CHAPTER 1: The Golden Age (opening)
When Richard Strauss conducted his opera Salome on May 16, 1906, in the provincial Austrian city of Graz, several leading figures in European music gathered to witness the event. The première of Salome had taken place five months before, in Dresden, and word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale—an ultra-dissonant Biblical spectacle, based on a play by an Irish 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 von Zemlinsky, and no fewer than six of his pupils. One of them, Alban Berg, traveled with an older friend, who, in a memoir, described 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 (and no relation to the composer of Salome), represented old Vienna. Ordinary music-enthusiasts filled out the crowd—“young people from Vienna, with only the vocal score as hand luggage,” 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, on May 8. Hitler later told Strauss’s son and daughter-in-law 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, a tale of a composer in league with the devil.
The Graz papers carried news from Croatia, where a Serbo-Croat movement was gathering force, and from Russia, where the Tsar was locked in conflict with the country’s first attempt at a democratic parliament. Both stories carried tremors of future chaos — the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the Russian Revolution of 1917. But, for the moment, Europe maintained the facade of civilization. The English Minister of War, Lord Haldane, was quoted as saying that he “knows Germany and loves Germany’s literature and philosophy,” and that he enjoyed reciting passages from Faust.
Strauss and Mahler, the titans of Austro-German music, spent the day in the hills above the city, as Alma recounted in her memoirs. A photographer captured them 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 old inn, where they sat at a plain wooden table. They must have made a strange pair: Strauss, tall and lanky, with a weak chin, a bulbous, balding forehead, 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 he suggested that the party should head back to the Hotel Elefant, where they were staying, in order 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.” Or so Alma claimed. She assumed that Strauss was hiding his anxiety behind a facade of nonchalance.
Mahler was forty-five, Strauss forty-one. They were in most respects polar opposites. Mahler was a kaleidoscope of moods—childlike, heaven-storming, despotic, despairing. As he strode from his apartment near the Schwarzenbergplatz to the opera house on the Ringstrasse, cab drivers 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 memoirs 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 would ensue. He was still trying to understand Mahler some four decades later, when he read Alma’s memoir 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 monumental sound that a hundred-piece, late-Romantic orchestra could make, yet they undermined its spectacular sonic heroics with moments of instability, impurity, implosion, collapse. The epic narratives of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Wagner’s music dramas, invariably ended in a blaze of transcendence, of spiritual overcoming. Mahler and Strauss put those narratives into question and sought out other kinds of stories. They recognized the common ground between them, and each worked to support the other’s music. Strauss’s first major act upon becoming President of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, or General German Music Association, in 1901, was to program Mahler’s Third Symphony for the festival the following year; indeed, Mahler’s works dominated the Association’s programs for several years running. So much Mahler was played under Strauss’s watch that some critics took to calling the ADMV the Allgemeiner Deutscher Mahlerverein. Others dubbed it the Annual German Carnival of Cacophony.
Mahler, for his part, was deeply impressed by his colleague’s music, and especially by Salome. Strauss had played and sung the score for him the previous year, in a piano shop in Strasbourg, and passersby pressed their faces against the windows in curiosity. 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 are made to 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 one hundred fifty thousand people, capital of the agricultural province of Styria. The State Theater staged the opera at the suggestion of the critic Ernst Decsey, an associate of Mahler, 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 himself 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 appeared at the opera house. They had 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 a deathly silence descended, the clarinet played a softly slithering scale, and the curtain went up.