Beneath the Seventh Veil: Richard Strauss's Salome and Kaiser Wilhelm II

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This article is based in pan on archival research conducted whilst a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the University of Munich. The present writer is also indebted to Isabel Oosthuizen for her assistance in procuring numerous sources consulted.

THE WORLD PREMIERE OF Salome in Dresden ioo years ago, on 9 December 1905, was a triumph. Richard Strauss's reputation had hitherto rested on his symphonic poems and songs, but Salome now confirmed him as both a leading music dramatist and the foremost modernist in music. Within two years it had received 50 different productions, and its success at the box office has never waned since. The effects of Salome are well documented, both for Strauss himself (wealth, a villa, eventual freedom from the conductor's daily round) and for music history in general (the birth of musical Expressionism, a major stepping stone on the path towards atonality, and so forth). But Strauss's reasons for choosing Wilde's play as an opera topic in the first place have thus far been sought primarily in thefinde-siede shock appeal of the play itself, and in the emergence of sexuality as an accepted, if controversial, subject of modern drama. Events in the composer's biography have rarely been investigated with a view to examining Salome's genesis, presumably because its subject matter seems so far removed from what could possibly have been the composer's own experience. It is precisely in the realm of the biographical, however, that we can find new insights.

In mid-1898, after more than a decade spent as a conductor in Meiningen, Weimar and Munich, Strauss signed a ten-year contract as first capellmeister at the Berlin Court Opera (today the Staatsoper unter den Linden). He began work there in the following November. He had been offered an improved post in Munich, but he regarded his position there as untenable on account of the antipathy felt towards him by his music intendant, Karl Perfall. A further reason to move was money: instead of the 7,000 marks he was at present getting in Munich, Berlin was offering 18,000 plus a reasonable pension. Strauss was furthermore to have four weeks of winter holiday, and eight weeks in the summer.1 A more or less simultaneous offer from America, although financially even more attractive, was turned down because Strauss wished to cement his reputation in Europe before considering a change of continent, and because of the job security that Berlin offered.2 Although it was not yet a cultural centre to rival Vienna or Paris, Berlin was the capital city of Europe's fastest growing economic power, and the centre of the vast network that was the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Opera was funded directly by the Kaiser's purse; at the turn of the century, some 17 per cent of the Prussian Crown Endowment was used specifically for the royal theatres in Berlin, Hanover, Cassel and Wiesbaden, with the opulence of productions in Berlin a matter of comment in the press.3

Strauss and Pauline made their home on the Knesebeckstrasse, which lies at right angles to the Kurfurstendamm in Charlottenburg. They were some four kilometres from the Court Opera, but as Strauss told his parents, it was easily reached with the Stadtbahn.4 Strauss was not the only musician to choose the leafy suburb of Charlottenburg as his home. Their neighbours included Ferruccio Busoni, who at the time lived on the Tauentzienstrasse, then later on the nearby Augsburgerstrasse (it seems, however, that they did not socialise). The latter street was also where Arnold Schoenberg lived for several months in 1902-03; and in 1902, the composer and conductor Ernst Niklaus von Reznicek moved into an apartment just a couple of doors away from Strauss, on the Knesebeckstrasse itself. Pauline apparently took pleasure in visiting the Rezniceks, for he was a baron, his wife a baroness, and thus - regardless of their recurring financial problems - of a social standing that was particularly appealing. …