Strauss's early period of composition, roughly from 1870 to the mid-1880s may be divided at the year 1880. The instrumental works from the 1870s, many of which remain unpublished, are mostly small-scale: pieces for solo piano, contrapuntal studies, chamber music. These works, which take us from Strauss's early childhood to his mid-teen years, are remarkably skilful, but reveal more the influence of his arch-conservative father than any artistic originality. The First Symphony (1880) was a major step forward and evinces a rapidly increasing interest in composing orchestral music; a less interesting piece from that year was the String Quartet in A. The two works stood at the end of Strauss's studies with Meyer, whose approach to counterpoint and form was rudimentary and straightforward. Nevertheless, Meyer had given Strauss a strong orthodox foundation, albeit one with which the young composer became increasingly dissatisfied. He did not produce another symphony for four years; meanwhile he composed two piano works: the op.5 Sonata and the Klavierstücke op.3. Beyond the obvious references to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the first movement of op.5, these works, both from 1881, betray a clear homage to the early Romantic generation, especially Mendelssohn. In the same year Strauss produced his major success to date, the Serenade op.7. On hearing this work Bülow, unimpressed with the piano works, was finally convinced that the 17-year-old was far more than a mere talent.
Strauss's early works featuring a solo instrument were nearly always written with a friend or family member in mind: the op.8 Violin Concerto (1880–82) for Benno Walter, the op.6 Cello Sonata (1883) for Hans Wilhan, a friend and principal cellist of the Munich court orchestra, the Horn Concerto op.11, of course, for his father. This last piece occupies a solid position in the horn repertory and also exhibits a loosening of Meyer's firm formal grip, for, as opposed to what happens in the Violin Concerto, the three movements proceed without interruption. A year later Strauss reverted to a formal clarity reminiscent of his First Symphony with the composition of his Second, though the latter work shows a significant advance in harmonic richness, orchestration and counterpoint. That year also saw the wonderfully atmospheric Stimmungsbilder as well as another work for woodwind: the Suite in B , commissioned by Bülow.
Around this time began the ‘Brahmsschwärmerei’: an obvious fruit is the Piano Quartet in C minor, strongly influenced by Brahms's piano quartets in C minor and G minor. The end of this Brahmsian episode, as well as what is usually defined as Strauss's early period, is marked by the Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra. Written for Bülow, who deemed the work unplayable, it was eventually dedicated to Eugène d'Albert, who gave the first performance in 1886. In this piece we first witness Strauss the fledgling modernist, for it is one of the earliest pieces to use the historical canon as a source for parody. Fully aware of the Brahms-Wagner polemic, Strauss delights in burlesquing both Brahms (the D minor and B major piano concertos) and Wagner (Tristan and Die Walküre) in remarkable juxtapositions. He was developing artistically with great rapidity, and confessed to feeling ‘trapped’ in a steadily escalating antithesis between poetic content and formal structure. Aus Italien (1886) he described as a ‘first step toward independence’, even though, unlike the tone poems to follow, it is divided into four discrete movements. The first, ‘Auf der Campagna’, is the closest to Liszt in construction; the second, ‘Im Roms Ruinen’, shows the clearest affinity to Brahms; and the third, ‘Am Strande von Sorrent’, represents Strauss's first serious attempt at musical pictorialism. The controversial fourth movement, ‘Neapolisches Volksleben’, was based, according to Strauss, on a Neapolitan folktune that turned out to be none other than the 1880 popular tune Funiculi, funicula, which commemorated the construction of the funicular on Vesuvius.
Macbeth (1888), which he described as ‘a completely new path’, was not found without detours. Indeed, the piece went through more revisions than any of his other symphonic works, and these revisions, concerned primarily with the development and recapitulation, suggest how seriously he was still struggling with the conflict between narrative content and musical structure. New path or not, Macbeth failed to find a firm place in the concert repertory, because it lacked the thematic cogency and convincing pacing of musical events so evident in the two subsequent works. And despite revisions to the orchestration, in an attempt to restrain inner voices and highlight principal themes, Macbeth still falls short of Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung in sonic clarity.
