Richard Strauss's Historicist Operas and the Crisis of German History

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was a composer whose thoughts, actions and compositions were thoroughly saturated by an awareness of the past. When asked to distinguish himself from his contemporaries, Strauss simply declared: “The others compose—I create music history!” Strauss frequently wove the music of older (and sometimes forgotten) composers into the fabric of his scores, and he ardently championed many long-forgotten works by Couperin, Gluck and Mozart on the conducting podium. A conscious recognition of history, its cultural power and aesthetic significance informed his every creative output in ways that defined his approach toward modernity.

Musicologists have largely overlooked Strauss’s historical interests and their contextual resonances, preferring instead to discuss his life and works through traditional biographical lenses, and with conventional analytical tools. This ambitious monograph focuses on his six historical operas that stretch from Der Rosenkavalier (1911) to Capriccio (1942) and seeks to illuminate these complex compositions against the shifting backdrop of cultural and political anxieties that characterised German history during the Wilhelminian Empire, Weimar Republic and Third Reich. Taking each opera as a unique case study, this monograph analyses the ways in which his successive collaborative endeavours with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Gregor reflected, subverted, or voiced the often turbulent shifts of cultural, political and economic contexts in which these projects were first conceived, performed and heard.

To capture the ideological resonances of these operas in their full historical complexity, this study intersperses the main chapters with a series of short "intermezzi" essays, which, through juxtaposition, help to illuminate the often idiosyncratic nature of Strauss’s historicist sensibilities against a broad range of contemporary aesthetic debates, social phenomenon and emerging musical trends. An introduction also traces the rise of historical consciousness on the German operatic stage during the nineteenth century, and considers the impact of Wagner's infamous polemical attacks on musical historicism, against which Strauss and some of his fin-di-siècle contemporaries responded with creative, and at times ironic, verve. This study reveals the extent to which Strauss typified a larger trend to enter into critical dialogue with past traditions, and challenges the received understanding of how musical theatre in Europe developed toward a point of a crisis during and after the First World War.



  • Offers the first account of the rise of historicism as both a dramaturgical and compositional strategy in German opera from the late eighteenth century to the end of World War II
  • Identifies and critiques the ways in which opera - after the death of Wagner to the end of the Third Reich - lent voice to widely held assumptions about historical progress and the supposedly apolitical nature of music 
  • Situates Strauss’s operas in relation both to historical antecedents from Gluck to Wagner, and contemporary composers such as Pfitzner, Busoni, Schillings, d’Albert, Korngold, Schoenberg, Schreker, Weill, Krenek and others
  • Proposes and develops new strategies for analysing the practice of allusion and borrowing in twentieth-century music, as well as synthesises a wide range of critical perspectives and methodologies from the fields of history, philosophy, literary criticism, theatre history and cultural studies
  • Draws upon an impressive range of bibliographical sources stemming from extensive archival research in Germany and Austria, as well as incorporates many of the latest sources uncovered by the Richard Strauss Kritische Ausgabe, which began in Munich in 2011