Any creative genius with a strong sense of self-worth – and whose gods are Mozart and Wagner – can hardly go far wrong. In the first decade of the 20th century, Strauss condensed and sharpened the experience of Wagnerian music drama into the two hardest-hitting one-act operas in the repertoire, Salome and Elektra, before letting his Mozartian strain take the upper hand in Der Rosenkavalier, that ‘second Figaro’. Yet while Strauss carried on his own individual dialogue with the past, he was also a pioneer. As his symphonic poems – such as Don Quixote and Symphonia Domestica – show, he created textures and instrumental combinations of unthought-of complexity, pipping the mature Mahler and the younger Schoenberg at the post.

Past his iconoclastic heyday, he carried on producing highly personal scores while bypassing the developments of the younger generation: operas like Intermezzo, the autobiographical tale of marital misunderstanding, and Capriccio, his swansong operatic debate about the rival claims of words and music; and orchestral works as diverse as the lamentatory Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings and the rococo-style Oboe Concerto. His later works were another honest way of re-engaging with his youth.

Strauss was born in Munich in 1864. His father Franz was first horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra and a supreme exponent of the solos in the brand-new Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried and Die Meistersinger, even though he detested everything Wagner stood for (young Richard came to worship Wagner only after he had struck free of his father’s musical tastes, chiefly Mendelssohn and Schumann). Having received a good all-round education, Strauss the younger explored Brahms in Berlin. Finally, in his twenties as a budding conductor in Weimar, he came to conduct Tristan und Isolde, an event which he called ‘the most wonderful day of my life’. The heroine was played by his pupil, Pauline de Ahna, whom he married three years later.

Meanwhile, the path to independence continued apace. In 1893, Strauss had caused a ruckus among the Bayreuth set by letting the Wagnerian hero of his first opera, Guntram, pursue his own ideals free from the guidance of the story’s ‘secret brotherhood’. Part of this sense of freedom came from his reading of Nietzsche, celebrated in the incandescent musical poetry of his own Also sprach Zarathustra in 1896. Yet for all the contrasts between his major works, he could never be serious for long. The far-from-sober Ubermensch or ‘superman’ of Zarathustra sits between the wittiest German score since Beethoven’s Eighth, Till Eulenspiegel, and the even more bizarre Don Quixote. The joy of love gave a kick to his first enduring symphonic poem, Don Juan, with its erotic episodes a mere hint of further such scenes to come.

Even Ein Heldenleben (‘A Hero’s Life’), with its waltzing battle and parodied critic-adversaries, is more of a mock-epic than an inflated specimen of the Bismarck era. Strauss always went his own way, dashing off a few obligatory marches for the Kaiser; little wonder that in the early 1930s he thought that a bit of lip-service to the latest ruler, Adolf Hitler, would buy him the time to write as he chose. Like Mahler, he was guilty only of art-egotism; the universe beyond the musical world hardly mattered.

In the prime of life, however, he could do what he wanted. Opportunity threw him one of the greatest poetical dramatists of the 1900s, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the author of a play based on Sophocles’s Elektra, to which only a few crucial lines needed to be added for a shapely opera libretto. They then collaborated on an original ‘comedy for music’, Der Rosenkavalier in which Viennese traditions, French 18th-century literature, Mozart, Hogarth and even the Wagner of Die Meistersinger were thrown into the melting-pot.

After Der Rosenkavalier came a complex clash of 18th-century comic opera and heroic opera or opera seria in Ariadne auf Naxos. Then there was the massive and artificial fairy-tale Die Frau ohne Schatten, actually less convoluted than many commentators have made out. Later they worked on the mythological paraphrase of Die ägyptische Helena and Arabella, showing a shabbier, 19th-century Vienna than the louche 1740s city of Maria Theresa.

For a while Strauss seemed lost following his collaborator’s unexpected death in the middle of working on Arabella in 1929. Yet he had ideas from Hofmannsthal still to work on and, despite a lowering of the literary temperatures in Daphne and Die Liebe der Danae, he would shine a light on these mythologies. The time, though, would be out of joint, as he found in his collaboration with an equally great Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, on an adaptation of Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, premiered in Dresden in 1935.

Without consultation, Strauss had been made president of the National Socialist Music Chamber of the Reich, an institution set up by the Nazis for the promotion of its music. Zweig was Jewish and, to avoid compromising Strauss’s position, had tried to break off their collaboration. But when Strauss wrote to Zweig to explain he was merely play-acting in the role, the letter was intercepted by the Gestapo.

Strauss was forced to resign. The composer was trapped in a land of ‘barbarians’, hoping to be left in peace and to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and half-Jewish grandsons. It seemed that his only concern as composer was for the loss of the culture in which he had been steeped: Metamorphosen is a lament for the bombings of the great Austrian and German opera houses.

After that, he retreated into a private world. In the Four Last Songs he maintained the sense of beauty that had informed his last opera, Capriccio. For, as he once said of Der Rosenkavalier, ‘It is at the end that a composer can achieve his finest results’.

In 1944 Strauss chose soprano Alda Noni to sing Zerbinetta in a production of Ariadne auf Naxos for his 80th birthday celebrations.

David Nice