Childhood and early career, 1864–85
Strauss was the first of two children born to Franz Strauss (1822–1905), principal horn player in the Munich court orchestra, and Josephine Pschorr Strauss (1837–1910), daughter of Georg Pschorr, a wealthy Munich brewer. Franz Strauss was a superb musician (the ‘Joachim of the horn’, according to Hans von Bülow) whose brilliance was equalled by his dogged tenacity. These traits took him from lowly illegitimacy to the rank of professor at the Königliche Musikschule in 1871, and to that of Kammermusiker of the Bavarian court two years later. The same hallmarks of genius and diligence were to leave their imprint on the musical personality of his son.
Though often stereotyped as a successor to Wagner (Bülow dubbed him ‘Richard III’, believing that Wagner could have no direct successor), Strauss had artistic roots markedly different from those of his predecessor. If anything, in his bourgeois upbringing and classical training, with instrumental music-making central to domestic life, he was closer to Wagner's nemesis, Mendelssohn. The Strauss family lived in the heart of Munich, and Richard was able to capitalize on all that a great city had to offer. Moreover, again unlike Wagner, he was musically precocious. He began piano lessons at the age of four with August Tombo (harpist in the court orchestra), composed his first works at the age of six, took up the violin at the age of eight under his cousin Benno Walter (leader of the court orchestra) and at 11 began five years of compositional study with Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer.
Yet the most important musical influence on the young Strauss was his arch-conservative father, who brought him up on Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. As late as the early 1880s Franz was still supervising his son's compositions, making comments and criticisms. The second most important youthful influence was that of Ludwig Thuille (1861–1907), who was to become a prominent composer, theorist and member of the Munich School. The orphaned Thuille was treated as one of the family in the Strauss home, and Richard's surviving letters to Thuille of the late 1870s present something of a childhood diary, including reports on composing, music lessons and the works of other composers.
Strauss's earliest compositions consisted mostly of lieder, piano pieces and chamber music. From them we can infer that though his teacher, Meyer, may have been unexceptional, he nonetheless gave the young composer a thorough grounding in harmony, classical phraseology and form. Towards the end of the 1870s Strauss demonstrated an increasing interest in orchestral music, probably linked to the fact that his father had taken over the ‘Wilde Gung'l’. This amateur orchestra, which Franz directed from 1875 to 1896, helped introduce Richard to the world of symphonic composition: he attended rehearsals and himself joined the ensemble in 1882 as a violinist. Through the Wilde Gung'l he learnt orchestration on a practical level, his father leading the way, and he wrote some of his first orchestral pieces for the group. His early orchestral works included marches, concert overtures and ultimately two symphonies, in D minor (1880) and F minor (1884), but his best remembered works from this period are the pieces for 13 woodwind (the Serenade of 1881 and Suite of 1884) and the concertos for violin (1880–82) and horn (1882–3).
In 1882 he graduated from the Ludwigs-Gymnasium and, in accordance with his father's wishes, entered the University of Munich, though only for the winter of 1882–3. As brief as his enrolment may have been, it marked the awakening of his intellectual curiosity, for what he studied of Shakespeare, art history, philosophy and aesthetics was to affect his musical growth over the next decade. He soon became interested in Schopenhauer, whose writings he discussed at length with Arthur Seidl and with his lifelong friend Friedrich Rösch. He also began to make a name for himself in 1882 with some important premières outside Munich (the Serenade and the Violin Concerto). Strauss left for Dresden, then Berlin, in December 1883. In the bustling Prussian metropolis he attended concerts and theatre, and met influential people who would help guide his future. Letters to his family and to Thuille document his activities and impressions of Berlin musical life.
Of all the musicians he observed in Berlin, Bülow made the greatest impression – as a pianist, whose ‘phrasing, touch and execution’ he admired, but even more so as a conductor, whose probing interpretations captivated him. From Bülow he gained a preoccupation with Brahms that would last the next few years. Also, while on tour in Berlin, Bülow's Meiningen orchestra performed Strauss's Serenade, and the conductor soon commissioned another woodwind piece for his orchestra. This, the Suite in B , marked Strauss's début as a conductor, for in November 1884, when the Meiningen orchestra toured Munich, Bülow included the Suite in the programme of a special matinée concert, informing Strauss that he would be directing the ensemble without a rehearsal.
By now Strauss was maturing rapidly as an artist, and his fame spread quickly. His Second Symphony had received its first performance in the USA earlier in 1884, and its first European performance took place in Cologne the next year, which was also the year in which Bülow presented the First Horn Concerto for the first time in Meiningen. Even more important to Strauss's career was his appointment, again in 1885, as Bülow's conducting assistant in Meiningen – his first professional post and a position that took him away from family and friends in Munich. The timing was ideal, for his musical independence from his father had evolved steadily since the early 1880s. The university had opened his eyes to Schopenhauer, and before that his ears had been opened to Wagner (a composer of whom his father strongly disapproved), whose music increasingly fascinated him. In 1878 he attended performances of Die Walküre and Siegfried in Munich, and by 1879 he had heard the entire Ring as well as Tristan (he studied the score in detail in 1880) and Die Meistersinger. And of course he went to Bayreuth to hear his father play in the first production of Parsifal in 1882. The negative opinions he voiced regarding Wagner at this time must be evaluated within the context of their conservative recipients, namely his father and Thuille.