When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the Austrian city of Graz, several crowned heads of European music gathered to witness the event. The premiere of Salome had taken place in Dresden five months earlier, and word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale—an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.
Giacomo Puccini, the creator of La Bohème and Tosca, made a trip north to hear what “terribly cacophonous thing” his German rival had concocted. Gustav Mahler, the director of the Vienna Opera, attended with his wife, the beautiful and controversial Alma. The bold young composer Arnold Schoenberg arrived from Vienna with his brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky and no fewer than six of his pupils. One of them, Alban Berg, traveled with an older friend, who later recalled the “feverish impatience and boundless excitement” that all felt as the evening approached. The widow of Johann Strauss II, composer of On the Beautiful Blue Danube, represented old Vienna.
Ordinary music enthusiasts filled out the crowd—“young people from Vienna, with only the vocal score as hand luggage,” Richard Strauss noted. Among them may have been the seventeen-year-old Adolf Hitler, who had just seen Mahler conduct Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Vienna. Hitler later told Strauss’s son that he had borrowed money from relatives to make the trip. There was even a fictional character present—Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the tale of a composer in league with the devil.
The Graz papers brought news from Croatia, where a Serbo-Croat movement was gaining momentum, and from Russia, where the tsar was locked in conflict with the country’s first parliament. Both stories carried tremors of future chaos—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the Russian Revolution of 1917. For the moment, though, Europe maintained the facade of civilization. The British war minister, Richard Haldane, was quoted as saying that he loved German literature and enjoyed reciting passages from Goethe’s Faust.
Strauss and Mahler, the titans of Austro-German music, spent the afternoon in the hills above the city, as Alma Mahler recounted in her memoirs. A photographer captured the composers outside the opera house, apparently preparing to set out on their expedition—Strauss smiling in a boater hat, Mahler squinting in the sun. The company visited a waterfall and had lunch in an inn, where they sat at a plain wooden table. They must have made a strange pair: Strauss, tall and lanky, with a bulbous forehead, a weak chin, strong but sunken eyes; Mahler, a full head shorter, a muscular hawk of a man. As the sun began to go down, Mahler became nervous about the time and suggested that the party head back to the Hotel Elefant, where they were staying, to prepare for the perfor-mance. “They can’t start without me,” Strauss said. “Let ’em wait.” Mahler replied: “If you won’t go, then I will—and conduct in your place.”
Mahler was forty-six, Strauss forty-one. They were in most respects polar opposites. Mahler was a kaleidoscope of moods—childlike, heaven-storming, despotic, despairing. In Vienna, as he strode from his apartment near the Schwarzenbergplatz to the opera house on the Ringstrasse, cabdrivers would whisper to their passengers, “Der Mahler!” Strauss was earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical, a closed book to most observers. The soprano Gemma Bellincioni, who sat next to him at a banquet after the performance in Graz, described him as “a pure kind of German, without poses, without long-winded speeches, little gossip and no inclination to talk about himself and his work, a gaze of steel, an indecipherable expression.” Strauss came from Munich, a backward place in the eyes of sophisticated Viennese such as Gustav and Alma. Alma underlined this impression in her memoir by rendering Strauss’s dialogue in an exaggerated Bavarian dialect.
Not surprisingly, the relationship between the two composers suffered from frequent misunderstandings. Mahler would recoil from unintended slights; Strauss would puzzle over the sudden silences that ensued. Strauss was still trying to understand his old colleague some four decades later, when he read Alma’s book and annotated it. “All untrue,” he wrote, next to the description of his behavior in Graz.
“Strauss and I tunnel from opposite sides of the mountain,” Mahler said. “One day we shall meet.” Both saw music as a medium of conflict, a battlefield of extremes. They reveled in the tremendous sounds that a hundred-piece orchestra could make, yet they also released energies of fragmentation and collapse. The heroic narratives of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Wagner’s music dramas, invariably ended with a blaze of transcendence, of spiritual overcoming. Mahler and Strauss told stories of more circuitous shape, often questioning the possibility of a truly happy outcome.
Each made a point of supporting the other’s music. In 1901, Strauss became president of the Allgemeiner deutscher Musikverein, or All-German Music Association, and his first major act was to program Mahler’s Third Symphony for the festival the following year. Mahler’s works appeared so often on the association’s programs in subsequent seasons that some critics took to calling the organization the Allgemeiner deutscher Mahlerverein. Others dubbed it the Annual German Carnival of Cacophony. Mahler, for his part, marveled at Salome. Strauss had played and sung the score for him the previous year, in a piano shop in Strasbourg, while passersby pressed against the windows trying to overhear. Salome promised to be one of the highlights of Mahler’s Vienna tenure, but the censors balked at accepting an opera in which biblical characters perform unspeakable acts. Furious, Mahler began hinting that his days in Vienna were numbered. He wrote to Strauss in March 1906: “You would not believe how vexatious this matter has been for me or (between ourselves) what consequences it may have for me.”
