“Lohengrin is a sickly sweet ruin“, “the French horn parts of the singers are clarinet voices”. Richard’s father Franz Joseph Strauss, the principle horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra never missed an opportunity to criticize the music of Richard Wagner. His artistic creed was reserved strictly for the “trinity of Mozart (most of all), Haydn and Beethoven”. Even after the death of Richard Wagner, Strauss was the only one in the orchestra who refused to stand for a memorial moment for the composer.
Richard Strauss at the Rehearsal for the opening of the Olympic games in 1936 in Berlin.
It was thus all the more surprising how quickly Richard Strauss got over this Wagner-hate. Expressions such as the following (after a performance of “Siegfried”) were quickly forgotten: "The introduction is a long drum roll with bombardon and bassoons, that roar in the deepest tones, which sound so stupid that I just laughed out loud…there is no trace of related melodies... and again the first growl, I say it is a mess in there. "
High School Graduation Reward to Bayreuth
Strauss greedily soaked up the "poison" (as his father liked to call it). At first he hid it, so as not to provoke a family scandal; later, he soaked it up with open enthusiasm especially for "Tristan", the "most magnificent Bel canto opera" (as Strauss puts it in 1886 after a rehearsal in Bologna).
As a gift for his high school graduation in 1882, father Strauss –quite heavy-heartedly - took Richard to Bayreuth to see „Parsifal“. He was given the opportunity there to meet the Maestro Wagner himself, and used this chance to speak to him – a once in a lifetime opportunity.
From Richard I. to Richard III.
It was already clear in his early compositions, how much Strauss was influenced by Wagner. Strauss’ rapprochement with Bayreuth occurred somewhat indirectly:
Hans von Bülow, a student of Liszt, and the first husband of Cosima Wagner, arranged for Strauss to become the Music Director in Meiningen. The expression of his mentor Bülow soon became a legendary quote “Richard I is Wagner, there is no Richard II, therefore Strauss is Richard III”
Inspired by Franz Liszt
Strauss’ preoccupation with Wagner was reinforced when Strauss met Alexander Ritter in Meiningen in 1885. The latter was first violinist in Meiningen, who was married to Richard Wagner’s niece, and was part of the camp of the so-called "new Germans" by Wagner and Liszt.
He provided Strauss with scripts by Wagner similar to those of Schopenhauer and thus disproved the last prejudices that Strauss harboured against Liszt: "New ideas have to find new forms - this basic principle of Liszt’s symphonic works, in which the poetic idea was actually also the formative element, became from then on the guide for my own symphonic work ... "
His friendship with Ritter (opera fans would be thankful for this) led also to Strauss's first activity in the field of musical theatre: "Guntram", is a medieval knight story written by the composer himself.
“A Hectolitre of Beer” for the Kurorchester in Bayreuth
On the recommendation of the Wagner enthusiasts in his circle of friends - Alexander Ritter, Hans von Bülow – (and well before his responsibility during the Weimar republic), in 1889 Strauss was appointed Musical Assistant in Bayreuth.
Strauss rehearsed “Parsifal”, took part in the social life and learned to appreciate the Bayreuth atmosphere: "I would like to send the Kurorchester a hectolitre of beer, what does it cost? And could you organise that for me, dear Papa? Uncle George could actually donate a keg or at least get it for half the price."
Shortly thereafter, Strauss conducted his first Wagner opera. His promise to the Wagner widow Cosima to step in for Wagner and Liszt as Weimar’s second Kapellmeister, led to an active mutual exchange: “It is so nice of you to take this so seriously, and especially at this time, where the large theatres consider this art shameful. It is touching and I am happy to hear that smaller theatres still have in them the spirit that has made us Germans famous – that this spirit is still upheld.” Cosima says.
Strauss grows dearer to Cosima Wagner’s Heart
A meeting that deepened to an intensive friendship: At Christmas in 1890 Strauss was invited to the Wagner family home. Jokingly, Cosima revealed that she would like her daughter to be the wife of Strauss. A son and son in law at the service of Bayreuth would have been very practical for her. However Strauss had already fallen in love with another prized Bayreuth citizen – the singer Pauline de Ahna.
