From the beginning of Strauss' career as a composer, it was evident that the orchestra was his natural medium. With the composition of the "symphonic fantasy" Aus Italien in 1886, Strauss embarked on a series of works that represents both one of the pivotal phases of his career and a body of music of central importance in the late German Romantic repertoire. Though he did not invent the tone poem per se, he brought it to its pinnacle. In such works as Don Juan (1888-1889), Ein Heldenleben (1897-1898), and Also sprach Zarathustra (1895-1896) -- whose first minute or so, thanks to its use in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the composer's most readily recognizable music -- Strauss displayed his abundant gift for exploiting the coloristic possibilities of the orchestra as a dramatic device like few composers ever had (or have since).
With the arrival of the twentieth century, after becoming conductor at Berlin's Hofoper, Strauss' interest turned more fully to opera, resulting in a body of unforgettable works that have long been fixtures of the repertoire: Salome (1903-1905), Elektra (1906-1908), and Der Rosenkavalier (1909-1910) are just a few of his best-known efforts for the stage. In 1919, Strauss became co-director of the Vienna Staatsoper, but was forced to resign five years later by his partner, Franz Schalk, who resented being left with many of the operational duties while Strauss was frequently away guest conducting or being feted as a great composer. When the political situation in Europe became malignant in the 1930s, profound political naïveté led to Strauss' confused involvement the Nazi propaganda machine, and the composer eventually alienated both the Nazis and their opponents. With the end of World War II, however, he was permitted to resume his professional life, although it would be a mere echo of his previous fame. He began to have serious health problems, his financial situation had been compromised, and the monuments that embodied great German art for him -- Goethe's Weimar house; the Dresden, Munich, and Vienna opera houses -- had been destroyed. Throughout his last years, works such as the Oboe Concerto (1945) and the gorgeously expressive Four Last Songs (1948) attest to Strauss' unwavering confidence in his singular musical voice.