Entertainment Music

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Classic talk: That other Strauss - Munich's man of music

Best till last: Richard Strauss
Best till last: Richard Strauss

George Hamilton

Fly into Munich and you'll arrive at Franz Josef Strauss International, an indication that there's more to the name than Viennese waltzes. The Franz Josef in question was the driving force and dominant voice in Bavarian politics for the greater part of the second half of the 20th century.

Some time before, another Franz Joseph Strauss was the principal horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra. His son would go on to become one of the most prominent in his chosen field in the first half of the last century.

That was Richard Strauss, who found fame first as a conductor, and then as one of the great composers who managed to take his music in several different directions across a lengthy career.

Born 153 years ago this weekend (in 1864, his birthday - June 11 - was a Saturday), he had a comfortable childhood. His mother came from a wealthy brewing family, the Pschorrs, whose name lives on in one of the six Munich brands that can be sold at the city's Oktoberfest.

Though he only ever had one lesson in composition, he managed to produce a raft of material. His Opus 1, a 'Festive March for Large Orchestra', got its first outing when he was still in his teens.

At 21, he was made director of music of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, a top ensemble at the time. Though he only stayed for a year, this was the start of a stellar conducting career that took him to positions in Munich, Weimar, Berlin and Vienna.

Not for him was the flamboyance of others. Tall and slim, he'd take command of the music with an economy of movement. He'd use only his right arm, his left dangling by his side. "You should not perspire when conducting" was one of his Ten Golden Rules for a Young Conductor.

The principal among these commandments was "Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience".

That wasn't always the case with what he wrote. Kaiser Wilhelm II reckoned that Strauss had damaged his reputation with his opera Salome, based on Oscar Wilde's play and featuring the severed head of John the Baptist and the notorious dance of the seven veils.

The public didn't agree. The damage done was lucrative enough to set Strauss up in a villa in Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps.

Salome was one of 15 operas Strauss would write, but there was much more besides. Single-movement symphonic pieces for orchestra, which he preferred to call tone poems; and songs - a vast collection, to sit alongside his wonderful opera arias.

He was without peer as a composer for sopranos, maybe because he was married to one. From Lehmann to Fleming, Schwarzkopf to Callas, they've all featured Strauss in their repertoire.

You could almost say he saved the best till last. He was 84 and in declining health when he set to music, for soprano and orchestra, four German poems.

The cycle has become known as his Four Last Songs - Frühling (Spring), September, Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) and Abendrot (Sunset).

They're the perfect epitaph for a man of music who damned himself with faint praise. Late in life, rehearsing an orchestra, he told them: "I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer." There's many an audience, delighting in the world of sound he created, that would beg to differ.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

Indo Review

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment