Exploring the visions of Bartok and Strauss

On Saturday 3 June, music by Richard Strauss and Béla Bartók bookends Myth and Ritual, the second concert in Orchestra Wellington’s 2023 Inner Visions season. This programme leads the audience into exotic territories through Salome’s infamous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ in Herod Antipas’s palace, Arjuna Oakes‘s new work Safe Way to Fall, and John Psathas’s Zahara (2006) — a saxophone concerto inspired by the journey of shipwrecked American sailors through the Sahara Desert in the early nineteenth century. Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin evokes another dangerous environment through its musical depiction of the traffic, noise, and viciousness of a big city.

In this blog, we introduce six books in the Wellington City Libraries collection that explore the pieces by Strauss and Bartók and offer a variety of personal and analytical perspectives on the inner vision that both composers realised in their music.

The subject matter of Bartók’s pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1926), with its dances and ‘seduction games’, and the unrestrained licentiousness and blasphemy in Strauss’s opera Salome (1905) caused both works to be censored in the early twentieth century. After its premiere in Dresden, Salome was initially proscribed in London, where its first performance (heavily cut) did not take place until 1913: despite Gustav Mahler’s best efforts, he could not persuade the censors in Vienna to permit a performance at the Hofoper; the New York premiere took place in 1907, but the piece was deemed ‘repugnant to Anglo-Saxon minds’ and not performed again at the Metropolitan Opera House until the 1930s. In 1909, however, the Scottish singer Mary Garden had performed the role, at the rival Manhattan Opera House in a French language production of Salome. A year earlier, in Paris, the astonished correspondent of the New York Times had witnessed Garden rehearse the  ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ wearing a body-stocking of ‘nearly transparent flesh-coloured silk’ with bare arms and feet beneath veils of ‘soft organdie’:

Nothing more thrilling than Miss Garden’s rendition of the dance has been seen recently on the lyric stage, and the bacchanalian finale is most wonderfully carried out. Miss Garden whirls and sways and stands on her toes until you are fascinated and wonder how she can do it; and finally she ends at the feet of Herod asking for the head of John the Baptist.

Nearly two decades later, The Miraculous Mandarin also caused a scandal at its 1926 premiere in Cologne. Although it had been part of Bartók’s vision for the piece to write provocative music (he had told his wife in 1918, when he embarked on the work, that he was creating ‘hellish music. The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium.’), the appalled reaction of the audience, clergy, and Cologne officialdom did surprise the composer.  The shock and controversy provoked by Salome and The Miraculous Mandarin demonstrate the inherent power of this music, and the fear that such power engendered in society’s moral guardians (self-appointed or otherwise).

Salome/Elektra / Strauss, Richard
This English National Opera guide to Strauss’s Salome and Elektra goes beyond the level of a general introduction to these two extraordinary operas. In addition to informative introductions to both works, which place them within a rich social and artistic context, the book also contains the complete libretto (in German) of Salome as well as a translation by Tom Hammond. The thematic guide to Salome offers an analysis of many of the opera’s musical ‘signposts’ which helps the listener to find greater coherence and meaning in Strauss’s extravagant score.

Richard Strauss : a musical life / Holden, Raymond
Although we may now think of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) primarily as a composer, conducting was central to his creative life. Strauss made his professional debut as a conductor in November 1884, directing a matinee performance by the Meiningen Court Orchestra in Munich, and the following year he became assistant to that Orchestra’s director, Hans von Bülow. In 1886 he joined the conducting staff of the Munich Court Opera, before moving to Weimar where he was Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and directed the Duke’s orchestra in performances of music by Liszt, alongside premieres of Strauss’s own music. Strauss’s reputation as a composer and conductor ascended in tandem in the final decade of the nineteenth century, and cemented his influence in the early twentieth century. Raymond Holding’s book explores how Strauss’s knowledge of working within and directing orchestras informed his composition, providing a fertile ground for expressing his inner visions.

Richard Strauss : man, musician, enigma / Kennedy, Michael
Richard Strauss’s long life spanned nearly four decades of the nineteenth century and more than four decades of the twentieth. Throughout the tumult of the First and Second World Wars, he lived, composed, and conducted, evolving from the Wagnerist enfant terrible whose tone poems tested the virtuosity of orchestral musicians, to the composer of hyper-modernist operas Elektra, and Salome, before his years as an ‘elder statesman’ of German music-making. This status would later become tarnished by the complexities of his cooperation with the Nazi regime and (short-lived) position as honorary president of the  Reichsmusikkammer.  After Strauss’s death in 1949, his confused legacy challenged biographers and analysts, who struggled to reconcile Strauss’s public and private personae with his ambivalent view of his own abilities (‘I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.’). Michael Kennedy’s Richard Strauss: man, musician, enigma provides an erudite, meticulously researched, and very readable examination of Strauss’s life and music.

Bela Bartok / Chalmers, Kenneth
This is an updated version of one of the earliest extensive studies of the music of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), drawing on the critical importance of his homeland for his musical aesthetics and desire to develop a uniquely ‘Hungarian’ musical style. In addition to detailed discussions of Bartók’s music, from his earliest to his last works, Chalmers also emphasizes how the rapidly changing social and political landscape of early-twentieth-century Central Europe shaped Bartók’s creative outlook, as Hungary entered a turbulent period following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. Chalmers’s treatment of Bartók’s departure from Hungary in 1940, and final years in the USA form a sensitive conclusion to the book, completing an insightful study of Bartók’s life and creative vision.

The stage works of Bela Bartok
Part of the English National Opera Opera Guides series, this book is more than an introduction to  Bartók’s stage music, as it includes comprehensive discussions of sources and libretti for Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, The Wooden Prince, and The Miraculous Mandarin by several expert authors. You can read a translation of  Menyhért Lengyel’s scenario for The Miraculous Mandarin, as well as a guide to the music’s thematic material. Succinct yet detailed, this book is an outstanding guide to Bartók’s music for the stage, providing analysis and context to three early-twentieth-century masterpieces.

Bartok remembered / Gillies, Malcolm
‘What was Bartók really like?’ This is the question that motivated Professor Malcolm Gillies to assemble Bartók Remembered, an edited collection of recollections about the composer, beginning with his mother’s account of Bartók’s early years, early illnesses, and early education. Every recollection offers a unique, personal impression of Bartók as a composer, pianist, scholar, and friend. Violinist Joseph Szigeti describes performing sonatas with Bartók, and regrets the composer’s reluctance to record more of his own music; Igor Stravinsky, in conversation with Robert Craft, speaks of Bartók’s sensitive ear, but is equivocal about Bartók’s gusto for, and devotion to, his native Hungarian folklore as a musical source. These are just two of the vivid, and often deeply moving, vignettes in Bartók Remembered.