Strauss was the son of an important German musician, the horn-player Franz Strauss, and Josepha Pschorr, a fine amateur musician and member of the Munich Pschorrbräu brewing family whose establishment originally opened in 1416 and closed in 1998 (the beer is now brewed by Paulaner and is still available). He was not related to the family of Waltz Kings, even though the brilliant waltzes and waltz-like moments in Der Rosenkavalier would lead one to think so. Richard’s interest in music was greatly encouraged in his family environment, especially by the father who spent 42 years in the Munich court orchestra and played regularly at the behest of Richard Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival every summer. Although the father was not at all taken with the music of Wagner (nor of his philosophical beliefs), the younger Strauss fell under the spell of Tristan und Isolde at the age of 17 and was influenced for life. He began composing very early on and studied piano as well as the violin. Frequent visits to the Munich court orchestra rehearsals and studies in music theory, harmony and orchestration with their conductor furthered his musical education. At this time he began writing works for orchestra as well as chamber music and lieder. By the 1890s he was already a well-known composer. With conducting and artistic director posts at Meiningen, the Munich Hofoper, the Vienna State Opera and the Berlin Staatsoper he was also considered a leading figure on the concert stage and in the opera house, leading performances of other young German speaking composers like Korngold, Schreker and Zemlinsky.
Strauss’s opera career began with Guntram (1894), a work heavily influenced by Wagner, and continued with Feuersnot (1901) a comic work with erotic overtones that so scandalized the Kaiser that he ordered the Berlin production shut down. Strauss had a penchant for scandal, as is reflected in his choice of libretti for the next two operas, Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (1905) and a setting of Sophocles’ Elektra (1909) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The teaming with the younger Hofmannsthal proved more than satisfactory to the composer and it resulted in six operas including: Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Die ägyptische Helena (1928) and Arabella (1933).
Not entirely comfortable with each other face to face, Hofmannsthal and Strauss corresponded with each other on aesthetic, musical and dramatic issues constantly during their active years together. It is possible, therefore, to see in minute detail the transformation of these great works from seminal idea to completion. It was during the composition of Elektra that Strauss began to search for an idea for further collaboration with the poet, wanting to back off of the intense tragedy and lurid subject matter of the previous two operas and present something comic and sentimental, a kind of Der Fledermaus II. Hofmannsthal presented the idea of a sentimental sex comedy based on the novel Les amours du chevalier de Faublas by Couvray as well as some concepts from Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. It was this idea, with some modifications, that Strauss embraced.
The essence of the scenario was the outwitting of the lecherous Baron Ochs (literally, ‘ox’) by the 17-year-old Octavian who moves from being the much younger lover of the Field Marshal’s wife (Feldmarschallin) Marie Thérèse to the fiancée of the young Sophie, originally intended for Ochs. Through the fleshing out of the characters in collaboration with Strauss the Marschallin gained dramatic ground, eventually becoming not only the principal role in the opera but one of the most thoroughly drawn characters in all opera. Strauss immediately realized the genius of Hofmannsthal’s text, layered with psychological meaning and human detail, and met the challenge of the libretto by providing brilliant music for a large orchestra and 26 singers. The opera, under the stage direction of the great Max Reinhardt and the baton of Ernst von Schuch, was a great success at its premiere in Dresden on January 26, 1911 and immediately took other theatres in Europe by storm, quickly becoming audiences’ favorite Strauss score.