Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? A premiere that helped usher in the twentieth century in classical music: Strauss’s Salome…
When did the 20th century really begin in music? Wagner died in 1883, Verdi in 1901. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune dates from 1894. Schoenberg’s move into “atonality” is generally dated to around 1908, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered in 1913. Any of those events could stake a claim to have begun the complex, contradictory century with which we’re still struggling to get to grips today.
But Alex Ross begins his justly famous book The Rest is Noise, a chronicle of 20th-century music, by focusing on a work by Richard Strauss. Strauss’s opera Salome scandalized the musical world in 1905—and again in May 1906, when, as Ross vividly describes, the Austrian premiere in Graz drew together an astonishing array of musical luminaries, from Mahler to Schoenberg to Puccini. “Like a flash of lightning,” Ross writes, “it illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change. Past and future were colliding; centuries were passing in the night.”
In exchange for her dance, she requests the head of John the Baptist on a platter—and she gets it. The opera draws to its notorious conclusion after she has rapturously kissed the lips of his severed head.
With overtones of necrophilia and incest, it’s a shocking story even today. But Strauss’s music is, in its own way, just as extreme, with a title role of post-Wagnerian proportions and a harmonic language that is opulently, garishly chromatic, from the sultry clarinet solo that opens the opera to the extraordinary series of chords accompanying Salome’s ecstatic—and final—words:
“Will you really give me everything that I ask from you, Tetrarch?” asks Salome as she contemplates her stepfather’s request. “Anything, anything that you ask me for, even if it should be half of my kingdom!” comes the reply—yet Herod is later so disgusted by her that he has her killed. There’s hardly a moral to draw from this story, but it’s curiously apt to think of Salome as a founding text for 20th-century music. Through a century of scandals, from Strauss to Stravinsky to Steve Reich, classical music has shown the most morbid fascination with its own past, both venerating it and—in celebrated works like Salome—striking it dead.