So Salome came to Graz, an elegant city of 150,000 people, capital of the agricultural province of Styria. The Stadt-Theater staged the opera at the suggestion of the critic Ernst Decsey, an associate of Mahler’s, who assured the management that it would create a succès de scandale.
“The city was in a state of great excitement,” Decsey wrote in his autobiography, Music Was His Life. “Parties formed and split. Pub philosophers buzzed about what was going on . . . Visitors from the provinces, critics, press people, reporters, and foreigners from Vienna . . . Three more-than-sold-out houses. Porters groaned, and hoteliers reached for the keys to their safes.” The critic fueled the anticipation with a high-flown preview article acclaiming Strauss’s “tone-color world,” his “polyrhythms and polyphony,” his “breakup of the narrow old tonality,” his “fetish ideal of an Omni-Tonality.”
As dusk fell, Mahler and Strauss finally appeared at the opera house, having rushed back to town in their chauffeur-driven car. The crowd milling around in the lobby had an air of nervous electricity. The orchestra played a fanfare when Strauss walked up to the podium, and the audience applauded stormily. Then silence descended, the clarinet played a softly slithering scale, and the curtain went up.
In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the princess of Judaea dances for her stepfather, Herod, and demands the head of John the Baptist as reward. She had surfaced several times in operatic history, usually with her more scandalous features suppressed. Strauss’s brazenly modern retelling takes off from Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salomé, in which the princess shamelessly eroticizes the body of John the Baptist and indulges in a touch of necrophilia at the end. When Strauss read Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde—in which the accent is dropped from Salomé’s name—he decided to set it to music word for word, instead of employing a verse adaptation. Next to the first line, “How beautiful is the princess Salome tonight,” he made a note to use the key of C-sharp minor. But this would turn out to be a different sort of C-sharp minor from Bach’s or Beethoven’s.
Strauss had a flair for beginnings. In 1896 he created what may be, after the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, the most famous opening flourish in music: the “mountain sunrise” from Thus Spake Zarathustra, deployed to great effect in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The passage draws its cosmic power from the natural laws of sound. If you pluck a string tuned to a low C, then pluck it again while pinching it in half, the tone rises to the next C above. This is the interval of the octave. Further subdivisions yield intervals of the fifth (C to G), the fourth (G to the next higher C), and the major third (C to E). These are the lower steps of the natural harmonic series, or overtone series, which shimmers like a rainbow from any vibrating string. The same intervals appear at the outset of Zarathustra, and they accumulate into a gleaming C-major chord.
Salome, written nine years after Zarathustra, begins very differently, in a state of volatility and flux. The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to C-sharp major, the second half to G major. This is an unsettling opening, for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as the tritone, one step narrower than the perfect fifth. (Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” opens with a tritone resolving to a fifth.) This interval has long caused uneasy vibrations in human ears; medieval scholars called it diabolus in musica, the musical devil.
In the Salome scale, not just two notes but two key-areas, two opposing harmonic spheres, are juxtaposed. From the start, we are plunged into an environment where bodies and ideas circulate freely, where opposites meet. There’s a hint of the glitter and swirl of city life: the debonairly gliding clarinet looks forward to the jazzy character who kicks off Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The scale might also suggest a meeting of irreconcilable belief systems; after all, Salome takes place at the intersection of Roman, Jewish, and Christian societies. Most acutely, this little run of notes takes us inside the mind of one who is exhibiting all the contradictions of her world.
The first part of Salome focuses on the confrontation between Salome and the prophet Jochanaan: she the symbol of unstable sexuality, he the symbol of ascetic rectitude. She tries to seduce him, he shrinks away and issues a curse, and the orchestra expresses its own fascinated disgust with an interlude in C-sharp minor—in Jochanaan’s stentorian manner, but in Salome’s key.
Then Herod comes onstage. The tetrarch is a picture of modern neurosis, a sensualist with a yearning for the moral life, his music awash in overlapping styles and shifting moods. He comes out on the terrace; looks for the princess; gazes at the moon, which is “reeling through the clouds like a drunken woman”; orders wine, slips in blood, stumbles over the body of a soldier who has committed suicide; feels cold, feels a wind—there is a hallucination of wings beating the air. It’s quiet again; then more wind, more visions. The orchestra plays fragments of waltzes, expressionistic clusters of dissonance, impressionistic washes of sound. There is a turbulent episode as five Jews in Herod’s court dispute the meaning of the Baptist’s prophecies; two Nazarenes respond with the Christian point of view.
When Herod persuades his stepdaughter to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils, she does so to the tune of an orchestral interlude that, on first hearing, sounds disappointingly vulgar in its thumping rhythms and pseudo-Oriental exotic color. Mahler, when he heard Salome, thought that his colleague had tossed away what should have been the highlight of the piece. But Strauss almost certainly knew what he was doing: this is the music that Herod likes, and it serves as a kitschy foil for the grisliness to come.
