As a conductor, Richard Strauss was a supreme pragmatist. He was noted for his precise, economical manner that struck some contemporaries as incongruous in the context of lush, turbulent works like Elektra or Till Eulenspiegel. Tall and thin, Strauss would stand perfectly still on the podium, his left arm often dangling motionless while his right wrist did much of the work.
In his Ten Golden Rules for the Album of a Young Conductor (1927), Strauss seems to suggest that the mysterious art of conducting is nothing more than a few sensible rules of thumb.
- Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.
- You should not perspire when conducting. Only the audience should get warm.
- Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy music.
- Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.
- But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all, they are still too strong.
- If you think that the brass is now blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.
- It is not enough that you yourself should hear every word the soloist sings. You should know it by heart anyway. The audience must be able to follow without effort. If they do not understand the words, they will go to sleep.
- Always accompany the singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.
- When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace.*
- If you follow these rules carefully, you will, with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your listeners.
* Amended in 1948: Today I should like to amend this: take the tempo half as fast.
It should be noted that by advising young maestros to direct Salome and Elektra like Mendelssohn, Strauss wasn't merely joking but responding to criticisms of the heavy orchestration of his operas. He also saw a tendency of some conductors to drown out singers, and their words, by giving full throttle to the orchestra.
Strauss made a number of recordings during the last two decades of his life, a few of which are captured on film. Decide for yourself whether Strauss followed his rules by watching him conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Till Eulenspiegel in 1944.
For some contrast, this remarkable video shows Strauss conducting his Festival Prelude, a piece written in 1913 for the inauguration of the organ in the Great Hall of Vienna's Konzerthaus.
"Ten Golden Rules" originally published in Reflections and Recollections by Richard Strauss. © 1949 Cambridge University Press.