The opera composer, 1898–1916
Independent of Ritter, Bülow, his father and, most importantly, Munich, Strauss confidently left for Berlin with his wife and their one-year-old son Franz. The busy capital of the German empire offered an ideal cultural atmosphere in which the composer could explore new artistic directions. His early tone poems, such as Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung, were already firmly part of the German repertory, he was in constant demand as a guest conductor, and his appointment as conductor at the Hofoper was one of the most prestigious in the country. In his first season alone he conducted 25 operas in over 71 performances, including an ambitious Ring cycle. But his acknowledged excellence as an opera conductor was not yet matched by any comparable achievement as a composer in that genre. Stung by the failure of Guntram, he threw himself into a second stage project, a satirical one-act Singgedicht to pour scorn on a Munich that had rejected the earlier work.
Around the time he was composing this second opera, Feuersnot (1900–01), Strauss began working on behalf of composers' rights, and in 1903 he helped establish the first society protecting the copyrights of German composers (the Genossenschaft Deutscher Tonsetzer), which became a model for future societies. His extensive professional activity beyond his Berlin opera duties is difficult to fathom. In 1901 he was elected president of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, and he took over the conducting of the Berliner Tonkünstlerverein, which toured Europe. Both posts allowed him to champion the music of his contemporaries, including Mahler, and his work as editor of the book series Die Musik gave him yet another platform for furthering the music of his day. By now all-Strauss concerts were becoming increasingly popular; the first was in Vienna in 1901, and two years later a major Strauss festival took place in London (June 1903). Months after that a Heidelberg Strauss festival was capped by the presentation of an honorary doctorate, celebrated by the first performance of Taillefer (1903), a large-scale work for soloists, chorus and orchestra.
During an earlier trip to England (May 1902) Strauss had begun work on the Symphonia domestica, which was finished the next year shortly before his first North American tour (1904) that included stops in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago. He conducted the première at Carnegie Hall, and there were also lieder recitals featuring him and his wife. All the while he was working on a piece that would establish him as the leading German opera composer of his time. With the colourful, chromatic Salome he found a new, modernist voice for the stage, one that resonated throughout a Europe preoccupied with the image of the sensual femme fatale. Within a year of its 1905 Dresden première, this succès de scandale had been performed in six German cities as well as Graz, Prague and Milan, and its fame quickly spread throughout Europe and the USA.
Given Strauss's busy conducting schedule, the summer offered him the only time for serious, extended creative work, and he regularly spent his summers between 1890 and 1908 composing at the cool mountain villa of Pauline's parents in Marquarstein, Bavaria. Salome royalties augmented his income considerably and helped pay for his own villa in Garmisch, where he composed from Elektra onwards. This next opera marked the beginning of his artistic association with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whom he had first met in Berlin in 1899. Having seen Reinhardt's riveting production of Hofmannsthal's Elektra in the autumn of 1905, Strauss was convinced the play would make a compelling opera. Not entirely sure he should compose consecutive tragedies, he nonetheless gave in to Hofmannsthal's pleading and vigorously began composing Elektra in the summer of 1906. As he had with Oscar Wilde's Salome, he set the play to music, which was finished in 1908 and given its première in 1909 as part of a Strauss opera festival in Dresden (fig.3). That year his Berlin duties were augmented when he succeeded Weingartner as conductor of the Berlin court orchestra.
Elektra failed to outshine her flashier sister, but confirmed Strauss's pre-eminence among German opera composers. By the time the piece was performed, he was already working on his first real collaboration with Hofmannsthal, which soon exceeded his other operas in popularity: Der Rosenkavalier (1909–10). Its 1911 première, again in Dresden under Ernst Schuch, would prove to be his greatest operatic success. Within days there were performances in other major German cities, Vienna saw the work within three months, and in 1913 it was staged in London and New York. Once more Strauss was already on to his next operatic project, convinced that it should mark a return to tragedy. A dutiful Hofmannsthal supplied him with a scenario for Der steinere Herz, a sketch that would ultimately find its way into Die Frau ohne Schatten (1914–17). But the poet remained preoccupied with the stylized world of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially the work of Molière, which had partly inspired the Rosenkavalier libretto. The immediate result was Ariadne auf Naxos (1911–12), a theatrical hybrid combining spoken theatre – a German adaptation of Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme (Der Bürger als Edelmann) with incidental music – and opera. The work, first performed in Stuttgart in 1912, fell short of critical acclaim and was revised to greater success, four years later, when Strauss and Hofmannsthal replaced the play with a lively operatic prologue.
The Ariadne project proved to be far more time-consuming than either collaborator had imagined; they had thought of it as a stepping-stone to their next major work, Die Frau ohne Schatten. Strauss described this as his ‘last Romantic opera’ and rightly so. Conceived in peacetime, composed during World War I and first performed after the Treaty of Versailles, the grandiose, metaphysical Frau ohne Schatten stands as a magnificent epitaph to late Romantic music. Hofmannsthal entered military service during the European conflict, and work on the opera was often interrupted, much to Strauss's annoyance. After the war, in 1919, the composer left Berlin to become co-director, with Franz Schalk, of the newly renamed Vienna Staatsoper. His appointment was marked by the première of Die Frau ohne Schatten; its unenthusiastic reception, in the wake of military defeat, may well have reflected a society's fatigue with the pre-war era.