Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Delanceyplace 11/13/07-Strauss and Salome

In today's excerpt--Richard Strauss (1864-1949), the German superstar composer, and the premier of his masterwork, Salome:

"When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the Austrian city of Graz, several crowned heads of European music gathered to witness the event. The premiere of Salome had taken place in Dresden five months earlier, and word had gotten out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale--an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna. ... Gustav Mahler, the director of the Vienna Opera, attended with his wife, the beautiful and controversial Alma. The bold young composer Arnold Schoenberg arrived from Vienna with ... no fewer than six of his pupils. ...

" 'The city was in a great state of excitement.' [the critic Ernst] Decsey wrote. ... [He] fueled anticipation with a high-flown preview article acclaiming Strauss's 'tone- color world,' his 'polyrhythms and polyphony,' his 'breakup of the narrow old tonality,' his 'fetish ideal of an Omni-tonality.' ...

"[At the end of the concert] the crowd roared its approval--that was the most shocking thing. 'Nothing more satanic and artistic has been seen on the German opera stage,' Decsey wrote admiringly. ... Salome went on to be performed in some twenty-five different cities. The triumph was so complete that Strauss could afford to laugh off criticism from Kaiser Wilhelm II. 'I am sorry that Strauss composed this Salome,' the Kaiser reportedly said. 'Normally I'm very keen on him, but this is going to do him a lot of damage.' Strauss would relate this story and add with a flourish: 'Thanks to that damage I was able to build my villa in Garmisch!'

"On the train back to Vienna, Mahler expressed bewilderment over is colleague's success. He considered Salome a significant and audacious piece--'one of the great masterworks of our time,' he later said--and he could not understand why the public took an immediate liking to it. Genius and popularity were, he apparently thought, incompatible. ... 'I was never revolutionary,' Arnold Schoenberg once said. 'The only revolutionary in our time was Strauss!' "

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, Copyright 2007 by Alex Ross, pp.3-18.


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