Cosima takes it in stride. Eva as well as the oldest daughter from her marriage to Bülow, Daniela von Bülow-Thode, became lifelong friends and Siegfried Wagner benefitted from the older fellow composer. "As nobody in our field is secure and settled" Cosima called her "Strausschen", this “lovely expression", as Richard was affectionately called. Even with father Franz there was a reconciliation. In 1891 they were seen walking together arm in arm.
Break with Cosima Wagner over „Salome”
Numerous letters were exchanged and Richard finally conducted the premiere of “Tannhäuser” in Bayreuth in 1894, and a long-time wish of his came true. The role of Elisabeth was sung by Pauline de Ahna, who later in September became Strauss’ wife.
When Strauss saw that his wishes as a conductor in Bayreuth were again being ignored, he changed the tone of his letters to Cosima. There was also further tension due to the lack of understanding that the Wagner family had about his “Salome” (references to the “Jewish Girl” Salome, revealed an anti-Semitic feeling). This led to a break in the relationship with Cosima Wagner. The friendship was rekindled 39 years later.
Life-long Wagner Admirer
Was it a coincidence that Strauss built himself a beautiful villa in the Garmisch mountains (similar to “Wahnfried” in Bayreuth) where he would hold his “own” Festival in 1920 ?
Although Strauss turned his back on Bayreuth in 1895, Wagner would continue to play a central role in his life – not least by the pictures hanging on the walls in his composition studio. Even his two and half year old son Franz was enthralled by them: “Bubi (…) watch me while I write and explain the pictures on the wall to me: Wagner, Beek-hoffen, Liszt, Bülow.”
When Strauss took over the direction of the Vienna State Opera, in addition to Verdi it was mainly Wagner that was on the programme. In 1927, Strauss wrote to his lyricist Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “I recently heard “Meistersinger“, it is an outrageous piece. Since then the desire has not left me to also write a piece in this genre – but of course not immediately. But nonetheless, a real German work, a great theatre piece, and at the same time a true German cultural document.”
Strauss helps Bayreuth “out of a bind”
A good six years later in 1933 when Strauss was approaching his 70s, he surprisingly received another opportunity to work together with Bayreuth. This collaboration was naturally resented by outsiders and the press argued: The conductor Toscanini had already announced his resignation from Bayreuth (due to his protest against the anti-Semitic and dictatorial regime, as well as the music critics’ rejection of his broad tempo in “Parsifal”. The Festival was therefore threatened. However, Strauss was ready to jump in (without salary) and to help the new Lady of Bayreuth Winifred Wagner out of this bind.
Group photo with Richard Strauss in Bayreuth in 1933.
“Like a Bavarian head forester that shot a buck!”
He had become acquainted with “Parsifal” only as Bavarian vocal coach and never as conductor. Strauss tried to free Wagner of this pathetic overload, and to portray the feelings of dignity and consecration without a slow dragging tempo.
When the Norwegian bass singer Ivar Andersen was giving a broad and epic rendition of the story of Gurnemanz (“Titurel, der fromme Held”) Strauss clapped for him to stop and commented in dialect “why are you singing that so saintly? You have to sing it like a Bavarian head forester who just shot a buck!”
"A Tried and Tested Helper”
Compared to his predecessors, Strauss was said to have shortened the playing time of “Parsifal” by about 45 minutes, this, with the full agreement of the Wagner Family: Winifred Wagner and the artistic director of the Festival Heint Tietjen, whom she had personally appointed, sent their congratulations to Strauss on his 70th Birthday on June 4, 1934: “We would like to extend our warmest wishes and endless thanks to the man who through his unique personality and artistic abilities was able to save Bayreuth in the critical days of the 33rd and 34th Festival seasons. On the occasion of the celebration of his 70th Birthday we extend our deepest and most sincere congratulations.” They also added “Please accept our proudly stated sincerest expression of recognition, that on Festival hill, you are our tried and tested helper of the other Richard’s word.”