Strauss came from a musical family. His father was principal horn player of the Bavarian Court Opera Orchestra, and Richard was raised in an atmosphere saturated with the great classical masterworks. He was composing music by the age of six, and when he was just seventeen his first symphony was performed by his father's orchestra.
Strauss father was musically conservative, rejecting the "modern" style of composers such as Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883). But Richard was swept away by Liszt and Wagner's harmonic adventurousness and experiments in form. His first masterpiece, the orchestral tone poem Don Juan, (1888) shows the young composer's flair for drama and characterization. It should be noted that like his contemporary, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Strauss made his living as a conductor, and his experiences on the podium can be heard in his brilliant orchestrations. Strauss composed a whole series of magnificent tone-poems in this early part of his career--Death and Transfiguration (1889), Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (1895), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), and Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life," 1898)--all of which are staples of the concert repertory.
Having practically grown up in the opera house, Strauss was naturally drawn to the genre. His first operatic works, Guntram (1894) and Feuersnot (1901) were Wagnerian experiments, and neither of them were successful with the public. However, in 1905, Strauss' Salome (based on the controversial play by Oscar Wilde) was produced in Dresden to tremendous acclaim. Strauss extracted every ounce of drama and exotic color from the story, and the lurid subject precipitated a scandal that only increased the public's appetite for the work. With his next opera, Elektra (1909), it was the music itself that caused a scandal. Elektra is the composer's most dissonant and complex score. When the Metropolitan Opera in New York first produced Elektra, the outcry was so vociferous that the run was canceled after just three performances.
The poet/playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal had written the libretto for Elektra. Strauss and Hofmannsthal collaborated on many works over the next two decades. Their next project was Der Rosenkavalier (1910), a comic opera that stood in stark contrast to the dark, psychological characterizations of Salome and Elektra. Set in 18th century Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier was imbued with waltzes, tender love scenes and a neo-classical charm that has made it one of the most popular works in the operatic repertory. In the early 1920s, Strauss supervised the production of a silent film version of the opera that was then synchronized with an audio recording of the music.
Strauss and Hofmannsthal's other collaborations were variably successful. Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) has become increasingly popular and is interesting for its Don Giovanni-like juxtaposition of comedy and serious drama. Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman Without a Shadow," 1919) is richly symbolic and the most overtly Wagnerian of Strauss' mature operas. Die aegyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen, 1928) is rarely performed, and although Arabella (1933) is finally entering the standard repertory, its attempt to recapture the Viennese charm of Der Rosenkavalier did not meet with either public or critical approval.
Strauss continued to write operas after Hofmannsthal's death in 1929, sometimes developing the libretto himself. Of these later operas, Capriccio (1942) is the most respected and frequently performed. An opera about opera, Capriccio was the composer's last work in the form and the score contains some of his most radiant music.
Strauss was a prolific composer, and his output includes many orchestral works, including descriptive symphonies--such as the Symphonia Domestica (1903) and the Alpine-Symphony (1915)--chamber music, and a large number of songs.
In the last years of Strauss' life, his style became extremely refined, often featuring neo-classical forms and intricate, yet crystal clear contrapuntal textures. Highlights of this final period are Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings (1945), which is an elegy for Germany following the devastating effects of Nazism and the Second World War, the Oboe Concerto (1945), two substantial "Sonatinas" for wind ensemble (1943 and 1945, respectively) and the glorious Four Last Songs (1948).