German composer and conductor. He carried on the German operatic tradition of Mozart and Wagner, of whose works he was a greatly admired conductor.
Born in Munich into a conventional middle-class family (his father was a horn player at the Munich opera house), Strauss had a precocious musical talent that was firmly guided along classical lines. He entered Munich University in 1882, having already published a Festival March (1876) and some chamber works. By the age of twenty-one he had been deeply influenced by Berlioz, Wagner, and Liszt and was himself beginning to compose a series of tone poems, which proved to be the ideal vehicle for his powerful fantasy and brilliant orchestration. They include Aus Italien (1886; From Italy), Tod und Verklärung (1889; Death and Transfiguration), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895; Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), Also sprach Zarathustra (1895–96; Thus Spake Zarathustra), Don Quixote (1897), and the autobiographical Ein Heldenleben (1898; A Hero's Life). His Symphonia Domestica (1902–03; Domestic Symphony), was also autobiographical.
Strauss was equally successful as a composer of opera. During the performance of the early Guntram (1892–93) he met his future wife, Pauline de Ahna, who in Weimar in 1894 sang the leading role. Salome (1904–05), a study in lust, prepared the way for Elektra (1906–08), a study in revenge. This was the first of Strauss's operas in collaboration with the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), an association that also produced Der Rosenkavalier (1909–10), Ariadne auf Naxos (1911–12; Ariadne on Naxos), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1914–17; The Woman Without a Shadow), Die Aegyptische Helena (1924–27; The Egyptian Helen), and Arabella (1930–32). The association ended with Hofmannsthal's untimely death. Strauss also composed over a hundred songs in the tradition of the German Lieder. Examples include ‘Allerseelen’ (1885), ‘Morgen’ (1894–95), and ‘Schlechtes Wetter’ (1919). His wife was an indefatigable performer of these songs to his own accompaniment. In 1921 Strauss and Elisabeth Schumann made a recital tour of the USA in programmes of his songs.
As a conductor Strauss was pre-eminent, particularly in the works of Mozart, and held a number of appointments in the opera houses of Europe. In 1933 he accepted an official music post in Hitler's Germany and later conducted concerts that others would not. However, he resigned from his post as president of the Reichsmusikkammer when he was criticized by the Nazis for using a libretto by the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig. Although the rest of his life was contaminated by this contact with the Nazis, he was cleared by a postwar denazification trial and is said to have cooperated with the Nazis in order to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law. His old age was spent in a villa in the Bavarian Alps, where he produced Metamorphosen (1944–45; Metamorphoses), for twenty-three solo string instruments, and Four Last Songs (1948), for high voice and orchestra.