Wagner’s new format would form the basis of virtually every opera of the Modernist era, including most if not all of Richard Strauss’ operas. The Wagnerian influences were most obvious in his first two Operas, the twistedly beautiful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome and the cacophonous retelling of Euripides, Elektra.
Salome in particular was a pioneering achievement. It was one of the very first Operas to make use of the new possibilities of Wagnerian Music-Drama model in order to set at entire existing non-musical play to music wholecloth. Oscar Wilde’s Salome was a good trial run for that approach from a structural perspective, as the play features a great number of extended monologues that rather resemble operatic arias to begin with, but its mix of outrageous shock value and genuine lyrical beauty would have taken a genius to capture successfully in music.
Well, in Richard Strauss, with his unique mix of Late Romantic glamour and Expressionist daring, that genius was found, and few if any operatic settings of a classic play since have captured their source’s ambience so perfectly. I will admit to having a special fondness for this particular Opera, as Wilde’s play is one of my personal all-time favorites among non-musical dramas, and Strauss captures exactly the right note of decaying, crazed beauty to match Wilde’s decadently lyrical monologues.
Elektra had marginally less shocking subject matter than Salome, with most of the focus being on violence rather than sex, but score-wise, it makes Salome sound like a Puccini opera by comparison. Apart from the incestuously erotic “Recognition Scene” for Elektra and her brother Orestes, there’s scarcely a single lyrical or conventionally pretty passage in the whole Opera. It is here that Strauss most clearly exaggerates the bombast of Wagnerian passages like Siegfried’s “Forging Scene” into what today sounds unmistakably like the orchestral equivalent of what we now refer to as Heavy Metal.
This may have been a bit too much for the Opera-going public. Salome may have kept getting banned by various authorities, but when it was allowed to play, it was nonetheless a smash hit. Granted, this probably stems partly from the salacious subject matter, but this is still an Opera that spoke to and entertained the general public, at least as long as the format itself stayed in the mainstream. But even today’s Opera-goers have a somewhat cooler attitude towards Elektra. As I stated above, this can’t really be because of the subject matter, because Salome‘s story details are far more shocking and potentially offensive than those of Elektra. It seems, then, that Elektra‘s more abrasive musical score has set some relative limits on its popularity, a phenomenon we’ll be seeing more of later in this chapter.
Strauss’ greatest contribution to the art of musical storytelling, however, was his work in an artistic form that was just then attaining real popularity, the Tone Poem. Its creation is usually credited to Franz Liszt, which is absurd. The true genesis of the genre is much older…both Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos and Beethoven’s sixth symphony, The Pastoral, are unmistakably Tone Poems. In addition to falsely claiming credit for the concept, Liszt was never really all that good at it…as much of a genius as he was as a virtuoso and composer for piano, Liszt was consistently out of his element whenever he tried to write symphonic music.
That said, his influence did inspire Richard Strauss to try the style, and that in itself deserves our gratitude. Strauss was the all-time king of the Tone Poem. His most famous efforts in that field are Also Spracht Zarathustra (which even those with little to no interest in Classical Music are likely very familiar with, due to its use in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Till Eugenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Zarathustra, despite now being inextricably associated with prehistoric man first comprehending the vastness of the universe, is actually about the religious revelations of the prophet Zoroaster, but you can certainly see how one would translate well to conveying the other.
Till Eugenspiegel, on the other hand, tells the story of a lovable trickster figure, starting out lighthearted but climaxing with an extremely dark ending in which the hero is finally executed for his crimes (which was probably a major source of inspiration for the creators of the hit Italian musical Rugantino, which has almost the same story). It was even adapted into a ballet by the great Vaslav Nijinsky.
The basic structure introduced by Wagner’s Music Dramas also formed the basis for most of the field of innovative works known collectively as ‘Modern Opera’. Many of these works would build heavily upon Wagner’s musical innovations, but nearly all of them were based fairly closely on the overall structure that Wagner pioneered, with many of them setting existing nonmusical plays to music almost word-for-word, something that would have been impossible in the earlier operatic model.