By now Strauss was composing with unprecedented speed: Macbeth was completed in January–February 1888, followed by Don Juan only eight months later. But the public first heard Don Juan in the autumn of 1889; the première of Macbeth followed a year later. So it was Don Juan, not Macbeth, that firmly established Strauss as the brash, young German modernist. In Macbeth Strauss struggled with the demands of sonata form and the requirements of the story, while in Don Juan – which elegantly merges rondo and sonata principles – narrative and structural strategies came into effortless union. This second tone poem, with its provocative subject matter, dazzling orchestration, sharply etched themes, novel structure and taut pacing, earned Strauss his international reputation as a symphonic composer. Here too he found his voice as a tone poet, the music being flagrantly pictorial, humorous and altogether irreverent. The aesthetics of Wagner and Liszt may have inspired him to embrace the extra-musical, but he refused to carry their torch for music as a sacred entity; the libertine Don (and Strauss with him) simply thumbs his nose at the world.
Cosima Wagner, Strauss admirer and self-proclaimed custodian of her late husband's ideals, sharply criticized both the subject matter of Don Juan and its explicit expression. Counselling Strauss against superficial elements and evocative themes, Cosima urged him to seek ‘eternal motives’ that could be perceived at manifold levels and in various manifestations. Strauss's response was polite: ‘I think I have understood [you] correctly, and I look forward to producing evidence next time we meet, in the form of my third symphonic work [Tod und Verklärung] … that I have perhaps already made a significant advance, even in choice of subject’. The subject is indeed more elevated, but it is doubtful whether Cosima's advice affected his artistic views in any serious way. The most metaphysical of his tone poems, Tod und Verklärung (1888–9) is based not on a literary text but on a narrative of the composer's own conception: a dying artist, obsessed by an artistic Ideal, is transfigured at death to recognize his Ideal in eternity. A poem by Ritter published in the score postdates the composition, though the musical theme for the Ideal may have been inspired by one from Ritter's symphonic waltz Olafs Hochzeitsreigen. In Tod und Verklärung death is less the issue than transfiguration, a lifelong fascination for Strauss (with its abundant musical possibilities), one that manifests itself from Rosenkavalier through to Metamorphosen.
The musical subdivisions of Tod und Verklärung are clear, though their relationship to its modified sonata form is less so. The work has a quiet, syncopated introduction (‘breathing irregularly’), then an agitated exposition (‘racked by terrible pain’), followed by an episodic developmental space: dreams of childhood, youthful passions. What follows is the principal theme of the work, that of the artistic Ideal. The restatement of this lofty melody in the extended coda is what Strauss termed the ‘point of culmination’, and it is indeed one of the most exquisite moments in all his symphonic works: even his arch-conservative father was moved. Tod und Verklärung ends the feverish tone-poem activity of the late 1880s, and Strauss was not to compose another major symphonic work for six years, during which time he was preoccupied with composing his first opera, Guntram. Its failure, after a string of successes, taught him much. Consciously or not, he realized the need to explore further the problem of narrative in a purely symphonic medium.
Most of the tone poems after this six-year hiatus are significantly longer (Ein Heldenleben is nearly three times the length of Don Juan), and the size of the orchestra increases as well (fig.7), as does the composer's pleasure in graphic depiction. But Strauss had not entirely got opera out of his system. Shortly after the Guntram première he decided to compose a one-act opera Till Eulenspiegel bei den Schildbürgern, though he never got beyond an incomplete text draft. Why he scrapped the opera for a tone poem is not clear, but judging from his programme notes, the symphonic work is based on a different scenario: ‘Once upon a time there was a knavish fool named Till Eulenspiegel. He was a wicked goblin up to new tricks’. Till rides on horseback through the market, mocks religion (disguised as a cleric), flirts with women, engages in academic double talk with his philistine audience, and by the end finds himself on the scaffold, soon to be hanged. Strauss did not call Till a tone poem but rather a ‘Rondeau Form for Large Orchestra’. Richard Specht suggested this might well have been the first prank, given that the only connection with the old French forme fixe is in the spelling. Strauss later described the structure as being an ‘expansion of rondo form through poetic content’, and cited Beethoven's Eighth Symphony as his model. Given the libertine qualities of young Till, as well as the episodic nature of the work, a rondo would seem quite appropriate. But, as in Don Juan, the form is hardly conventional: the sense of rondo is achieved mostly by the return of Till's two themes to articulate his various adventures. Completed in May 1895, the compact Till Eulenspiegel was introduced with great success six months later and remains Strauss's most often performed orchestral piece. That he had learnt much about orchestral detail and nuance during the six years since Tod und Verklärung is evinced by his brilliant use of the ratchet when Till rides through the market, or by the piercing D clarinet when he whistles in the face of death.
