Richard Strauss's first tone poem, Macbeth, Op. 23, is the pivotal work in his turn from the conservative style of his youth to the progressive style that made him the leading German composer at the end of the nineteenth century. Strauss's earliest orchestral compositions display his strong affinity for textbook sonata-allegro form as he learned it from his father, Franz Strauss, and his only teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer. Even when he began to develop his own style in the mid-1880s, his orchestral works continued to follow standard formal models, although Strauss often modified tonal plans and disguised the seams in the subdivisions of movements.
Strauss encountered difficulties in the composition of Macbeth as he attempted to reconcile his conservative education with the progressive ideas of the New German School that he learned from Alexander Ritter. A study of the extant sources makes it possible to partially reconstruct the earliest version of Macbeth and to demonstrate how Strauss revised the first score. That revision, made on the advice of Hans von Bülow, was more extensive than Strauss's comments on the matter have implied. In addition to cutting a long coda that represented the "Triumphant March of Macduff," Strauss also removed a literal return of part of the first theme and reworked the approach to the ending. Strauss later withdrew this revised first score to correct imbalances in the orchestration. In the definitive second score, Strauss also made other changes which made his intentions easier to realize in performance.
A study of various correspondences and other documents, including many previously unknown items, shows some of the difficulties Strauss encountered in trying to secure performances and publication of his works in the late 1880s. His publisher, Eugen Spitzweg, initially refused to accept Macbeth, and only later took it when Strauss withheld the more successful Tod und Verklärung. Macbeth failed to earn a place in the repertoire in part because of negative critical opinion that misunderstood the relationship of the work's program to its form. A careful examination of the work's motivic surface shows, however, that program and form are consistent with one another in Macbeth.