The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss came from a musical family. His father was the principal French horn player of the court orchestra in Munich. Strauss made his first attempts at composition in his early childhood, and already by 1881 there had been performances of his symphony and string quartet. Strauss studied at the university in Munich, but he soon left school because he got an opportunity to conduct from Hans von Bülow and was offered the position of vice-Kapellmeister of the court orchestra in Meiningen. Soon afterwards in 1886 Strauss accepted the position of third Kapellmeister at the court opera in Munich. Conducting engagements followed in Weimar and also in Berlin, where the composer worked for 20 seasons. From 1919 to 1924 he was the conductor and co-director of the Vienna State Opera, then from 1924 the state of his finances allowed him rely on composing alone for income. In the 1930s he was appointed as the president of the Reichsmusikkammer, and after World War II, he spent the rest of his life in Switzerland.
From Strauss’s youth, his musical orientation was conservative, and his artistic legacy rests especially on his symphonic poems and operas. Stravinsky characterised Strauss’s music as “triumphant banality” with a dearth of ideas and a wealth of superficial, showy effects. Strauss, however, was a master of orchestration, and he also wrote wonderfully for the human voice. He created unique programmatic orchestral music that drew upon his knowledge of the works of Berlioz, Liszt, and Franck. The outstanding works in his series of symphonic poems are Macbeth (1888), Don Juan (1889), Tod und Verklärung (1889), Till Eulenspiegel (1895), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), and Ein Heldenleben (1899), and later his Sinfonia domestica (1903) and Eine Alpensinfonie (1915) continued along those lines. In opera, Strauss followed in Wagner’s footsteps, but his individual voice as a composer finally emerged in the one-act operas Salome and Elektra, in which he faces his audience with traditional musical and dramatic resources escalated to their extremes.
Strauss composed the one-act opera Elektra, Op. 58, to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal between 1906 and 1908, and it was premiered at the Semperoper in Dresden on 25 January 1909. Hofmannsthal played a key role in Strauss’s work as an opera composer. They collaborated on preparing most of the composer’s greatest operas, and as a creative pairing they have been compared with Mozart and da Ponte. Based on tale from classical antiquity dealing with revenge, death, and madness, Elektra is often described as an operatic horror story, and it can be challenging for the singers who have to contend with an orchestra of 115 instruments. This evening, the vocal parts of Elektra will not be sung. Instead, you will hear an adaptation of the work in the form of the Symphonic Rhapsody from the opera Elektra. The rhapsody emerged in 2016 from what was not the first equal collaboration between two present-day artists—the conductor of today’s concert Manfred Honeck and the composer and pianist Tomáš Ille. Their chief motivation was the demand for concert performances of operatic works, and together they had already prepared a symphonic suite from Janáček’s opera Jenůfa, which has enjoyed success in concert halls abroad. Honeck was the author of the rhapsody’s conception and structure, and Ille created the orchestration and compositional details. The rhapsody presents various parts of the opera that the authors newly combined, creating a new conception for the work, reworking the music’s orchestration and tectonic structure into new contexts. The musical drama was thus transformed into a concert work that has a completely different structure and performance requirements—the singers’ individual voices are replaced by instruments, and the overall sonic structure is subordinated to the requirements of concert performance. The original orchestration is also reduced and altered to adapt it to the usual forces available to symphony orchestras.