Strauss was so taken by the subject matter that he considered, yet again, composing a Till opera, but he ultimately turned his attention to Also sprach Zarathustra, the first concrete manifestation of his rejection of Schopenhauerian metaphysics. His interest in Nietzsche had blossomed as early as the end of the Guntram project, when the philosopher had helped affirm his agnosticism as well as his lifelong belief in the individual's power to change the world around him, controlling his destiny without promise of a hereafter. Strauss originally subtitled the work ‘symphonic optimism in fin-de-siècle form, dedicated to the 20th century’. Later he substituted ‘freely after Nietzsche’, a description that aptly suggests his liberal treatment of the book's prologue and eight of its 80 subsections: ‘Of the Backworldsmen’, ‘Of Great Yearning’, ‘Of Joys and Passions’, ‘Funeral Song’, ‘Of Science’, ‘The Convalescent’, ‘The Dance Song’ and ‘The Night Wanderer's Song’. If there is some paratextual thread connecting these, Strauss's letters and sketches offer few, if any, clues. Quite probably he chose those sections that appealed most to his musical imagination; many of them refer to song or dance. However, one idea unifies the work and plays a musical-structural role, that of conflict between nature (C major) and humanity (B major). The similar preoccupation in Mahler is hardly coincidental, for Mahler set Zarathustra's ‘Drunken Song of Midnight’ in his Third Symphony in the same year, and was to revisit this conflict between finite humanity and infinite nature at greater length in Das Lied von der Erde (1908–9). But unlike Mahler, Strauss depicts a humanity not in search of eternity, but rather struggling to transcend religious superstition. Also sprach Zarathustra was first performed, to great acclaim, in 1896; by now a Strauss première had become an international event.
Though the earliest idea for Don Quixote occurred to Strauss within months of the Zarathustra première, he did not begin composing the new work in earnest until the spring of the following year. At the time he was also considering another tone poem, ultimately named Ein Heldenleben, for which Don Quixote would serve as a comic reverse side of the coin. It makes a return to the satirical world of Till Eulenspiegel and, once again, the subtitle suggests not so much genre as form or procedure: ‘fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character for large orchestra’. The question of genre remains elusive, for the work – which features both cello and viola in solo roles – is a conglomeration of tone poem, theme and variations, and concerto. Strauss had already written a work for cello and orchestra, the Romanze of 1883, but a more obvious earlier precedent was Berlioz's Harold en Italie. Don Quixote features an introduction, ten variations and a coda, offering, respectively, a portrait of the anti-hero and his faithful Sancho Panza, their ten misadventures and the death of the Don. Once again Strauss chose selections from a major literary work, and, in the tradition of Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote proceeds episodically, though these episodes are now more self-contained: as each ‘chapter’ unfolds, so does a new variation. Moreover, this variation form incorporates nuances of the rondo principle found in the two preceding works. Indeed, what is varied is not so much themes as musical contexts, to make a musical analogy of the characters in their different incidents. The work had its first performance in March 1898. The reviews were mixed, more so than those of the other recent tone poems. Strauss had now reached a new level in his ability to create concrete sonic images through novel instrumental combinations and juxtapositions: bleating winds and brass to represent sheep, the wind machine for the aerial journey, snap pizzicatos to evoke the water-logged adventurers who have just fallen out of their ‘enchanted boat’. Some critics accused Strauss of competing with Cervantes rather than interpreting him; others recognized an increasing aesthetic conflict in his music between technical industry and loftier inspiration, between Strauss the artisan and Strauss the artist. Don Quixote could have reawakened Cosima Wagner's original misgivings about Don Juan.
Strauss always considered Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben as paired works, and suggested they be performed together; the first musical ideas for Heldenleben emerged while he was working on Quixote. This early Heldenleben sketch relates to the end of the piece and is labelled: ‘longing for peace after the struggle with the world, refuge in solitude: the Idyll’. The parallel with Quixote is obvious. Cervantes offered Strauss the necessary material with which to explore the anti-hero, but for his hero Strauss looked to himself: his love for Pauline, his inner and outer struggles. The six sections of the work – the hero, his adversaries, his life's companion, his deeds of war, his works of peace, his withdrawal from the world – do not go beyond this fundamental idea. Some commentators have seen the work as comprising six continuous sections, but the general contours of sonata form seem more appropriate to Strauss's plan of expository material (hero, adversaries, beloved), developmental space (struggle) and recapitulation (rejecting war, seeking solace in domestic love).
