For 60 years from the 1880s to the 1940s, Richard Strauss was one of the leading figures on the European music scene. He came from a musical family that recognised his talent early on and promoted it intensively. His father, Franz Strauss, was the principal French horn in the Munich Court Orchestra, who led the horn section in the premieres of several of Wagner's operas. Strauss's own cautious musical steps began when he discovered Brahms's music in the early 1880s and by the time he turned 20, his works had already been performed by the greatest contemporary conductors.
He also took many character-forming conducting posts himself, one of which provided a seminal experience. At Weimar, he conducted Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde for the first time and wrote to the composer's widow Cosima in 1892 to say "It was the most wonderful day of [his] life." Strauss had simultaneously achieved a leading place in the European avant-garde and was one of the most sought-after conductors of his time.
Having struck out on his own as a composer, he followed the prescriptions of Wagner's disciple, the composer and violinist Alexander Ritter, and pursued the idea of the symphonic poem. By 35, he had a string of highly successful works in the genre to his name, including Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Death and Transfiguration and Don Quixote. A famously private man, Strauss was often caricatured for the extravagance of his orchestrations, but while his writing can be the most opulent of any late-Romantic composer, he was capable of supreme refinement. Even Strauss's most lavishily scored symphonic poems and operas contain many of the effects of intimate chamber music. He also had a superb understanding of the female voice, thanks to the soprano Pauline de Ahna, who was his wife of 55 years.
At the turn of the century, his main compositional interest shifted from symphonic works to operas, and over the next 40 years he produced such enduring compositions as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio. Over the years, Strauss also composed ballets, numerous free instrumental compositions, several choral works and an extensive collection of wonderful songs. His last great works, the plaintive Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings and the valedictory Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra were written amidst the destruction of World War II.