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Richard Strauss' Salome

Largely considered the premiere of Modernism, Richard Strauss’s Salome opened to great praise and high regards within the music world of the early 20th century. This was a time marked by great shifts in ideologies and nationalisms across the European continent. Music had been a tool by which the great composers of periods previous and current to 1905 (the year that Salome drew back the curtains for the first time) had tamed the power of emotions and channeled them into beautiful works of art. It bears great relevance to question the powerful effects an opera could have on an audience, who, for lack of our present recording technologies, were required the attend performances if they wished to experience the music of their time. Salome had set itself apart from other shows in that it breached the conventional techniques that were used in constructing operatic performances.

To begin with, Salome’s libretto was not conceptualized for the stage, but rather directly transferred from the page. When Strauss read Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Oscar Wilde’s controversial play he made the miraculous decision to set the words to a score without a verse adaptation. This was quite a formal departure from the operatic production of the time, wherein it was customary to try to create a cohesion between movements of music and actors by doing such a thing. Furthermore, by simply accepting the original play as a word for word libretto Strauss had, in essence, deliberately retained the more gritty and sexualized tones of Wilde’s work. This truly was, for the time, an interesting method of production.

For Alex Ross to hone in on Salome as the birth of the Modern era in music is a bold statement, albeit a generally accurate one. From the standpoint of both Gustav Mahler’s support of 19th-century Romanticism and Arnold Schoenberg’s revolutionary atonal techniques there may be a general ambiguity as to the general theme of music during the period in which Salome came to the fore. The ideologies of composers such as Mahler and Schoenberg demonstrate a common opposition that existed in the musical world at the time. In an atmosphere such as this there was a routine polarization of perceptions as to what the function of music was. The early 20th-century was a time of great movement in society and the arts, which were both beginning to warm up to new ideas and proprieties regarding the mainstream production of art. If anything can be said for Strauss’s highly engaging opera, it is that it challenged audiences to think in new ways about music and opera as a whole.Yet, more to the point: it was a grand success.

Not since the time of Wagner had such musical innovation been presented to the public ear. The people were comfortable with musical conventions to a point of unrest; characterized by the interest in new forms and techniques that rattled musical foundations. Schoenberg’s atonal compositions challenged popular ideas about harmony and chromatic scales to the point that it garnered more than a few detractors and prominent ones at that. Schoenberg consistently stands out as one of the most prominent figures of this time, if only for his radically new ideas that had rippled through the music community. Salome, far from traditional inspiration, had departed from resolute happiness and harmony as narrative themes. The play itself conveyed mostly only suffering and unjust desire that could only be justified by Strauss’s compositional techniques. Salome’s leitmotif – beginning in a C-sharp major which anxiously builds up to an unsettled G major, that eventually ends in C-sharp minor – exhibits a deterioration of the tonal system. The score is hectic and likely achieves such a quality due to the tonal dissonances. Strauss’s musical flourishes do not seem to arise from natural sources. The grandiosity of Salome’s orchestra and instrumentation swings through tone and mood at an unprecedented rate that could likely only reflect the dualling leitmotifs of its conflicted and morally fraught characters.

As a composer of the late Romantic and the early modern era, Strauss’s Wangerian influences can be noted with ease. He and Mahler both saw the medium of music as an art that dealt with polarities and extremes. In the creation of music they believed that one could express the full array of human conditions and at that the entirety of the human condition. Needless to say, they made the music of their time a very powerful art form. They did so mostly by building off of the traditions set before them by noteworthy composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner; two figures of undeniable talent.

Strauss’s tone poems are works that truly exhibited his early flare for orchestral audacity and its largesse for an audience. Also spake Zarathustra, is by far his most recognizable work (which is most likely due to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which uses only its introduction) and it expresses the grand scale of creation and existence on the philosophical terms of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work of the same name. Salome can be considered a synthesis of Strauss’s philosophical wanderings and inspirations insomuch as it does not portray resolutions and moralities. Strauss’s musical maturity came at a generally fast-paced time, in which scales of nationalism, commerce, production, and consumption were all growing at rates that had never before been seen.

In the time preceding of Salome, musical themes did not usually permit ideas of necrophilia and overt sexuality. It was banned in theatres in countries such as England and even Vienna at first. Yet, following its subsequent praises Salome, and Strauss’s work on it, began to permit wider themes and ideas pertaining to the opera and the audiences began to adapt.

As it fits into Strauss’s ouevre now, it stand out as one of his most prominent works and is of importance to Modern era music as a whole. The libretto, which served only to par down the original script of the play, exposed the basic dramatic structure and emphasize it by way of auditory barrage and advanced leitmotifs. The works polyphonic and polytonal aspects are what cemented it in the cultural consciousness for decades to come. By these regards alone, the opera presented itself as something entirely different from the work that had come before it. It did not rely on the conventions set before it and sought mostly to break through by way of musical innovation and complexity.

Music | Classical


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