Elektra: Summary of Tonal Structure

Hofmannsthal Elektra made a profound impression on Strauss when he saw it in the autumn of 1905. We recall from Chapter 2 how the impact of the work was strong enough to reverse his original desire not to compose another tragic opera directly after Salome. Strauss instinctively realized that the play-in both structure and dramaturgy -- contained all the necessary elements for a powerful opera. The broad symphonic implications inherent in Hofmannsthal's arch structure were readily apparent to the composer, and Strauss's tonal plan for the work responds directly to these implications. The terse introduction with the serving maids sets the atmosphere, while Elektra's opening establishes the expository material: she recalls her father's murder and foresees the ultimate atonement. Her inner rage is sharply developed in a revealing exchange with her mother, Klytämnestra, and, in a quasi-recapitulation, Elektra's premonitions are fulfilled.

But before we examine the composer's tonal plan for Elektra it is first essential to understand some important aspects of his tonal thinking, especially the associative role of keys in his music. Extra-musical associations with keys, whether in a tone poem or an opera, comprise a central element in Strauss's formal thinking when composing.1 In a sketch for Symphonia Domestica [Tr. 10, fol. 3], for example, he writes above the staff: 'The mother's worries: will the child represent the father (F major) or (B major) the mother?'

Adorno also observed this technique in Strauss, although he viewed it negatively, believing that it undermined any strong autonomous sense of form: 'Not infrequently what results is harmonizing and modulating which in terms of the form is planless and which can only be controlled extra-musically through tonal symbolism.' See Theodor Adorno, "Richard Strauss. Born June 11, 1864", trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber, Perspectives of New Music, 4 ( 1965), 30.


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Richard Strauss's Elektra


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