Richard Strauss: An Owner’s Manual

Richard Strauss: An Owner’s Manual
By David Hurwitz
Amadeus Press; 183 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Richard Strauss has the reputation of being mostly a composer of avant-garde tone poems and exotic operas. While this may be true, writer David Hurwitz paints a much fuller picture with his latest work, Richard Strauss: An Owner’s Manual. In it he lays out all you need to know about getting started with this great composer.

Hurwitz reminds us that Strauss was born in 1864, when Brahms, Wagner, and Liszt were in their primes. Strauss died in 1949 having witnessed the birth of modern Classical as well as everything two world wars did to Western music. If there is a central theme in Hurwitz’s work, it’s that despite being known as radical, Richard Strauss spent his long career rising above the stifling aesthetic conditions of his day to take his Classical ideas in original directions.

Of course, one of these directions led to programmatic music, i.e., tone poems, in which music “describes” what we see or feel, usually as part of a narrative. Another led to some of the steamiest, most intense operas ever written. Hurwitz exhaustively categorizes and dissects Strauss’s major works and places them in context with other composers past and present. Sometimes he even points to exact minute and second marks on the book’s accompanying CD to illustrate a point.

Want to know the sexiest moment in Don Juan? Well, you’ll just have to buy the book to find out.

Hurwitz also uses lively and captivating language not typically used to describe Classical music. For example, in Strauss’s Oboe Concerto, Hurwitz claims to hear a “squiggle” in the strings. He describes Strauss’s opera Feuersnot as a “revenge opera.” You mean the hero gets revenge, right? Well, it’s more about Strauss getting revenge on Munich for rejecting his last opera.

Hurwitz also reveals Strauss’s sense of humor, which is largely lost for posterity. Strauss’s autobiographical tone poem A Hero’s Life pokes fun at the bombast and sobriety of Romanticism as well as the directions in which modern Classical were headed in fin-de-siècle Europe. In the poem, the hero’s mortal enemies are his critics, who are, of course, atonal.

Hurwitz describes Strauss as an “insider” because he was ethnically German and worked within the German music tradition. But that hardly limited Strauss, since he drew from the Italian and French schools for his operas. And we all know how exotic Salome sounds. In the end, Hurwitz tells us why Strauss was the only German composer after Wagner who made endearing operas and why he still is the composer most closely associated with tone poems. All this and a scene-by-scene breakdown of Also Sprach Zarathustra. What more can you ask for in a book about the music of Richard Strauss?

This book review appeared in the winter 2014–15 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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