How 'bout them Strausses: A look into the tumultuous relationship of Richard and Pauline

Richard and Pauline Strauss, shown in 1910, stayed together into their 80s. Wikimedia via the Illustrated London News

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They're not as violent as Ike and Tina Turner. They're not quite as goofy as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, and probably not as mismatched as Al and Peggy Bundy. But something tells me that Richard and Pauline Strauss — the subjects of the "Oil, Meet Fire" episode of Decomposed — would have made good TV, even today.

That being said, I want to be sure we don't dismiss them simply as kooky and highly entertaining in their more than slightly dysfunctional relationship. Yes, it does seem that Richard was turned on by having full-length musical scores thrown at his head, but hidden behind all the antics was a peculiar form of respect that feels modern for a past era that had well-wrought societal and gender roles in place.

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It hardly seems like "respect" is the right word when you look at how their relationship played out in public, sometimes even on the stage. But if we look deeper, into what the allowances of those antics by each other really meant, we'll see something quite spectacular for that age. We see a curious form of equality.

When I was fresh out of grad school, I read a book about the world's great pianists. Ten artists were profiled, only two of whom were female, one being the storied Martha Argerich.

What I remember the most was not the stories about their playing and the building of their careers. I remember most their relationships, or lack thereof. Many of the men featured in that book had the luxury of time and status. Their wives (almost all the men were married) dedicated their lives to their husband's art. They often took on the burden of raising the family and often also managed their husbands' careers to some extent. The men could steal away for weeks at a time in the name of focus and sanctity and preparation, while the women held down the fort.

The only women in this book had a history of broken relationships, often with other powerful artist figures. They struggled to achieve the same level of respect and status, especially early in their careers. Both of the women in that book ended up without a steady mate, or at least not one who had their back as fiercely as Richard had Pauline's.

At the onset of the Strauss story, knowing Pauline was an artist whose career had faded unexpectedly early, I'd honestly expected to discover that she'd been resigned into not performing. I thought I was going to be telling another story of a talented lady, suppressed or smothered somehow by her more "important" husband. I thought it was going to be Clara Schumann all over again and could only hope for some triumphant return to the stage later in life. But I soon discovered there was much decisiveness and intention in Pauline's path and on her terms.

She chose to pull back from the stage, not trusting her art as she had in what she would have considered her heyday. I highly suspect that when she decided to stop performing, other artists around her, including Richard, probably believed she still had many great years ahead. But it was her decision.

The next decision? She decided that not performing did not mean she no longer considered herself an artist. In fact, she decided that not singing would not render her voiceless. More impressive still, she dared to believe her opinion, her artistic wisdom could inform and even make better the art of someone becoming known as one of the greatest artists of her time.

Most impressive of all, Richard Strauss believed that, too! He seemed to savor her companionship and her counsel. Not only was Pauline his wife, not only was she his muse, but she was a trusted artistic adviser. Imagine! The same woman who'd barely listened to him when he gave her lessons as a novice was scribbling her impassioned, and not often kind, critiques all over his original scores — and he stood for it.

I bet what shocked the people around them was not just Pauline's temper, her antics, her overreactions and Richard's ability to "put up with" a difficult woman. What was shocking was that Pauline dared speak her mind to her celebrity husband without suffering consequences. And Richard spoke for himself on the matter, claiming her to have been created exactly how he needed her to be in order for him to function at his highest heights.

It was important to him that the world know of Pauline's prowess and his love for her as she was. It was so important that he made Robert, the thinly veiled version of himself in Strauss' opera Intermezzo, say it from the stage: "There are some who only show their good side … while she, she is really one of those gentle, shy, tender creatures but rough on the outside … They're the best kind."

You'd think that a romance as volatile as theirs, one that threatened divorce and sometimes murder, one that hurled books, and included reading each other's mail, and possibly airing the other's dirty laundry and character flaws live on stage, would obviously end in divorce. But theirs didn't. They stayed together into their 80s with Robert still composing with her voice in mind. It was a singing voice the world had ceased to benefit from many years earlier, but one he insisted on hearing every chance he got. He valued that contrarian voice in his life, in his music, and thoroughly in his heart.

▼ Podcast: Decomposed

Nicknamed "Classical Music's No. 1 Maverick," Jade Simmons is the host of the Decomposed podcast. She also is a concert artist, bestselling author and a passionate storyteller with a strong understanding of classical music's roots.