’s tale, set for large orchestra in rondo-form).
U is for Ursuleac, Viorica. Romanian-born soprano, and creator of various roles in Strauss’ operas, including Arabella and Capriccio. In 1934, when the composer conducted Arabella in Amsterdam, Ursuleac complained after the rehearsal about Strauss’ fast tempo in the last scene. In performance, she recalled, he took the scene ‘‘with poetic breadth’’. Next day she thanked him. ‘‘You’ve only yourself to blame,’’ he said, rewarding her with the gift of a ring.
V is for Vienna. City of dreams, the epicentre (next to Munich) of Strauss performance. But bear in mind his quote: ‘‘People are deceitful everywhere, but in Vienna they’re so pleasant about it.’’ True to form, in 1924, the panjandrums of the Vienna State Opera effectively dismissed Strauss as music director.
W is for Wagner. Second only to Mozart as Strauss’ most admired composer. Strauss first conducted at the Wagner shrine of Bayreuth in July 1894 – Tannhäuser, with his future wife, Pauline de Ahna, as Elisabeth. Wagner’s widow, Cosima, suspicious of the young Strauss and his music, greeted him, saying, ‘‘Ei, ei, such a modernist, and yet conducts Tannhäuser so well.’’ The next time Strauss conducted there was in 1933, with Parsifal. He attempted to persuade the patron of the festival to levy a one per cent royalty on every Wagner performance in Germany, with proceeds going to the festival. Hitler refused.
X is for Xanthe, servant in the opera Die Liebe der Danae. The only X-rated character in all his works.
Y is for YouTube. Strauss, were he still here, would no doubt be claiming online royalties. There is a trove of archive footage that shows the man himself at work. Most moving is the few precious minutes of Strauss in the pit at Munich, conducting the close of Act II of Der Rosenkavalier – the young Georg Solti standing next to him at the rostrum. Link here.
Z is for Zöppritzstrasse. No. 42, to be exact, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. This was the Strauss family villa, but more of a mansion. Also Zarathustra: the great tone poem, Thus Spake Zarathustra. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, many people believe the work to be merely 90 seconds long. Listen on, listen on.