Alex Ross, at the start of his acclaimed survey of twentieth-century music, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the twentieth century, describes in vivid detail the luminaries gathered for one of the first performances of Richard Strauss’s Salome in Graz on 16 May 1906, five months after the Dresden première. At this performance, conducted by Strauss, prominent musical figures present included Gustav Mahler (with his wife Alma), Giocomo Puccini, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander von Zemlinsky (who would use two of Oscar Wilde’s works as the basis for his own operas), and Alban Berg, composers who would change the course of music and opera in the new century. There is speculation that a seventeen-year-old aspiring artist named Adolf Hitler might have been in this audience as well.
This startling collection of musicians, assembled in what is a small provincial Austrian city, conveys the importance of Strauss in the cultural firmament of the time and suggests the excitement his new opera had already generated. Despite some resistance, particularly from censors as well as critics, the opera has become one of Strauss’s most performed works – with great satisfaction, he observed that it paid for his villa at Garmisch – and it still continues to excite controversy. The cultural flux out of which the opera emerged is fascinating, and it can be considered not only a musical but also a broader cultural watershed, reflecting and crystallising artistic currents of the late nineteenth century but also pointing the way forward.