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Richard Strauss, Salome, and his historical legacy

By Sigurd Neubauer


In the second part of our wide-ranging interview with Professor Raymond Holden AM, we discuss Richard Strauss’ historical legacy as the last preeminent composer-conductor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the first part, we discuss Strauss, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Der Rosenkavalier.

A leading authority on performance practice and performance history, Holden is the author of the award-winning Richard Strauss: A Musical Life and of The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan for Yale University Press, amongst other books.

The professor is also a conductor, broadcaster and public speaker who has been affiliated with the Royal Academy of Music since 2005. Born in Australia, Holden was appointed Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honors List.

Professor Raymond Holden is a celebrated scholar, conductor, and public intellectual 

We begin by discussing Strauss’ third opera, Salome, which received its premiere on 9 December 1905 at Dresden’s Königliches Opernhaus under the Austrian-born conductor Ernst von Schuch (1846–1914) while Strauss was Hofkapellmeister at the Berlin Hofoper. 

It was an instant sensation that both scandalized and enthralled the audiences of the day. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), the one-act opera is a retelling of the Biblical story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom mixed with highly charged eroticism.

 “With its premiere, and that of his previous opera, Feuersnot, in 1901, which was also given first by Schuch, Strauss disturbed the aesthetic and moral status quo. Previously, Wagnerians had considered love to be the key to redemption, but Strauss turned this on its head by imbuing sex with redemptive qualities, and by challenging existing socio-sexual norms,” Holden explains. 

“When he composed Salome, Strauss took Wilde’s play, tightened its narrative and used post-Wagnerian orchestral techniques to drive his dramatic point home. In it, Strauss explores new sounds that were both shocking and impactful. The first Salome, Marie Wittich (1868–1931), was particularly distressed by the score and famously said to Strauss ‘I won’t do it, I’m a decent woman,’” Holden adds. 

Wagnerians had considered love to be the key to redemption, but Strauss turned this on its head by imbuing sex with redemptive qualities

“While Strauss was an atheist, his father, Franz (1822–1905), was a staunchly conservative Roman Catholic and a member of the alt-katholische Kirche, a breakaway movement of the established Church that didn’t recognize the Pope’s claim to infallibility.

And it is quite possible that Richard’s atheism began to take root while he was still a student at Munich’s Ludwigsgymnasium, where he received a humanistic education. Consequently, when he was later asked to write a Mass, he declined”, the professor explains.

Richard Strauss has influenced generations of conductors, including Holden. Photo credit: Raymond Holden

Holden went on to say that, “While Salome had its premiere at Dresden, it also scandalized the court in Berlin, where the reactionary Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941) had grave doubts about its moral probity.

And even though the Kaiser never actually heard the opera, it didn’t stop him from saying, ‘I like [Strauss] but this work will do him a great deal of harm.’

Wilhelm wanted his Hofkapellmeister to write military marches and was baffled as to why the composer had never penned any. And after being tackled by the monarch over this, Strauss courteously tried to change the subject by saying that he wasn’t au fait with the style.

This did little to deflect the annoying Wilhelm, resulting in Strauss being virtually frogmarched to the palace courtyard the day after their conversation, where he was confronted by two military bands that had been ordered to parade up and down for three hours and to play a selection of marches for the composer.

To put an end to the Kaiser’s carping, Strauss sat down and completed his two military marches Op. 57. These were then given at a small palace concert on 6 March 1907.”

Portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II by Bruno Heinrich Strassberger, 1909  

While the marches are not particularly well-known today, Salome continues to be one of Strauss’ most popular works. Introduced against the backdrop of what Holden describes as a “reactionary period in Germany’s political history, and one that later significantly affected the day-to-day life of the average Teuton, the opera sparked a scandal that made it the must-hear work of the period.

Not only was it Strauss’ first truly great operatic success, but it also helped to transform him into one of the world’s wealthiest composers. The considerable earnings that he amassed from Salome did much to support him financially and to facilitate the building of his villa at Garmisch in 1908, which remains to this day in the possession of the Strauss family.” And as Holden was keen to emphasize, “It has to be remembered that Strauss was also a strong advocate for increasing what composers earned from their performing rights and was very vocal in advancing those rights for not only his works, but also for those of his less-celebrated colleagues.Thus, he, too, was ultimately able to benefit both musically and financially from these increased sums.”

Holden also pointed out that in Great Britain “King Edward VII (1841–1910) was desperate to hear at least some of Salome for himself and to see what all the fuss was about. This prompted him to arrange a private performance of extracts from the score to be given by the legendary pianist, Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982), and by the American mezzo-soprano, Olive Fremstad (1871–1951).

