Richard Strauss's 10 Golden Rules for Young Conductors

Monday, June 09, 2014 - 12:00 AM

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.

  1. Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.

  2. You should not perspire when conducting. Only the audience should get warm.

  3. Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy music.

  4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.

  5. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all, they are still too strong.

  6. If you think that the brass is now blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.

  7. 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.

  8. Always accompany the singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.

  9. When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace.*

  10. 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.


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Comments [13]

Norma J F Harrison from Berkeley, Ca.

re 'let the German people' - It is NEVER time to let that nation nor any of the vastly murderous imperiums, the Germans in particular, but all of them, yes, including in particular!! AMerica/the U.S. - celebrate - celebrate the holocausts they perpetrated and continue! The time when all masses live out of exploitation, in secured comfort, unto our children's children - then, yes, remember the past, celebrate its passing - if Earth abides....

Jun. 11 2016 04:14 PM
Richard Pairaudeau from Madrid

Dear Mr Wise,

The discussion here strays from the starting point of conducting technique, and Strauss's principle that a conductor should keep the left hand firmly in a pocket. What begins to emerge swiftly is that Richard Strauss is a 'handle with caution' musician. He wore Nazi armbands; he apparently for a time sent Hitler birthday cards; he lived in comparative safety in his villa at Garmisch, and even the American army of occupation allowed him to remain there in privacy, joking that his statue of Beethoven might be Hitler's father. All this while, literally
millions died around him.

I have not lived in such difficult times, so it is difficult to judge. However, I notice many artists who managed better, who displayed greater personal ethics and integrity. In many cases, it cost them their lives.

Jun. 11 2016 02:10 AM

@Pagona Valsamy from Queens NY

at 8:04 am on Sunday, June 15, we played Strauss's Capriccio, Op. 85: Sextet performed by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt.

And at 10:02 am we played Strauss's Don Juan, Op. 20 performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of George Szell.

You can find Sunday's full playlist here:!/playlist-daily/2014/jun/...

Jun. 18 2014 10:19 AM
Pagona Valsamy from Queens NY

What is the name of the Strauss piece that you played between 9:00 am
and 9:30am on Sunday June 15,2014? I would appreciate the information.
Thank you


Jun. 18 2014 12:13 AM

Strauss was also quoted once as saying that Rosenkavelier should be conducted and played as if it were Mozart, not Lehar.

Jun. 11 2014 03:00 PM
Don Krudop from Virginia beach

Sorry, can't agree with #2......if you're not perspiring, you're not doing your job. Conducting, while requiring a huge mental element, is a very physical, very passionate activity...unless all you're doing is a creating a technical reproduction of "spots."

Jun. 11 2014 07:51 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

As a brass player and even worse perhaps, low brass, I loved #4. This is similar to George Szell's quote re: the brass section and I paraphrase - "never look at the brass section, it only encourages them."

Jun. 10 2014 11:16 PM
Ant from Sydney

Bullshit Heath! This is a great archival performance by one of the worlds greatest orchestra's
What a truly amazing sound for the time.
We should be celebrating this great orchestra and it's remarkable achievements.

Jun. 10 2014 08:25 AM

Re. #7 and #8 on the list -- bingo! ALL conductors should take these two to heart.


Jun. 10 2014 02:03 AM
Barry Blust from Scotland

I cannot relate to the 'previous post' cited by Heath, but surely we are all aware that Strauss was as anti-Nazi as anyone could be and still live and work in Germany. He thumbed his nose at the Nazis numerous times and in public as well.

Although I do believe in keeping the memory of those horrible times awake in our collective conscience, it is time to put away the pettiness of contra sectarianism and allow the German people and their history to celebrate.

Jun. 09 2014 07:30 PM

I watched the video of Richard Strauss conducting his own Festival Prelude. I will now have nightmares about that clip for the rest of my life!

The aesthetics of that segment of film made me feel as if I was watching something filmed in the after-life featuring then-dead musicians threatening the living by making them see what would await them in the next life if the living weren't good audiences. That was a ghostly film and if ever I saw one. What makes this worse for me is that I enjoy the Festival Prelude and hope one day to be able to hear it performed in New York in a concert hall that has a real pipe organ....not the 'digital' organs which Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall foist upon us instead. But I don't want to hear it and see it if that dead people's symphony shows up to perform it.

Now please excuse me while I run home, lock the door behind me and jump into bed and pull the covers over my head while I shiver and hide.

Jun. 09 2014 03:57 PM
suzanne steinberg from new york

Just listened to the "Salome" opera synopsis. Does not meet your usual standards. Not worthy of the station & know & love. Ridiculizing Salome
and comparisons made do not live up to my idea of (and many years of listening)to WQXR.

Jun. 09 2014 12:52 PM
Heath from NYC

The first video is of Strauss conducting The Vienna Philharmonic in 1944. After a previous post on this website considering the "murkiness" of his past, doesn't this video, orchestra and year, tell us much? What I don't understand is why this was posted. For people to sit and derive great pleasure from Strauss' conducting Nazis under the Nazi regime in 1944? Why is WQXR actually promoting this video? This is very troubling.

Jun. 09 2014 03:39 AM

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