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 and defied the norms of conventional composition. Rule-breaking of this sort was termed “decadent” by critics of the period. The most decadent of all was the Munich-based Richard Strauss, who experimented with numerous styles during his long career. His early works are saturated with irrational harmonic combinations and force the orchestra to produce bizarre sounds.
The opera Salome, completed in 1905, 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, inciting the wrath of the people, who consider him a prophet. The king’s stepdaughter, the beautiful Salome, performs a sensual dance in seven parts for the lascivious Herod on 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 the dissonance in Strauss’s 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 both Salome’s loveliness and her twisted sexuality. (She is likened to the pale moon as well as a ghost rising from a tomb.) A slithering 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.
In general, Salome is assigned the most decadent sounds in the opera, whereas the music associated with John the Baptist is almost wholesome by comparison: generally consonant, with regular repetitions. The very end of the opera has been called a “dissonant apotheosis,” involving a “sickening” clash of two chords separated by a semitone and a strange choking sound produced by plucked string basses. The show-stopper is Salome’s climactic dance of the seven veils, a kind of strip show that captures her hypnotic, dangerous allure.
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Richard Strauss’s career spanned almost a century, and his music passed through several style 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, for example, with proletarian donuts battling aristocratic croissants.