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Composer Richard Strauss was born on June 11, 1864, in Munich, Germany into a musical background (but was no relation to the famous “waltz” family). His father Franz was a successful horn player who worked frequently for Richard Wagner. However, Franz Strauss was a conservative. He guided his son’s musical training and encouraged the ideas and traditions of Schumann and Brahms.
Richard Strauss’s meeting with Alexander Ritter (a violinist who was married to Wagner’s niece) was of great importance. The two became friends and spent hours talking about the structure and form of Wagner and Liszt. These ideas came together to influence Strauss’s composing voice in the tone poem Don Juan (1889). The audience's reaction was strong and mixed but Strauss had grabbed their attention. He had made his mark and found a niche.
Subsequent tone poems included Tod und Verklärung (1889), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1894), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), and Ein Heldenleben (1898). In 1894 he married the singer Pauline de Ahna, for whom he wrote his first songs, including Morgen and Cäcilie. It seemed natural that he follow the dramatic instincts he exhibited in his tone poems by composing works for the operatic stage. After two unsuccessful efforts, Guntram (1894) and Feuersnot (1901), he had a great success with Salome (1905), based on the play by Oscar Wilde. It caused a sensation, not just for its lurid subject matter, but also for the music, which explored new areas of tonality and dissonance.
The overriding eroticism of Salome was shocking to audiences and many attended performances simply to decry it, as for any other reason. Some feared that Salome would destroy Strauss's career, but in fact it was a financial success for the composer. Elektra (1909) marked the beginning of Strauss's collaborations with the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with whom he also worked on Der Rosenkavalier (1910), Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919). After von Hofmannsthal’s death, Strauss found new collaborators, and went on to write Arabella (1933), and Capriccio (1940).
During the war years, Strauss became the “court composer” for the Third Reich. Quietly critical of Hitler’s dictatorship, he nonetheless was criticized in later years for not having used his position to more openly refute the regime. His last years saw the completion of Capriccio and his final work, the Four Last Songs (1948), the latter a triumphant conclusion to a long and brilliant career. He died Sept. 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
Strauss was influenced by Liszt, Wagner and Mozart, but ultimately his music stands alone and still holds the ability to shock, thrill and ravish its audience.
Hedwig Lachmann was born in Stolp, Pomerania (now Slupsk, Poland) in 1865. Now acclaimed as a talented poet and sensitive translator, Lachmann began her working career as a governess in England and Germany. Arriving in Berlin in 1889, she began to receive notice for her writing. She was among the first wave of translators to bring the Symbolist poetry of Rossetti, Swinburne, Verlaine and Wilde to Germany.
In 1903, she produced a translation of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. A shortened and edited version of this became the libretto for Richard Strauss’s opera (1905). With her husband, Gustav Landauer, she also collaborated on translations of Balzac, Poe and Conrad.
Lachmann died in Krumbach, Swabia in 1918.
Richard Margison as Herod and Hanna Schwarz as Herodias in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Salome, 2013. Photo: Chris Hutcheson.