The tone poet, 1885–98
Strauss's period in Meiningen as Hofmusikdirektor lasted only from October 1885 to April 1886, but it profoundly affected the rest of his life as composer and conductor. Apprenticed to Bülow, he learnt conducting from one of Europe's finest practitioners; he later openly credited Bülow for teaching him ‘the art of interpretation’. Beyond his own conducting duties, which included directing the local choral society, he attended all Bülow's rehearsals with score and pencil in hand. The inexperienced 21-year-old composer learnt quickly, and in December 1885 took full charge of the orchestra in the wake of Bülow's sudden resignation. Among the highlights of his Meiningen tenure were his public début as a soloist in Mozart's C minor Piano Concerto, for which he wrote his own cadenzas, and the opportunity to help prepare the orchestra for the first performance of Brahms's Fourth Symphony, with the composer conducting. He conducted his Symphony in F minor for Brahms, who reportedly advised: ‘Your symphony contains too much playing about with themes. This piling up of many themes based on a triad, which differ from one another only in rhythm, has no value’. Though Strauss claimed to have taken the master's admonition to heart, this technique, for better or worse, remained a substantive component of his compositional style.
Meiningen represented another important moment in Strauss's career as a composer, for in 1885 came his so-called conversion to the ‘music of the future’ through his acquaintance with Alexander Ritter (1833–96), an outspoken proponent of the ideals of Wagner and Liszt. Married to Wagner's niece, Ritter was both a composer and a violinist in the Meiningen orchestra, and Strauss would later credit his friend for making him a Wagnerian, though it is unlikely that Ritter alone caused such a dramatic turnaround in the younger composer. Strauss was already growing away musically from his father, who disliked Brahms as much as Wagner, and growing towards both these composers. What he called his ‘Brahmsschwärmerei’ (‘Brahms adoration’) overlapped significantly with his increasing fascination with the aura of Bayreuth, and his Wandrers Sturmlied (1884) and Burleske (1885–6) are strongly indebted to Brahms, though the latter work ‘burlesques’ Wagner as well.
Contrary to Strauss's memoirs, Ritter did not introduce the young composer to the writings of Schopenhauer, though he surely sharpened his interest. Ritter's success in expanding Strauss's knowledge of Wagner's and Hausegger's writings was the logical consequence of the composer's emerging personal style. Ritter, in short, offered Strauss – who already knew Wagner's music – an aesthetic focus. His more important (and less recognized) contribution to Strauss's development was the introduction to Liszt, especially the symphonic poems. Strauss proclaimed the slogan ‘New ideas must seek new forms’ to be the ‘basic principle of Liszt's symphonic works’, and he credited Ritter for helping him realize this central tenet of the ‘music of the future’. From then on he viewed abstract sonata form as little more than ‘a hollow shell’ filled with empty phrases. After he left Meiningen for a post as third conductor at the Munich Hofoper, his friendship with Ritter grew and intensified. Indeed, in Munich, from 1886 to 1889, Strauss and Rösch, occasionally with Thuille and Anton Seidl, met regularly in the evenings ‘to exchange noble ideas and to listen to the teachings of the Lisztian Ritter’, who had moved to Munich in September 1886.
Before taking up his Munich post the month before Ritter's arrival, Strauss spent several weeks touring Italy, and in a letter to his mother he described various sites. In the left margin he sketched ‘tonal impressions’ that he would use in his ‘first hesitant step’ into the realm of the tone poem, Aus Italien (1886). From Italy he returned to Munich, where he concentrated on this new orchestral work for most of the summer. In early August he travelled with Ritter to Bayreuth, to visit the grave of the recently deceased Liszt and to hear Tristan and Parsifal. Thereafter he was ready to take up his Munich duties. Now 22, he was brash and talented, and this combination of traits complicated his life considerably during the three years he served in Munich. On paper, the post was a step up, and he was able to return to a richer cultural centre as well. But he had operated with autonomy in Meiningen, whereas Munich required him to fit into a hierarchy that often rewarded seniority over talent. Moreover, after the death of Ludwig II, in June 1886, the opera house no longer enjoyed the same level of royal support. Worse yet, Hermann Levi, first conductor at the Hofoper, was often ill, which put the detested Franz Fischer in charge. Still worse, the Intendant, Karl Perfall, was hostile both to Strauss's music and to his ‘Bülowian’ conducting. Strauss readily admitted that because he insisted on his own tempos, his taking the baton at short notice made things difficult for singers and musicians, among them his father at first horn. Franz advised patience and moderation to his often hot-headed son, who was bored with a repertory that included Boieldieu, Auber and Donizetti.
