The musical Conversion
Richard Strauss and Alexander Ritter

Alexander_Ritter_im_Kreise_der_Freunde_um_Richard_Wagner_AThere can be no doubt that Lotti Speyer had seriously enflamed the romantic passions of the young Richard Strauss. After a short ten days at the little spa of Heilbrunn, however, the two lovebirds had to return to their respective and separate routines of everyday living. In a number of intimate letters and several songs, Richard tenderly — but never directly — expressed his emotions. Yet he also confided, with considerable pride, details of his performances and of his compositions in progress. On 23 June 1887 he writes, “I am now working on an orchestral piece to be called Macbeth, which is of course very wild in character, and on a violin sonata. I also wrote heaps of songs last winter, eight of which have been published by Aibl, while another eleven are in the press at this very moment.” Strauss was also getting recognition as a conductor, and various conducting engagements saw him traveling throughout Germany. Fastidiously he kept Lotti abreast of developments in Berlin. “Berlin hospitality is phenomenal, and in consequence I have an invitation of one kind or another almost every evening, then that means more calls and return calls, when I have a free evening I rush to a concert or the theatre, then sometimes I really do have to do some work, and so the days and weeks here just fly past.” He then told her about all the beautiful girls he had met, “not forgetting the delightful Fräulein Spielhagen, the Bleichröder daughters and Grete Begas.” Although the correspondence would continue for another seven years, it was becoming clear that Richard was not going to formally propose to Lotti. The reason, however, had nothing to do with all the beautiful girls he met on his conducting tours. Rather, in shaping his career as a composer he became friends with Alexander Ritter, who significantly, provided him with an aesthetic focus for his creative energies.

Alexander Ritter was born in Estonia, and studied music with Joachim Raff in Frankfurt. In 1854 he married the niece of Richard Wagner, and by the time Richard Strauss arrived in Meinigen, he was an esteemed and outspoken member of the Meinigen orchestra. Ritter took an immediate liking to the young Richard, and began to engage him on the aesthetic beliefs of Liszt and Wagner, both of whom he regarded almost as gods. Young Richard had grown up under the archconservative direction of his father Franz, whose artistic creed centered on the “trinity of Mozart (above all), Haydn and Beethoven.” Franz Strauss was first horn of the Munich Court Orchestra, and he never missed an opportunity to rail against Richard Wagner’s music. On the day of Wagner’s death he was the only member of the orchestra who refused to rise in commemoration of the deceased. For Ritter, on the other hand, Brahms was the object of revulsion, and he did his best to steer Strauss away from his Brahms enthusiasm. Richard wrote to his friend Ludwig Thuille, “My upbringing had left me with some remaining prejudices against the works of Wagner and, in particular, of Liszt, and I hardly knew Wagner’s writings at all. Ritter patiently introduced me to them and to Schopenhauer until I both knew and understood them. The fellow is magnificent and hellishly good for sharpening up one’s poor wits.” When the Meiningen Orchestra announced some cuts, Ritter applied for a position in Munich, so when Strauss got offered his job in Munich, his mentor was already there. Richard’s friendship with Ritter deepened, and a number of devotees met regularly in evenings “to exchange noble ideas and to listen to the teachings of the Lisztian Ritter.” In his memoirs, Strauss credited Ritter with his so-called “conversion” to Wagner and the music of the future. Ritter’s success in expanding Strauss’s knowledge of Wagner, Liszt, Schopenhauer and Hausegger was the logical consequence of the composer’s emerging personal style. Above all, however, it was his friendship with Ritter that spurred Strauss to devote himself to the musical theatre.

Richard Strauss: Violin Sonata, Op. 18

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