Part of the Rest Is Noise Audio Guide
Playbill from the Austrian premiere of "Salome" in Graz, 1906. Click on the image to enlarge it.
Note: The first page number is for the hardback edition, the second number is for the paperback.
Graz, 1906: an extraordinary array of personalities, including Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma, Giacomo Puccini, Arnold Schoenberg and six of his students, and, possibly, the seventeen-year-old Adolf Hitler, gather to hear Richard Strauss's opera Salome, which had its premiere the previous December. It is a lush, decadent, intermittently violent score, containing many premonitions of twentieth-century musical revolutions to follow. Right at the start, in a soft run of notes on the clarinet, you can see a kind of crack opening in the facade of the tonal system. The scale begins in the key of C-sharp-major, then unsettlingly detours into G major before ending up in C-sharp minor (see p. 7 of The Rest Is Noise):
Here is a piano demonstration of the two segments of the scale:
Here is the orchestral version:
Notice the little melody that is heard immediately after the scale. This will be one of the main leitmotifs for the character of Salome. Toward the end of the opera, the notes of that melody (with one slight change) are telescoped into a single ominous chord (see p. 8 / p. 9):
Again, a piano demonstration, with the orchestral chord following:
Salome goes on to sing to the severed head of John the Baptist: "Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jochanaan...."
Salome at its most hectic — a passage in which Herod discovers that his ring has been taken from his finger:
Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, with Karl-Walter Böhm as Herod; EMI 7243 5 67159 2.
Reginald Bain has written a thorough explanation of the natural harmonic or overtone series (pp. 6-7 / p. 7). Click on the right-hand site of his page to hear the series unfolding. With adjustments to accommodate modern tuning, notes of the harmonic series can be assembled to form a triad, the basic chord of tonal harmony. Beethoven, at the beginning of his "Eroica" symphony, builds two massive chords from the E-flat-major triad, then unfurls a melody that is triadic in shape:
Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra, BIS-SACD-1516.
The sunrise fanfare from Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra (p. 7) matches the lower intervals of the harmonic series — deep Cs to start, trumpets playing a higher C, a G, a yet higher C, and an E-natural that quickly slides down to E-flat, forming dark-hued C minor. In the next iteration, E-flat rises to E-natural, allowing for a brilliant C-major chord:
Rudolf Kempe conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden, EMI 73614 .
THE YOUNG STRAUSS
From the Library of Congress.
The enfant terrible of German music struts forth in Don Juan (p. 14 / p. 15):
Knife-edged playfulness in Till Eulenspiegel (p. 16 / p. 17):
Sonic mayhem in the battle scene of Ein Heldenleben (
And in the battle of the sheep in Don Quixote (p. 16 / p. 17):
All the above with Rudolf Kempe conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden, EMI 73614.
In Elektra, the successor to Salome (p. 17 / p. 19), Strauss ventures even further away from conventional tonality, particularly in the passages devoted to the frightful inner landscape of Klytemnestra. Here the guilty widow of the murdered Agamemnon feels something crawling over her body in her sleep:
Strauss's contemporaries were stunned by the turn he took in his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier. Modernist dissonance gave way to Mozartean strains and lavishly orchestrated reminiscences of waltz-time Vienna:
Walter Berry as Ochs, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, CBS 42564.
Some extra notes and links: Richard and Christian Strauss, Richard Strauss's grandsons, maintain an elegant site devoted to the composer. There's a video of Strauss playing his late masterpiece Daphne at the piano (click on "Videos," then "Composer and Conductor"). He died a few weeks after the film was made.
From the Library of Congress.
Mahler, like Strauss, emerged from Wagner's world. In his First Symphony (p. 20 / p. 21), he made use of a motif from Wagner's Parsifal, the four-note figure of bells ringing out from the Temple of the Grail:
Christian Thielemann conducting the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, DG 0006574.
At the beginning of the symphony, these falling intervals are heard in the minor mode, representing the mystical noise of nature:
At the end of the symphony, they ring out triumphantly in the major:
In the Third Symphony, boisterous, chaotic march passages are contrasted with evocations of the immovable majesty of nature (p. 20 / p. 22):
Jascha Horenstein conducting the London Symphony, Unicorn-Kanchana 2006/7 (out of print).
Eleven days after the Austrian premiere of Salome on May 16, 1906, Mahler's Sixth Symphony had its premiere in Essen. Here is the martial opening of the work (p. 21 / p. 23):
Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, DG 477 5573-2.
An especially turbulent passage from the fourth movement of the Sixth:
The International Gustav Mahler Society has pictures showing the village inn and brandy distillery where Mahler was born, together with other places associated with his career. The Gasthof Föttinger in Steinbach, on the Attersee, maintains the small hut where Mahler wrote much of his Second Symphony and drafted his Third. In the summer of 2005 I visited the hut and described it on this blog.
In the last part of the chapter the scene shifts to New York, where Mahler conducted from 1908 until shortly before his death in 1911. "Here the dollar does not reign supreme — it's merely easy to earn," Mahler wrote to Alfred Roller in January 1908, shortly after arriving in the city. Four years earlier Strauss had conducted his Symphonia domestica at Wanamaker's department store. His Salome caused a scandal at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907 and was withdrawn after one performance, although the "Dance of the Seven Veils" went on to become a phenomenon in variety theaters and burlesque houses, with or without Strauss's music. Irving Berlin honored the phenomenon of "Salomania" in his first songwriting success, "Sadie Salome Go Home!" Here it is sung by Edward Favor:
Giacomo Puccini first visited America in 1907, and set about writing an American-themed work for the Met. La fanciulla del West, or Girl of the Golden West, had its premiere in 1910, with Caruso and Emmy Destinn singing the leads and Toscanini conducting. Here is the ending of Act II, in which Minnie wins freedom for her outlaw lover, Dick Johnson, by beating the sheriff at poker. Chords of E-flat minor and A minor are juxtaposed across the interval of the tritone, somewhat in the manner of the opening of Salome (pp. 28-29 / p. 31):
Carol Neblett as Minnie, with Zubin Mehta conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House; DG 419 640-2.
Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony (p. 31 / pp. 33-34) contains a tremendous nine-note dissonant chord in the first movement, which may be related to the natural harmonic series, and, in a wider sense, to Mahler's feeling for natural landscapes. Here is the lower end of the natural harmonic series starting on C-sharp (played on the piano, and therefore not in tune with the true series):
And here is the chord in Mahler:
The relationship with the series is most apparent at the quiet close of the movement:
Note: when I titled the chapter "The Golden Age," I had in mind this quotation from W. B. Yeats, although I ended up not using it as an epigraph.