• Richard Strauss

    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 croissants.)

    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.

    Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), with its famous depiction of the rising sun, familiar from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is another. Once Strauss earned recognition as an opera composer, his interest in composing tone poems, like his interest in most other genres excluding songs, dwindled fast. He set an eclectic array of operatic texts, stretching the limits of musical syntax in such expressionistic works as Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909) before turning back to a bygone era, musically and dramatically, in Der Rosenkavalier (1911). From 1900 to his death, he wrote 14 operas.
  • Notes on the Piece

    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 music represents.

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    Jeremy Geffen introduces Salome, composed by Strauss as "essentially a tone poem with voices."

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    Nina Stemme, soprano, performs the title role in an excerpt from the final scene of Strauss's opera Salome.

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