Salome by Franz von Stuck, 1906

After blowing smoke into Fremstad’s face while she was singing the extremely taxing final scene, Edward remarked in a somewhat deflated tone, ‘I didn’t notice anything shocking in what I heard, and I can’t understand why our censors objected to it.’ But the work was objected to, and it went on to scandalize New York’s conservative audiences at the Metropolitan Opera.

After being first performed there in 1907, with Fremstad in the title role, it was not given at the theater again until 1934.” “The situation was not much better in Austria,” Holden continues “and although Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) as Director of the Vienna Hofoper was extremely keen to stage Salome, it fell afoul of the local censor, Cardinal Friedrich Gustav Piffl (1864–1932), who outlawed it.

The Austrian premier

So, the first Austrian performance of the work took place at the Graz Stadt-Theatre in 1906 with Strauss conducting, and where the audience not only included Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma (1879–1964), but also Alban Berg (1885–1935), Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951), Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871–1942) and the young Adolf Hitler (1889–1945).

And it should never be forgotten that Strauss’s next opera, Elektra, also caused something of a stir when it was first heard on 25 January 1909, where it, too, received its premiere at the Königliches Opernhaus in Dresden under Schuch.

This was the first of many important collaborations that took place between the composer and the great Austrian poet and playwright, Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), and yet another turning point in the history of opera.” But, as the professor was also quick to point out, “While it is in some ways understandable that people make the mistake of thinking that Elektra was Strauss’ last truly challenging work, he, in fact, continued to stretch theatrical boundaries with every new opera that he composed.”

The composer's villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen remains in the Strauss family to this day
Strauss was able to capture the public's imagination through his avant-garde music

Along with Mahler and Felix Weingartner (1863–1942), Strauss was considered to be one of the greatest composer-conductors of the age.

But, as Holden makes clear, “It was with the first performance of Don Juan in 1889 that Strauss was seen as music’s next bright new thing and a future standard bearer for the avant-garde. The work was also the starting point on a musical journey that resulted in him being considered the leading orchestrator of his day, thanks to works like Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), Ein Heldenleben (1898) and Eine Alpensinfonie(1914).”

“Strauss, alone, captured the imagination of the contemporary public in a way that Mahler and Weingartner never did as composers,” the professor adds. “And this was also true when it came to the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt, a musical idol of Strauss, and a composer whom he championed tirelessly,” Holden opines.

Take, for example, the programming of London’s Philharmonic, later Royal Philharmonic, Society between 1897 and 1942. During those years that august organization scheduled only nine performances of Liszt’s symphonic poems, while Strauss’ tone poems were heard on twenty-nine occasions.”

Holden received the Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research for his landmark biography of Strauss 

Holden also mentioned that “Over the years, a number of research centers dedicated to the study of Strauss’ music have come and gone.” But he went on to argue that the current Richard-Strauss-Institute in Garmisch-Partenkirchen is by far “the most significant.”

 “This important organization holds many artifacts, scores, books and recordings that pertain to the composer, while his personal archive remains housed in his villa on the other side of town.” And it was at that villa that Holden undertook much of his initial research for his award-winning biography of Strauss, and where he met the composer’s two grandsons Richard and Christian Strauss, born in 1927 and 1932 respectively.

Thanks to the Strauss brothers, and to Richard’s second wife Gabriele Strauss-Hotter, the daughter of the great German bass-baritone Hans Hotter – “four of the most generous people [he has] ever met” – Holden was given unprecedented access to much performance material that had lain unexamined since the composer’s death in 1949. 

But what made this experience particularly special were “the invaluable insights into Strauss the man that the brothers shared with me. They were young men when he died, and their memories were not only very vivid, but also of great historical value.” “And, of course, the villa welcomed a string of famous artists during the composer’s lifetime, including the conductors Karl Böhm (1894–1981), who led several significant world premieres of Strauss’s works at Dresden and elsewhere, and the young Sir Georg Solti (1912–1997).

When Solti went to see Strauss at the villa in 1949, he was surprised to be greeted at the front door by the great man himself, rather than by one of the aging composer’s domestic staff. And when Solti asked Strauss about the tempi for Der Rosenkavalier, the composer said simply, ‘Speak Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s words, they are the key to the correct tempo.’”

The German resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen remains popular as a year-around sporting destination
For his research, Holden was granted unprecedented access by the Strauss family
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