Ein Heldenleben remains one of Strauss's most controversial works, mainly because its surface elements have been overemphasized. Various critics see the work as a flagrant instance of Strauss's artistic egotism, but a deeper interpretation reveals the issue of autobiography to be far more complex. Ein Heldenleben treats two important subjects familiar from earlier works: the Nietzschean struggle between the individual and his outer and inner worlds, and the profundity of domestic love. Essential to this latter preoccupation was his wife Pauline, for the almost dizzying recollection of themes from previous tone poems, opera and lieder concerns mostly love themes related to her as the hero's partner. This effect of culmination has a broader context as well, for Ein Heldenleben marks the end of Strauss's 19th-century tone poems and reflects a composer at the height of his creative powers. The première took place in March 1899.
At the threshold of a new century, Strauss had accepted a new post of unprecedented stature in Berlin, as conductor of the Hofoper. More important than the career change, he decided to dedicate himself to composing opera, though he made at least seven later endeavours in the symphonic realm, five of which never saw completion. In 1899 he briefly toyed with the idea of a tone poem to be called Frühling; early the next year he sketched a scenario for a symphonic Künstlertragödie. Shortly after completing Salome he planned Vier Frauengestalten der National Gallery, the intended subjects being Veronese's Sleeping Girl, Hogarth's The Shrimp Girl, Reynolds's Heads of Angels and Romney's portrait of Lady Hamilton. During the mid-1920s came a mooted Trigon: Sinfonia zu drei Themen. The fifth of these unrealized projects, Die Donau (1941–2), progressed the furthest: over 400 bars of short score survive. The two major symphonic works that were seen to completion, the Symphonia domestica (1902–3) and Eine Alpensinfonie (1911–15), have been somewhat overshadowed by the operas. And though neither is designated as tone poem in either title or subtitle, both draw on the tone poems' subject matter.
The Symphonia domestica inspired at first even more controversy than Ein Heldenleben: the composer's self-stylization as hero was distasteful enough, but to cast into the symphonic medium the quotidian world of family life was worse still. A principal focus of Heldenleben, however, was domestic love, which makes the autobiographical gesture of Symphonia domestica a logical extension. Originally titled Mein Heim: ein sinfonisches Selbst- und Familienporträt, the work was always referred to by Strauss as a symphony or symphonic poem, and there are indeed four sections that correspond loosely to symphonic movements: introduction (presentation of major characters and their themes), scherzando (child at play, his parents' happiness), cradle song and Adagio (child is put to bed, thereafter a parental love scene), and finale in the form of a double fugue (a new day begins with quarrelling and happy reconciliation).
Strauss insisted that no programme be published in connection with the first performance and on various occasions tried to distance himself from the work's detailed programmatic ideas, the most famous instance being a letter to Romain Rolland in which he declared that ‘the programme is nothing but a pretext for the purely musical expression and development of my emotions, and not a simple musical description of concrete everyday musical facts’. He was probably placating Rolland, who was bewildered by a programme he felt diminished an otherwise beautiful work. But Strauss's original scenario and sketchbook annotations demonstrate that the Symphonia domestica is a novel celebration of the everyday, where Strauss sought to explore the pleasures and complexities of ordinary life. As he himself asked: ‘What could be more serious than married life? Marriage is the most profound event in life and the spiritual joy of such a union is heightened by the arrival of a child. [Married] life naturally has its humour, which I also injected into this work in order to enliven it’. As with Heldenleben, the Symphonia domestica is not pure autobiography, but rather an idealized portrait of domestic love informed by personal experience. Pure autobiography would hardly have been as attractive, for during the genesis of Domestica his marriage was on shaky ground; for a while he and his wife were separated and even contemplated divorce. In a sense, then, the work was a gesture of reconciliation, a reaffirmation of a bond that had been threatened.
Strauss's last major symphonic work represents an extension of his preoccupation with Nietzsche during the 1890s, and indeed the earliest known sketches can be traced to about 1902. Mahler's death in 1911 reawakened his interest in the project, and in his diary he wrote:
The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist [is] a grave loss … Mahler, the Jew, could achieve elevation in Christianity. As an old man the hero Wagner returned to it under the influence of Schopenhauer. It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity … I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.
This original choice of title was no doubt inspired by Nietzsche's 1888 essay Der Antichrist, which was published in 1895, the year before Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra.