What we now know as ‘Modern Classical’ essentially started when a young Russian composer named Igor Stravinsky took this new Wagnerian musical paradigm to the next level, practically inventing the so-called ‘Modern Classical’ idiom in his three groundbreaking compositions for ballet. The first, The Firebird, features a fantasy narrative seemingly influenced by German Romantic Opera, and its music is relatively closer to the “normal” Classical sound of the Romantic era than the other two. The second, and the least popular comparatively speaking, is Petrushka, which rather resembles a harsher, grittier, and far less sentimental version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Brave Tin Soldier in its tragic narrative of a living carnival puppet.
The third, The Rite of Spring, was the keymost work, due to its taking this new musical idiom to its extreme. The first performance of it quite famously incited a full-on riot, and its subsequent reception in other countries was hardly less tempestuous. The music is so familiar by now that it sounds almost normal, but at the time it seemed almost indescribably shocking, and the outrageous narrative of Pagan decadence and human sacrifice that accompanied the music probably didn’t help.
Stravinsky would, in later years, move to America and become almost a musical conservative by the standards of his early years. He would ultimately become very much interested in a spare, almost severe, but still melodically and harmonically conventional “Neoclassical” style, and would write two important theatrical works in that style: Oedipus Rex, an Opera-Oratorio fusion piece based on the Greek Tragedy by Sophocles, and The Rake’s Progress, another variation on the Faust legend with a libretto by the great poet W.H. Auden.
The other great giant of the Neoclassical style was German composer Paul Hindemith. Hindemith’s early work, including the song cycle Das Marienlieben and a kind of proto-Sweeney Todd Opera about a murderous goldsmith called Cardillac, was very much in the “quack & growl” Modern Classical vein, leading his older colleague Richard Strauss to ask him, “Why do you have to write this way? You have talent!” Hindemith’s response to this was “You make your music and I’ll make mine,” which most people today like to treat as some kind of brilliant zinger. But Hindemith would change his style radically by the time he reached full artistic maturity, adopting a new idiom hearkening back to the days of Bach and Haydn…and unlike some other composers we’ll be discussing, he would do so entirely of his own free will.
Hindemith’s magnum opus was an epic Operatic drama about idealistic rebellion against tyranny called Mathis de Maler. The latter work was clearly intended as a response to the rise of the Nazi regime, and given that Hindemith was still living in Germany at the time, the Nazi government took it about as well as you’d expect. Fortunately, the composer was able to flee the country shortly thereafter. After settling in America, he would also write a perfectly lovely Oratorio called When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, a setting of the Walt Whitman poem of the same name.
Prokofiev and Shostakovich, two of Stravinsky’s direct successors in Russia, also did some highly notable work in the theater. Prokofiev composed two operas, a quirky symbolic fairy tale called The Love for Three Oranges reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Operatic efforts and an impressive if not entirely successful operatic version of War and Peace in the tradition of the Glinka and Mussorgsky operas. However, his most important works for the theater were his extremely famous compositions for ballet, especially the iconic children’s theater piece Peter and the Wolf and his ballet versions of Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella.
Shostakovich, meanwhile, composed two satires at least partly aimed at the Soviet government, an Opera called The Nose and a ballet called The Golden Age, as well as a harsh Modernist opera called Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Just writing the governmental satires was courageous to the point of foolhardiness in the Soviet political environment, but it was the latter work that actually got him called on the carpet by the Stalin regime for being too intellectual and avant-garde for that oppressive system’s comfort. While I admit that Lady Macbeth of Mtensk is not on the same level of quality as Shostakovich’s famous symphonies, it still has considerable merit (note that it was a huge popular hit in Russia before Stalin intervened). And while I will acknowledge that Shostakovich did not cease making good music after being forced by the government to change his style, and indeed that his last major work for the theater, the Oratorio Song of the Forests, is the most breathtakingly beautiful score he ever wrote for a theatre piece, the actions of the Soviet government in this instance still stands as one of the greatest injustices in music history. Indeed, it illustrates a clear and present danger that is inherent every time politics encroaches on the arts (a much more recent example being the closing of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 due to ridiculous political correctness concerns), and it serves as a reminder of the slippery slope of letting political and social pressures overpower the free expression on which art is entirely reliant.
