He was born on June 11, 1864 in Munich, Germany, the son of Franz Strauss who was the principal French horn player at the Court Opera in Munich. He received a thorough, but conservative, musical education from his father in his youth, and began to compose at a very early age. In 1882 he entered Munich University, but left a year later to go to Berlin. There he studied briefly before securing a post as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow taking over from him at Munich when he resigned in 1885. His compositions around this time were quite conservative, in the style of Robert Schumann or Felix Mendelssohn, true to his father's teachings. This began to change when he met Alexander Ritter, a noted violinist and the husband of one of Richard Wagner's nieces. It was he who first got Strauss seriously interested in the music of Wagner.
This newly found interest resulted in what is widely regarded as Strauss' first piece to show his mature personality, the tone poem Don Juan. When this was premiered in 1889, half of the audience cheered while the other half booed. Strauss knew he had found his own musical voice, saying "I now comfort myself with the knowledge that I am on the road I want to take, fully conscious that there never has been an artist not considered crazy by thousands of his fellow men." Strauss went on to write a series of other tone poems, including Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra) in 1896, well known today for its use in the film .
Around the end of the 19th century, Strauss turned his attention to opera. His first two attempts in the genre, Guntram in 1894 and Feuersnot in 1901 were critical failures. However, in 1905 he produced Salome (based on the play by Oscar Wilde), and the reaction was as passionate and extreme as it had been with Don Juan. When it opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, there was such a public outcry that it was closed after just one performance. Doubtless, much of this was down to the subject matter, but Strauss had also used dissonance in a way that was rare at that time in the opera house.
Strauss' next opera was Elektra, which took his use of dissonance even further. It was also the first opera in which Strauss collaborated with the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The two would work together on numerous other occasions. For these later works, however, Strauss moderated his harmonic language somewhat, with the result that works such as Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier with a flower) (1910) were great public successes. Strauss continued to produce operas at regular intervals into the 1930s.
There is much controversy surrounding Strauss' role in Germany after the Nazi Party came to power. Some say that he was constantly apolitical, and never cooperated with the Nazis completely. Others point out that he was an official of the Third Reich, and that although his post was largely ceremonial, he should have spoken out against the Nazis. Many have pointed out that Strauss' grandchildren were part-Jewish, and suggested that this may have stopped him speaking out. Strauss took a risk in refusing to remove from the publicity for the premiere of Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) the name of its Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig. There are also suggestions that he attempted to use his official position to protect Jewish friends and colleagues.
In 1948, Strauss wrote his last work, the Four Last Songs for high voice and orchestra. All his life he had produced lieder, but these are probably the best known. Strauss' harmonic and melodic language was looking somewhat old-fashioned by this time, when compared to the work of younger composers. Nevertheless, the songs have always been popular with audiences and performers.