Richard Strauss's career spanned modernism (he was born in 1864 and did not
die until 1949), and his music passed through several stylistic periods:
Romanticism, fin-de-siècle Decadence, Expressionism, and Neoclassicism. (He is
also seen as a master of kitsch, conceiving a ballet that represented a
revolution in a bakery, with proletarian donuts battling aristocratic
Strauss established himself first and foremost as an orchestral
composer, specifically a composer of single-movement symphonic works called tone
poems, which purport to narrate philosophical, literary, or biographical texts.
Tod und Verklärung (1889) is one of the first, and it shows a
precocious ability to manipulate orchestral sound.
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The beginning of the modernist movement was marked by the
publication of such perverse, sensual novels as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as
numerous compositions by German and Russian composers that strove for shock
effects, irrespective of the norms of proper composition; rule-breaking of this
sort was termed “decadent” by critics of the period. The most decadent of the
decadents was the Munich-based Richard Strauss, who experimented with numerous
styles during his long career. His early works are saturated with irrational
harmonic combinations; they also force the orchestra to produce bizarre sounds.
Salome, his third opera, merits a parental-guidance sticker.
Based on an 1893 play by Wilde, it modernizes the Biblical tale of King Herod and
John the Baptist. Herod has John imprisoned, an event that incurs the wrath of
the people, who consider him to be a prophet.The king’s punishment takes disturbing form. His
stepdaughter, the beautiful Salome, performs a sensual dance in seven parts for
him on the occasion of his birthday. As her reward, she requests that John’s
head be brought to her on a platter, and she makes simulated love to it. The
king is justifiably horrified by her necrophilia and orders that she be put to
death. Symbolically, the tale narrates a clash between an empowered, “modern”
woman and the male order she explicitly threatens.
The appalling subject matter is matched by Strauss’s 1903–1905
score, which was briefly banned from performance. Gustav Mahler sought to conduct
the premiere in 1905 in Vienna, but he was refused on account of the opera’s
sadomasochism. The premiere instead took place in 1905 in the much more liberal
city of Dresden. Strauss’s decadent self-indulgences include a huge orchestra
used for the representation of emotional extremes, passages in which two
different keys are juxtaposed, and dissonances that find no explanation in the
rule books. Within the first minute, the opening key of the opera, C-sharp
minor, is abandoned for C-sharp major and a series of baffling sounds that
represent Salome’s loveliness on the one hand, her morbid side on the other.
(She is likened to the pale moon as well as a ghost rising from a tomb.) A sickening
motif heard at the very beginning becomes associated with her, but cannot be
pinned down; rather, it shape-shifts—fickle and capricious, like the woman the
Jeremy Geffen introduces Salome, composed by Strauss as "essentially a tone poem with voices."
Nina Stemme, soprano, performs the title role in an excerpt from the final scene of Strauss's opera Salome.
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra | Antonio Pappano, Conductor | Nina Stemme, Soprano | EMI Classics
See Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra with soloists including Nina Stemme and Eric Owens in a concert performance of Salome at Carnegie Hall on May 24.
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