Richard Strauss in 1922 © Ferdinand Schmutzer
Richard Strauss in 1922
© Ferdinand Schmutzer

Wednesday 11th June marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss. Born in Munich to a musical family – his father was principal horn player at the Court Opera – Strauss was captivated by opera at an early age, particularly the music of Wagner. In 1883, he moved to Berlin to act as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow. Strauss became known as a fine conductor in his own right, and recordings of him conducting Mozart and Beethoven are still in print.

 Many of his early compositions were chamber and instrumental works, but Strauss is especially known as a composer of operas and ‘tone poems’, orchestral music, often with a programme. In his tone poems, we meet characters such as Don Quixote, Don Juan and the mischievous Till Eulenspiegel. One of his greatest tone poems is Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), a huge orchestral work describing a day’s adventures from dawn until nightfall spent climbing a mountain.

Strauss married soprano Pauline de Ahna in 1894. It could be said that he was not just in love with Pauline, but with the soprano voice in general. His finest vocal writing is mostly for the female voice. One of his most famous operas, Der Rosenkavalier, features female singers in the key roles of the Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie – which is ironic given that Strauss nearly titled the opera Ochs auf Lerchenau after Baron Ochs, the Marschallin’s oafish country cousin.

This is a personal playlist of favourite Strauss moments - not all of them obvious ones, I hope. 

Having written that, here's a moment that would appear on many desert island lists - the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier, with Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Christine Schäfer: 

The pulsating, hypnotic rhythms of “The Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome are captivating (despite some unremarkable stagings). It is performed here by the Dresden Staatskapelle conducted by the great Rudolf Kempe:

Among his less celebrated operas, but containing some gorgeous writing for soprano, is the final scene from Daphne. Apollo has killed Daphne's beloved, the shepherd Leukippos. She mourns him and Apollo, taking pity, asks Zeus to give her new life in the form of her favourite tree. In the transformation scene, Daphne is turned into a laurel tree, reunited with nature: 

Die Liebe der Danae (The Love of Danae) is even more rarely performed. Pollux, Danae's father, must find her a rich husband to solve his financial problems. Midas, possessor of the golden touch, agrees to woo Danae, but Jupiter appears in disguise to try and win another conquest. When Midas and Danae finally embrace, she is turned into a golden statue. 

Released from the spell, she chooses Midas, in reality a donkey-driver, over Jupiter, who curses them to a life of poverty. Here is Danae's Act III aria “Wie umgibst du mich mit Frieden” (As you surround me with peace): 

Staying with Apollo (as Phoebus, at least), Strauss' a cappella Der Abend is a quite wonderful work as the sun-god drives his chariot to its rest. 

Composed near the end of his life, Strauss' Oboe Concerto is full of charm and nostalgia: 

Another late work is his song “Beim Schlafengehen” (On going to sleep), which form part of the famous Four Last Songs, where violin and soprano chase each other higher and higher as the poet's soul ascends heavenwards. Jessye Norman and the Leipzig Gewandhaus on finest form here. 

Now that I am wearied of the day,
my ardent desire shall happily receive
the starry night
like a sleepy child.

Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night's magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.

Finally, Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier through another lens - a piano roll of Percy Grainger's 'ramble' on the final trio, his Ramble on Love:

We'd love to hear your favourite Strauss works. Leave a comment below, or why not tell us via Twitter @bachtrack?