In Search of Richard Strauss in Bavaria

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This year being the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss (and the 65th anniversary his death), the works of the Munich-born composer have been front-and-center in many of the world’s top opera houses and concert halls. His lifespan (1864-1949) covered much of modern German political and cultural history. His father was an accomplished French horn player who was his first teacher. His mother came from the wealthy Pschorr brewing family and it was her money that provided comfortable stability for the family.

When he was a small child, Germany became a nation and fought in the Franco-Prussian War. His youth was a time when Wagner was presenting Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in Munich before staging the entire Ring cycle and Parsifal in Bayreuth. Germany had many cultured cities, including Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin, where Strauss met and worked with the finest musicians in Europe. Not far from Munich was Vienna, that extraordinary center of performance, connoisseurship and ferment, where he had huge influence thanks to his collaborations with Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

I planned my recent trip to Munich in part to look for traces of Strauss in his home city and in Bavaria. As it happens, there is not much in Munich to indicate he was there. This is due, in part, to his unhappiness at the reception of his first opera, Guntram, when it played in Munich in 1895. After that disappointment, Strauss spent most of his career elsewhere, especially Dresden (where nine of his operas had their premieres), Berlin, Vienna and Salzburg (where he was one of the founders of the Festival in 1920).

I walked around Munich with Astrid Posegga, widow of the composer of Hans Posegga (1917-2002). Astrid told me that she holds Strauss in high regard not only for his music but because he was a founder of GEMA (Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs- und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte), a professional organization akin to ASCAP which assures that composers are properly paid for the publication and performance of their works.

Astrid took me to a 1961 sculpture by Hans Wimmer on Neuhauserstraße inspired by Salome. We went into a nearby garage on the corner of the Altheimer Eck and Eisenmannstraße in the city center (which had been 60 percent destroyed in the 1940s). Inside was an old plaque indicating that here was the house where Strauss was born. These are the only real traces of Strauss in the city of his birth.

Strauss lived through both the First and Second World Wars, and lived just long enough to compose Metamorphosen, a work for 23 stringed instruments that expressed his feelings on seeing Germany in ruins, and his famous Four Last Songs, which miraculously present a clear-eyed yet deeply moving account of a person looking toward death and what may—Strauss was an atheist—lie beyond it.

To Strauss's Villa

That evening, at the Bavarian State Opera, I ran into a group of American opera lovers. They were traveling with Christopher Clark of Great Performance Tours for a week at the festival. I mentioned I was heading the next morning to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, high in the Bavarian Alps at the Austrian border. Strauss lived there from 1908 to the end of his life and I had an appointment with Dr. Jürgen May at the Richard-Strauss-Institut.

I had tried to gain access to Strauss’s villa, where his grandson Christian and other relatives sometimes reside. Very few visits are granted and I was unsuccessful in my request. As it happened, Clark and his group had the good fortune of having an invitation to the villa and they very kindly invited me along.

The cherrywood desk where Richard Strauss composed in Garmisch
The cherrywood desk where Richard Strauss composed in Garmisch (Fred Plotkin)

The house was built to Strauss's specifications, with priority given to making it a suitable place for family activities and for Strauss to compose. Unlike most composer houses, it still feels like a home rather than a museum. Only his wife Pauline’s library, full of medals and other honors Strauss received, resembles an exhibition. There is a family room where they gathered around a table. Food was served and, often, Strauss and his friends played a card game called Skat, which he usually won.

My favorite room was the one where he composed. Although he had a piano, he wrote music at an adjacent cherrywood desk built to his specifications. Here he completed Elektra and almost all of the music he composed after that. As the visiting group moved on, I stood in silence to absorb the feeling of this sacred space. From his desk, on a clear day, is a view of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain.

Upstairs is a room with the simple bed in which he died. There is also a piano and some religious art, neither of which was there in Strauss’s lifetime. There is a room with many documents and photocopies of much of his music. The precision of the organization and the warm serenity of the house caused my ears to ring with the composer’s Symphonia Domestica.

Later, I kept my appointment with Dr. May at the Strauss Institut on the opposite end of Garmisch. This is the center for international Strauss scholarship, with scores, recordings, books, letters and other documents. The building also has an exhibition on the composer’s life that is intended for visitors who are not there for research. The Institut runs the music festival honoring the composer every June.

After my memorable visit to Garmisch I returned to Munich and had my farewell meal at the restaurant of what was the Pschorr brewery. Every glass sold 150 years ago in some way benefited the young Richard Strauss and it seemed an ideal way to celebrate him now.

For anyone traveling to Germany this November, the Richard Strauss Days in Dresden offer a generous sampling of Strauss’s music with artists including Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson and Christian Thielemann.