Manual The Rest Is Noise Series: City of Nets: Berlin in the Twenties

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At the climax, the head of John the Baptist lies before Salome on a platter. Having disturbed us with unheard-of dissonances, Strauss now disturbs us with plain chords of necrophiliac bliss. The mystery of love, Salome sings, is greater than the mystery of death. Herod is horrified by the spectacle that his own incestuous lust has engendered.

Hide the moon, hide the stars! Something terrible is going to happen! He turns his back and walks up the staircase of the palace. The moon, obeying his command, goes behind the clouds. Above it, the flutes and clarinets launch into an obsessively elongated trill.


At the moment of the kiss, two ordinary chords are mashed together, creating a momentary eight-note dissonance. The moon comes out again. Herod, at the top of the stairs, turns around, and screams, Kill that woman! The orchestra attempts to restore order with an ending in C minor, but succeeds only in adding to the tumult: the horns play fast figures that blur into a howl, the timpani pound away at a four-note chromatic pattern, the woodwinds shriek on high.

In effect, the opera ends with eight bars of noise. The crowd roared its approval—that was the most shocking thing. Nothing more satanic and artistic has been seen on the German opera stage, Decsey wrote admiringly. Strauss held court that night at the Hotel Elefant, in a never-to-be-repeated gathering that included Mahler, Puccini, and Schoenberg. | The Rest Is Noise (ebook), Alex Ross | | Boeken

Salome went on to be performed in some twenty-five different cities. Strauss would relate this story and add with a flourish: Thanks to that damage I was able to build my villa in Garmisch! He considered Salome a significant and audacious piece— one of the greatest masterworks of our time, he later said—and could not understand why the public took an immediate liking to it.

Genius and popularity were, he apparently thought, incompatible. Traveling in the same carriage was the Styrian poet and novelist Peter Rosegger. According to Alma, when Mahler voiced his reservations, Rosegger replied that the voice of the people is the voice of God— Vox populi, vox Dei. Mahler asked whether he meant the voice of the people at the present moment or the voice of the people over time. Nobody seemed to know the answer to that question. One group, including Alban Berg, met at a restaurant to discuss what they had heard. The happy-go-lucky revolutionary, cocky and conciliatory.

Never were the avant-garde and the box office so well acquainted. Shocks and discords aplenty—then he good-naturedly takes it all back and assures the philistines that no harm was intended. But a hit, a definite hit. As for Adolf Hitler, it is not certain that he was actually there; he may merely have claimed to have attended, for whatever reason.

Arnold Schoenberg

But something about the opera evidently stuck in his memory. The Austrian premiere of Salome was just one event in a busy season, but, like a flash of lightning, it illuminated a musical world on the verge of traumatic change. Past and future were colliding; centuries were passing in the night. Mahler would die in , seeming to take the Romantic era with him. Schoenberg, in and , would unleash fearsome sounds that placed him forever at odds with the vox populi.

Hitler would seize power in and attempt the annihilation of a people. And Strauss would survive to a surreal old age. I have actually outlived myself, he said in At the time of his birth, Germany was not yet a single nation and Wagner had yet to finish the Ring of the Nibelung. The sleepy German city of Bayreuth is the one place on earth where the nineteenth century springs eternal. Here, in , Wagner presided over the opening of his opera house and the first complete performance of the four-part Ring cycle.

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Front-page reports ran for three straight days in the New York Times. Tchaikovsky, not a Wagner fan, was captivated by the sight of the diminutive, almost dwarfish composer riding in a carriage directly behind the German Kaiser, not the servant but the equal of the rulers of the world.

Behind the Wall

For a few weeks in July and August, Wagner remains the center of the universe. Until the advent of movies, there was no more astounding public entertainment than the Wagner operas. Tristan , Die Meistersinger , and the Ring were works of mind-altering breadth and depth, towering over every artistic endeavor of their time. Notwithstanding the archaic paraphernalia of rings, swords, and sorcery, the Ring presented an imaginative world as psychologically particular as any in the novels of Leo Tolstoy or Henry James.

The story of the Ring was, in the end, one of hubris and comeuppance: Wotan, the chief of the gods, loses control of his realm and sinks into the feeling of powerlessness. He resembles the head of a great bourgeois family whose livelihood is destroyed by the modernizing forces that he himself has set in motion. The music itself is a portal to the beyond. It crystallizes out of the air in weightless forms, transforms into rocklike masses, and dissolves again. Here time becomes space, the wise knight Gurnemanz intones, showing Parsifal the way to the Grail temple, as a four-note bell figure rings hypnotically through the orchestra.

