Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 September 2011
The years from the completion of his first opera Guntram in 1893 to that of Salome in 1905 were pivotal to the career and aesthetic development of Richard Strauss: his operatic fortunes changed from failure to success, his creative focus from tone poem to opera, his philosophical allegiance from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, and his aesthetic orientation from relative epigonism to assertive independence. The thread that connects these three dissimilar works is their implicit or explicit critique of Wagner. During the final decades of the nineteenth century Wagner's musical style and dramatic themes became the baseline against which all new works were measured, and critics typically referred to Wagner's successors as “epigones” because of their uninspired imitation of the older master. The idealistic, quasi-Schopenhauerian themes of Wagner's works – especially redemption through love, Christian compassion, renunciation, and physical versus ideal love – appeared with limited variations and in diluted or superficial form in the serious operas of Strauss's most prominent colleagues, such as Wilhelm Kienzl (1857–1941), Felix Weingartner (1863–1942), Eugen d'Albert (1864–1932), Max von Schillings (1868–1933), and Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949). In this feebly obedient context Strauss's early operas stand out as radical documents. Although Strauss identified himself as a Wagnerian, this adherence became limited to musical style and principles: a huge, colorful, polyphonic, and dominant orchestra; an intricate web of leitmotifs; chromaticism; and placing drama above purely musical concerns.