Early life and career (1864–1886)
Strauss was born on 11 June 1864 in Munich, the son of Josephine (née Pschorr) and Franz Strauss, who was the principal horn player at the Court Opera in Munich and a professor at the Königliche Musikschule. His mother was the daughter of Georg Pschorr, a financially prosperous brewer from Munich.
Strauss began his musical studies at the age of four, studying piano with August Tombo who was the harpist in the Munich Court Orchestra. He soon after began attending the rehearsals of the orchestra, and began getting lessons in music theory and orchestration from the ensemble's assistant conductor. He wrote his first composition at the age of six, and continued to write music almost until his death. In 1872, he started receiving violin instruction from Benno Walter, the director of the Munich Court Orchestra and his father's cousin, and at 11 began five years of compositional study with Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer. In 1882 he graduated from the Ludwigsgymnasium and afterwards attended only one year at the University of Munich in 1882–1883.
In addition to his formal teachers, Strauss was profoundly influenced musically by his father who made instrumental music-making central to the Strauss home. The Strauss family was frequently joined in their home for music making, meals, and other activities by the orphaned composer and music theorist Ludwig Thuille who was viewed as an adopted member of the family. Strauss's father taught his son the music of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. His father further assisted his son with his musical composition during the 1870s and into the early 1880s, providing advice, comments, and criticisms. His father further provided support by showcasing his sons compositions in performance with the ‘Wilde Gung'l’, an amateur orchestra he conducted from 1875–1896. Many of his early symphonic compositions were written for this ensemble. His compositions at this time were indebted to the style of Robert Schumann or Felix Mendelssohn, true to his father's teachings. His father undoubtedly had a crucial influence on his son's developing taste, not least in Strauss's abiding love for the horn. His Horn Concerto No. 1, is representative of this period and is a staple of the modern horn repertoire.
In 1874, Strauss heard his first Wagner operas, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. In 1878 he attended performances of Die Walküre and Siegfried in Munich, and in 1879 he attended performances of the entire Ring Cycle, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Tristan und Isolde. The influence of Wagner's music on Strauss's style was to be profound, but at first his musically conservative father forbade him to study it. Indeed, in the Strauss household, the music of Richard Wagner was viewed with deep suspicion, and it was not until the age of 16 that Strauss was able to obtain a score of Tristan und Isolde. In 1882 he went to the Bayreuth Festival to hear his father perform in the world premiere of Wagner's Parsifal; after which surviving letters to his father and to Thuille detail his seemingly negative impression of Wagner and his music. In later life, Strauss said that he deeply regretted the conservative hostility to Wagner's progressive works.
In early 1882, in Vienna, Strauss gave the first performance of his Violin Concerto in D minor, playing a piano reduction of the orchestral part himself, with his teacher Benno Walter as soloist. The same year he entered Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he studied philosophy and art history, but not music. He left a year later to go to Berlin, where he studied briefly before securing a post with the Meiningen Court Orchestra as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow, who had been enormously impressed by the young composer's Serenade (Op. 7) for wind instruments, composed when he was only 16 years of age. Strauss learned the art of conducting by observing Bülow in rehearsal. Bülow was very fond of the young man, and Strauss considered him as his greatest conducting mentor, often crediting him as teaching him "the art of interpretation". He notably Under Bülow's baton he made his first major appearance as a concert pianist, perform Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24, for which he composed his own cadenzas.
In December 1885, Bülow unexpectedly resigned from his post, and Strauss was left to lead the Meiningen Court Orchestra as interim principal conductor for the remainder of the artistic season through April 1856. He notably helped prepare the orchestra for the world premiere performance of Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 4, which Brahms himself conducted. He also conducted his Symphony No. 2 for Brahms, who advised Strauss: "Your symphony contains too much playing about with themes. This piling up of many themes based on a triad, which differ from one another only in rhythm, has no value." Brahms' music, like Wagner's, also left a tremendous impression upon Strauss, and he often referred to this time of his life as his ‘Brahmsschwärmerei’ (‘Brahms adoration’) during which several his compositions clearly show Brahms' influence, including Wandrers Sturmlied (1884) and Burleske (1885–6)."