Less preoccupied with conducting duties, Strauss spent more time thinking about music and aesthetics, and his relationship with Ritter deepened. Their friendship was complex, and one should not infer that the overbearing Ritter exerted absolute influence. His idiosyncratic fusion of Catholicism, Schopenhauer, Liszt and Wagner was surely alien to the agnostic Strauss, who probably found Ritter's religio-mystical views on the ethical properties of music hard to swallow. But they remained friends throughout the 1880s, and Ritter continued to catalyse Strauss's thoughts on music and philosophy (mostly Schopenhauer), thoughts which in 1887 found their way into the beginnings of the libretto for his first opera, Guntram (1892–3). There were more practical ramifications as well, for Strauss seriously began to reconsider his approach to musical form. Convinced of an artist's duty to create a ‘new form for every new subject’, he tried to address this problem in Macbeth (1888), for if Aus Italien had been a ‘first step’ toward programme music, Macbeth (though it was not performed until after Don Juan, 1888, and Tod und Verklärung, 1889) was his first fully fledged tone poem. Don Juan followed some eight months later.
This early Munich period also saw the composition of 17 lieder (opp.15, 17 and 19) and some important premières, including those of Aus Italien in 1887 and the Violin Sonata in 1888. By the autumn of 1887 Strauss had secured numerous conducting engagements outside Munich, for example in Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig, where he first met Mahler. That year he met too another person who became central to his life: his future wife, Pauline de Ahna. The daughter of a major general, she had studied singing at the Munich Musikschule, but soon switched to private lessons with Strauss, and in 1889 followed him to Weimar, where he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Before beginning his Weimar duties in the autumn, he worked as musical assistant at Bayreuth, where he developed and maintained a close relationship with Cosima Wagner. The major event early in his Weimar tenure – one that established him as a leading composer of his day – was the première of Don Juan. The work's provocative subject matter and musical brilliance earned him international recognition as a modernist, and that reputation was only enhanced with the premières of the Burleske and Tod und Verklärung within a year. His renown as a conductor grew rapidly too. He had become a staunch advocate of the symphonic poems of Liszt and, with the support of Cosima, worked tirelessly to make Weimar a significant centre for Wagner. His crowning glory was an uncut production of Tristan in 1892.
All this feverish activity as composer and conductor left Strauss exhausted, and by the end of the 1891–2 season he had become gravely ill. His engagement to conduct that summer in Bayreuth was cancelled, and he spent the following winter convalescing in Greece and Egypt. But he was resilient, and turned the experience into a miniature Bildungsreise, for it was during this time of solitary journey that he deepened his study of philosophy and aesthetics. His travel diaries detail an immersion in, among others, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, a preoccupation that informed his work on Guntram, which was nearing completion. These readings inspired other potential operatic ideas as well: a Don Juan, Das erhabene Leid der Könige, Der Reichstag zu Mainz and an opera based on the Till Eulenspiegel legend.
A rested Strauss returned to his Weimar duties in the autumn of 1893 with a completed Guntram scheduled for a première there the next May. This final season in Weimar saw important changes in his personal life. A dispute over the ending of Guntram, and his post-Egypt rejection of musical metaphysics, chilled relations with Ritter. Soon afterwards he lost another father figure, Bülow, who died in February 1894. The next month, during rehearsals for Guntram, Strauss was officially notified that he had been appointed Kapellmeister in Munich. That move may have helped prompt him to propose marriage to Pauline de Ahna, and they were wed on 10 September. Pauline sang the role of Freihild at the first performance of Guntram, which received reviews ranging from lukewarm to mildly favourable. The Munich première proved less equivocal: in the wake of its failure, future performances were cancelled, despite initial promises to the contrary, and for the first time Strauss had to deal head-on with strong conservative elements in the Bavarian capital.
Despite this setback he continued to make a name for himself as both composer and conductor. Before beginning his Munich duties, he finally conducted in Bayreuth (Tannhäuser, with Pauline singing Elisabeth); he then assumed responsibility for the major Wagner operas in Munich. Moreover, he was invited to conduct concerts with the Berlin PO during the 1894–5 season, and thereafter broadened his conducting engagements to various European countries, including Russia. Meanwhile he was steadily composing tone poems during this period: Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben were all written by 1898, when he signed a contract as conductor with the Berlin Hofoper. These post-Guntram tone poems reveal a composer capable of making poetic content and formal design coalesce with great brilliance.