As in Zarathustra, Strauss does not portray the finite individual, jealous of eternal Nature, but rather one who celebrates, who is inspired to great deeds by his natural environment. In an unpublished diary entry (November 1915) on the Alpensinfonie, he stresses that both Judaism and Christianity – in short, metaphysics – are unhealthy and unproductive; they are incapable of embracing Nature as a primary, life-affirming source. Yet as Nietzschean as all this sounds, he did not in the event choose Antichrist as his model; instead, he turned to the alpine landscape that surrounded his home in Garmisch. The ascent and descent from an alpine mountain serve as a metaphor for the exaltation of nature. Zarathustra and the Alpensinfonie both begin at sunrise, and in the later work the composer specified 23 tableaux on a 24-hour journey: ‘Night’, ‘Sunrise’, ‘Ascent’, ‘Entry into the Forest’, ‘Wandering by the Brook’, ‘By the Waterfall’, ‘Apparition’, ‘On the Flowering Meadows’, ‘On the Pastures’, ‘Through the Thicket and Briar’, ‘On the Glacier’, ‘Dangerous Moment’, ‘On the Summit’, ‘Vision’, ‘Mists Arrive’, ‘The Sun Gradually Darkens’, ‘Elegy’, ‘Calm before the Storm’, ‘Tempest and Storm’, ‘Descent’, ‘Sunset’, ‘Echo’ and ‘Night’. Despite its philosophical roots Eine Alpensinfonie is outwardly unphilosophical, proclaiming with startling beauty the glories of the natural world. It is unparallelled in Strauss's symphonic output both in terms of duration (50 minutes) and size (requiring over 140 players, including offstage brass). Critical reaction after the October 1915 première was mixed; some went as far as to describe it negatively as ‘cinema music’, a remarkable claim given that film was still a new medium.
It is significant that the Alpensinfonie is the achievement of a project that had begun around the turn of the century, for after Salome Strauss had lost interest in composing purely orchestral music. Beyond ballets, incidental music and some occasional works, such as the various fanfares, Festliches Präludium (1913) and Japanische Festmusik (1940), he composed very little instrumental music until the 1940s. In 1924 he was commissioned to write a concertante piece by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the war. Shortly before he began work, Strauss's son suffered a severe illness, and the Parergon zur Symphonia domestica (1925) was dedicated to his recovery; it is based on Franz's theme from the Symphonia domestica. Of all the composers Wittgenstein commissioned, Strauss was the only one asked to write a second piece, and two years later he produced the Panathenäenzug. The subtitle, ‘Symphonic Etude in the Form of a Passacaglia’, refers to the repeated bass pattern above which are 18 continuous variations, framed by an introduction and finale. The neglect of both works, which explore a vast array of colours in both piano and orchestra, is partly due to the difficult technical challenges for the soloist.
In 1938 Strauss was asked to compose music for a documentary film on Munich, and though both music and film were completed the following year, the Nazi regime forbade the film's release. The musical material for the film score had been drawn from Feuersnot, a fitting idea since that opera had been set in Munich of old. Despite the ban, Strauss went ahead and published the music under the title München: ein Gelegenheitswalzer (1939); after Munich was bombed in the war the work was expanded with a new subtitle, ein Gedächtniswalzer (1945). By now Strauss had almost stopped composing, claiming that after Capriccio his career had come to a close; what followed were mere ‘wrist exercises’. Yet among these exercises are some of his finest instrumental compositions, returning to the classic genres of his youth. His two late woodwind pieces, subtitled ‘From the Workshop of an Invalid’ (1943) and ‘The Happy Workshop’ (1944–5), exemplify opposing forces of resignation and hope, a dichotomy interwoven in so many works composed around the end of his life. The Second Horn Concerto (1942) and Oboe Concerto (1945) are very much part of the modern repertory, and the delightful Duett-Concertino (1947) for solo clarinet and bassoon with string orchestra has increased in popularity. But the most profound instrumental work from this late period is Metamorphosen (1945), subtitled ‘a study for 23 strings’. There has been confusion regarding the genesis of this dark, brooding work, said by some to have been inspired by the destruction of Munich. Recent research has convincingly shown that the source was Goethe, more specifically his poem ‘Niemand wird sich selber kennen’. Rather than mourning the destruction of an opera house, Metamorphosen seeks to probe the cause of war itself, which stems from humanity's bestial nature. In short, Strauss inverts classic metamorphosis (where through self-knowledge the human subject becomes divine), realizing instead humanity's dangerous potential to indulge the basest animal instincts. In this context, the Beethoven ‘Eroica’ quotation towards the end is painfully ironic. It has even been referred to (by Alan Jefferson) as ‘possibly the saddest piece of music ever written’.