The Composer As Sphinx: A Richard Strauss Puzzler

Jun 11, 2014
Originally published on June 19, 2014 11:12 am

Music by Richard Strauss is heard in symphony halls and opera houses across the world. He needs little help to boost his considerable fame. Yet 150 years after his birth, the German composer remains an enigma to some classical music fans and a polarizing figure for others. A perfect candidate, in other words, for a musical puzzler.

Was Strauss the brash agent of change whose radical orchestrations and technical demands, in tone poems like Also sprach Zarathustra and operas like Salome, opened up new possibilities in music? Or was he shallow-minded and merely out to shock and entertain while building a fortune? He once described himself as a "first-class second-rate composer." But he also thought of himself as the last significant peak in a distinguished mountain range of Germanic composers like like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. "After me come the flatlands," he once said. And then there's the hot button issue of his relationship with the Nazis.

Strauss led a long and fascinating life dominated by composing, conducting, family life and card games. For his sesquicentennial, here's a quiz brimming with music and facts that will test know-it-alls and tempt newbies.

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