It is almost a commonplace idea that the most significant and influential works of the 20th century are by Stravinsky (Le Sacre du Printemps) or Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire, or possibly Erwartung). Some might even nominate Debussy (Pelleas et Melsande, or even the piano preludes). Some deliberately eccentric commentators may throw works by Ives or Varese into the ring. Some commentators might nominate the two operas by Alban Berg. Wozzeck and Lulu are merely the greatest works of the century, not the most influential. They defy imitation. A formidable personality like Richard Taruskin might lean toward Shostakovich. I think this latter is problematical in many, many ways.
I nominate Strauss’s Salome. Take a look at chronology…Salome came out in 1905, a half dozen or so years before Pierrot and Le Sacre, and half a generation before Wozzeck and Varese and a few years before Erwartung, which is immeasurably indebted to it. Pelleas came out in 1902, I know. But was it really that influential outside of France?
What is so special about this work that gives a key to its importance to the 20th century specifically?
1. The 20th century is the age of Freud. Of dreams, neuroses, sexuality. No work better epitomises these things than Salome, except perhaps Strauss’s own Elektra (1909), which is not only inconceivable without Salome; in fact, you could even argue that it is a continuation of Salome. I think the music is better, but that’s just one factor.
2. The 20th century is the age of the orchestra. Take a look at the score. Rarely equalled (Elektra, Gurrelieder) never surpassed. Its totally relevant complexity, masterful insight into the instruments, surpassing delicacy and astounding violence remains a model to this day.
3. The 20th century is the age of brevity. (forget Messiaen and Stockhausen, those guys are so mired in the 19th century it isn’t even funny. Vingt Regards is Alkan redux. (I love it though, I assure you. The way I love Liszt!) Licht is pure Richard Wagner. Now take a look at Salome. Strauss gets you out of there in a hour and a half. Rossini and Wagner get you out in 4 hours. Handel, well, he never lets you out.
4. The 20th century is the age of the anti-hero. This seems so obvious, I’m reluctant to say more.
Envoi: I suggest that Strauss’s retreat, his retreat into pompous barons, melancholy countesses, Greek mythic figures, commedia dell’arte, bittersweet poetry shows an awareness of what the century was, in essence, and he fully understood his primary musical function (up to 1911) in defining it.