Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Strauss – Salome

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post, entitled “Sex Sells”, featured the French pop song Je t’aime… Moi non plus, written by Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) and performed by Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin (born 1946). By every possible musical standard, the song is complete drivel. But it didn’t climb to number one on most of the European charts for its musical content but rather, for the simulated orgasm Ms. Birkin “performs” as the song progresses to its wholly predictable “climax”.

The song’s success is a graphic example that sex does indeed sell. In the continuing spirit of “sex sells”, today we transit from the ridiculous to the sublime, from Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime… Moi non plus to Richard Strauss’ opera Salome.

Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976) as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier
Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976) as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier

A vivid description of Richard Strauss’ less than warm and fuzzy personality comes down to us from the German soprano Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976). Lehmann was one of the great Strauss sopranos of her generation and performed in the premieres of four of Strauss’ operas. (For our information, Lehmann emigrated permanently to the United States in 1938. She ended up in Santa Barbara, California where she helped found the Music Academy of the West. She has a star on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” at 1735 Hollywood Boulevard.)

Of Richard Strauss – whom she revered as a composer – Lehmann wrote:

“As a rule, he appeared utterly aloof and impersonal, so cold in his reaction to people that they would withdraw instantly and give up any misguided attempt at friendliness.”

Thank goodness we don’t have to date Strauss, just listen to his music. And extraordinary music it is, music – like Strauss’ own lifetime – that bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

He was born in Munich on June 11, 1864. His father, Franz Strauss (1822-1905), was for 40 years principal horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra, one of the great orchestras of its time and the band that played in the pit for the premieres of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Das Rheingold, and Die Walküre. Franz Strauss was so prickly, so opinionated, so irksome that he made Richard Wagner (1813-1883) look like Fred Rogers by comparison; no small feat. Franz Strauss hated “modern music”, but most of all, he hated the music of Richard Wagner, who he claimed had no idea of how to write for the horn. Franz Strauss was a holy terror, and his fights with the conductor Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) and Wagner himself remain legendary to this day. According to von Bülow (whose wife – Franz Liszt’s illegitimate daughter, Cosima – left him for Wagner!):

Richard Strauss circa 1895
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) circa 1895

“The fellow [Franz Strauss] is intolerable, but when he blows his horn you can’t be angry with him.”

Wagner seconded von Bülow’s opinion, stating that:

“Strauss is an unbearable, curmudgeonly fellow, but when he plays his horn one can say nothing, for it is so beautiful.”

(Richard Strauss told this story about a rehearsal of one of Wagner’s music dramas:

“Wagner once [walked] past the horn player [Franz Strauss], who was sitting in his place in moody silence, and said, ‘Always gloomy, these horn players,’ whereupon my father replied, ‘We have good reason to be.’”)

Franz Strauss gave his prodigiously talented son Richard the best classical musical education his money and contacts could buy. Papa Strauss’ dislike of Romantic era music was such that young Richard was forbidden to study, hear, or play music by any such “Music of the Future” riff-raff as Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and especially Richard Wagner.…

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