Salome now calls for the prophet’s head, and Herod, in a sudden religious panic, tries to get her to change her mind. She refuses. The executioner prepares to behead the Baptist in his cistern prison. At this point, the bottom drops out of the music. A toneless bass-drum rumble and strangulated cries in the double basses give way to a huge smear of tone in the full orchestra.
At the climax, the head of John the Baptist lies before Salome on a platter. Having disturbed us with unheard-of dissonances, Strauss now disturbs us with plain chords of necrophiliac bliss. For all the perversity of the material, this is still a love story, and the composer honors his heroine’s emotions. “The mystery of love,” Salome sings, “is greater than the mystery of death.” Herod is horrified by the spectacle that his own incestuous lust has engendered. “Hide the moon, hide the stars!” he rasps. “Something terrible is going to happen!” He turns his back and walks up the staircase of the palace. The moon, obeying his command, goes behind the clouds. An extraordinary sound emanates from the lower brass and winds: the opera’s introductory motif is telescoped—with one half-step alteration—into a single glowering chord. Above it, the flutes and clarinets launch into an obsessively elongated trill. Salome’s love themes rise up again. At the moment of the kiss, two ordinary chords are mashed together, creating a momentary eight-note dissonance.
The moon comes out again. Herod, at the top of the stairs, turns around, and screams, “Kill that woman!” The orchestra attempts to restore order with an ending in C minor, but succeeds only in adding to the tumult: the horns play fast figures that blur into a howl, the timpani pound away at a four-note chromatic pattern, the woodwinds shriek on high. In effect, the opera ends with eight bars of noise.
The crowd roared its approval—that was the most shocking thing. “Nothing more satanic and artistic has been seen on the German opera stage,” Decsey wrote admiringly. Strauss held court that night at the Hotel Elefant, in a never-to-be-repeated gathering that included Mahler, Puccini, and Schoenberg. When someone declared that he’d rather shoot himself than memorize the part of Salome, Strauss answered, “Me, too,” to general amusement. The next day, the composer wrote to his wife, Pauline, who had stayed home in Berlin: “It is raining, and I am sitting on the garden terrace of my hotel, in order to report to you that ‘Salome’ went well, gigantic success, people applauding for ten minutes until the fire curtain came down, etc., etc.”
Salome went on to be performed in some twenty-five different cities. The triumph was so complete that Strauss could afford to laugh off criticism from Kaiser Wilhelm II. “I am sorry that Strauss composed this Salome,” the Kaiser reportedly said. “Normally I’m very keen on him, but this is going to do him a lot of damage.” Strauss would relate this story and add with a flourish: “Thanks to that damage I was able to build my villa in Garmisch!”
On the train back to Vienna, Mahler expressed bewilderment over his colleague’s success. He considered Salome a significant and audacious piece—“one of the greatest masterworks of our time,” he later said—and could not understand why the public took an immediate liking to it. Genius and popularity were, he apparently thought, incompatible. Traveling in the same carriage was the Styrian poet and novelist Peter Rosegger. According to Alma, when Mahler voiced his reservations, Rosegger replied that the voice of the people is the voice of God—Vox populi, vox Dei. Mahler asked whether he meant the voice of the people at the present moment or the voice of the people over time. Nobody seemed to know the answer to that question.
The younger musicians from Vienna thrilled to the innovations in Strauss’s score, but were suspicious of his showmanship. One group, including Alban Berg, met at a restaurant to discuss what they had heard. They might well have used the words that Adrian Leverkühn applies to Strauss in Doctor Faustus: “What a gifted fellow! The happy-go-lucky revolutionary, cocky and conciliatory. Never were the avant-garde and the box office so well acquainted. Shocks and discords aplenty—then he good-naturedly takes it all back and assures the philistines that no harm was intended. But a hit, a definite hit.” As for Adolf Hitler, it is not certain that he was actually there; he may merely have claimed to have attended, for whatever reason. But something about the opera evidently stuck in his memory.
The Austrian premiere of Salome was just one event in a busy season, but, like a flash of lightning, it illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change. Past and future were colliding; centuries were passing in the night. Mahler would die in 1911, seeming to take the Romantic era with him. Puccini’s Turandot, unfinished at his death in 1924, would more or less end a glorious Italian operatic history that began in Florence at the end of the sixteenth century. Schoenberg, in 1908 and 1909, would unleash fearsome sounds that placed him forever at odds with the vox populi. Hitler would seize power in 1933 and attempt the annihilation of a people. And Strauss would survive to a surreal old age. “I have actually outlived myself,” he said in 1948. At the time of his birth, Germany was not yet a single nation and Wagner had yet to finish the Ring of the Nibelung. At the time of Strauss’s death, Germany had been divided into East and West, and American soldiers were whistling “Some Enchanted Evening” in the streets.
Excerpted from The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. Copyright © 2007 by Alex Ross. Published in October 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.