Magazine article Opera Canada

The Graz Salome: In His Highly Acclaimed Exploration of 20th-Century Music, to Be Issued in Paperback This Fall, the New Yorker Music Critic Alex Ross Sets out from Richard Strauss

Magazine article Opera Canada

The Graz Salome: In His Highly Acclaimed Exploration of 20th-Century Music, to Be Issued in Paperback This Fall, the New Yorker Music Critic Alex Ross Sets out from Richard Strauss

Article excerpt

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 boheme 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 17-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 Leverkuhn, 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.

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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 performance. "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 46, Strauss 41. 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 longwinded speeches, little gossip and no inclination to talk about himself and his work, a gaze of steel, an indecipherable expression. …

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