By , twenty-three years after his death, Wagner had become a cultural colossus, his influence felt not only in music but in literature, theater, and painting. Sophisticated youths memorized his librettos as American college students of a later age would recite Bob Dylan. Elgar somehow converted the Wagnerian apparatus—the reverberating leitmotifs, the viscous chromatic harmony, the velvety orchestration—into an iconic representation of the British Empire at its height.

Cultural Alchemy Special Berlin Sin City of the 1920's (Pre WW2)

As a result, he won a degree of international renown that had eluded English composers for centuries; after a German performance of his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius in , Richard Strauss saluted Elgar as the first English progressivist. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, in Russia, rummaged through Wagner for useful material and left the rest behind; in The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh , the tale of a magical city that disappears from view when it comes under attack, Parsifal -like bells ring out in endless patterns, intertwined with a tricky new harmonic language that would catch the ear of the young Stravinsky.

Puccini came up with an especially crafty solution to the Wagner problem.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

The influence is subterranean: you sense it in the way melodies emerge from the orchestral texture, the way motifs evolve organically from scene to scene. The most eloquent critic of Wagnerian self-aggrandizement was a self-aggrandizing German—Friedrich Nietzsche. Fanatically Wagnerian in his youth, the author of Thus Spake Zarathustra experienced a negative epiphany upon delving into the aesthetic and theological thickets of Parsifal. Throughout his later writings, most forcefully in the essay The Case of Wagner , Nietzsche declared that music must be liberated from Teutonic heaviness and brought back to popular roots.

By , when Nietzsche wrote The Case of Wagner , the project of mediterraneanization was well under way. And Claude Debussy was groping toward a new musical language in settings of Verlaine and Baudelaire. Wagner himself wished to escape the gigantism that his own work came to represent. I have felt the pulse of modern art and know that it will die! This populist ambition was inherent in the very technology of the music, in the vastness of the orchestra and the power of the voices.

As Mahler later explained: If we want thousands to hear us in the huge auditoriums of our concert halls and opera houses, he wrote, we simply have to make a lot of noise. The elder Strauss thus participated in the inaugural performances of Tristan , Die Meistersinger , Parsifal , and the first two parts of the Ring. Yet even as he criticized Wagner, the teenage composer was identifying harmonic tricks that would soon become his own. Franz Strauss was bitter, irascible, abusive.

His wife, Josephine, meek and nervous, eventually went insane and had to be institutionalized. Their son was, like many survivors of troubled families, determined to maintain a cool, composed facade, behind which weird fires burned. In , at the age of twenty-four, he composed his breakthrough work, the tone poem Don Juan , which revealed much about him. The music expresses his outlaw spirit in bounding rhythms and abrupt transitions; simple tunes skate above strident dissonances.

Berlin in the Twenties

Beneath the athletic display is a whiff of nihilism. Around , Ritter had drawn young Strauss into the New German school, which, in the spirit of Liszt and Wagner, abandoned the clearly demarcated structures of Viennese tradition—first theme, second theme, exposition, development, and so on—in favor of a freewheeling, moment-to-moment, poetically inflamed narrative. In , Strauss finished his first opera, Guntram.

He wrote the libretto himself, as any proper young Wagnerian was expected to do. The scenario resembled that of Die Meistersinger : a medieval troubadour rebels against a brotherhood of singers whose rules are too strict for his wayward spirit. At the end, as Strauss originally conceived it, Guntram realizes that he has betrayed the spirit of his order, even though his act was justifiable, and therefore makes a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the middle of the writing process, however, Strauss invented a different denouement. Instead of submitting to the judgment of the order, Guntram would now walk away from it, walk away from his beloved, walk away from the Christian God.

Strauss did not repent. Seeking an alternative to Wagnerism, Strauss read the early-nineteenth-century anarchist thinker Max Stirner, whose book The Ego and Its Own argued that all forms of organized religion, as well as all organized societies, imprison individuals within illusions of morality, duty, and law. For Strauss, anarchist individualism was a way of removing himself from the stylistic squabbles of the time.