A more accessible variant on the innovations of Modern Classical (at least to today’s audience…it was greeted with equal shock and vitriol at the time) was provided by the ‘Musical Impressionism’ of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel (both men violently rejected that genre descriptor, but it stuck nonetheless).
This style had its roots in composer Gabriel Faure’s forward-looking vocal compositions, but Faure’s only major work for the theatre, an Opera based on the final chapters of The Odyssey called Penelope, was more successful as music than drama: the score was quietly and subtly beautiful, but in spite of its attempt at a Wagnerian through-composed structure, it still played more like one of Faure’s song cycles than a dramatic piece. That said, it was a damned sight better than anything Massenet ever came up with, so it very arguably deserved more success than it received.
Regardless, Faure sowed the seeds that would grow into the Musical Impressionist movement. With it, composers like Debussy, Ravel and their successors pioneered their own ‘Modernist’ approach, and Musical Theatre was a big part of it, although they tended to emphasize ballet more than Opera.
Debussy’s most famous and accessible effort in the theater is probably the wildly controversial ballet by Nijinsky set to his nature-rhapsody Tone Poem Prelude of the Afternoon of a Faun. For his only full-on Opera, Pelleas and Melisande, which serious connoisseurs tend to proclaim his Magnum Opus, he invented a totally unprecedented style of dispassionate half-sung declamation over rich orchestral textures that is the clear forerunner of the Minimalist operas of postmodern composers like Philip Glass and John Adams. In a sense, this work is a direct answer to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Both works tell almost the same story, both are intentionally structured as a seamless whole with no traditional Operatic “numbers”, and both make far more prominent and extensive use of the orchestra than the vast majority of Operas. But while Tristan was written to be essentially one long aria, the vocal music in Pelleas consists entirely of declamatory quasi-recitative; and while Tristan was cosmic and transcendent in its portrayal of the power of love, Pelleas is so subtle and understated that it almost avoids conventional ideas of “drama” altogether. This makes for an interesting musical experience, to be sure, but “Magnum Opus” or not, its esoteric form and lack of anything resembling normal emotion or drama have kept it from achieving the popularity enjoyed by some of Debussy’s other works. One noted conductor, when asked “Do you suppose Pelleas will ever be really a success?”, simply responded, “It was never intended to be.”
Debussy’s de facto successor, Maurice Ravel, also had an affinity for non-traditional theater works. Ravel always denied being influenced by Debussy, largely because he resented the implication that he was merely an imitator of some other composer. Most people today view him more as a successor who picked up where Debussy left off, but the influence was definitely there, whether he chose to acknowledge it or not.
That’s not to say that Ravel was in any way derivative: indeed, he was one of the most unique and innovative composers for the theater in music history. Most of his innovations were never really picked up by anyone else, but that just serves to cement his one-of-a-kind status. He would write two Operas, but is generally better known for three extremely famous compositions for ballet…the almost bizarrely structured Bolero, the bittersweet, nostalgic La Valse, and the wildly ribald Daphnis and Chloe (the latter of which caused almost as much controversy as Afternoon of a Faun, given that it climaxed with an onstage representation of an orgy). Of these works, only Daphnis is performed much as an actual ballet these days, but the other two are extremely popular as concert pieces, with the Bolero, a unique exercise in orchestral color with only minimal melody and rhythm, having become Ravel’s most famous and recognizable composition.
However, some of Ravel’s most unique and fascinating work inhabited a more innocent sphere…namely, the children’s fairy-tale ballet Ma Mere L’Oye (“Mother Goose”), and the charmingly whimsical and extremely creative “Opera-Pantomime” L’enfant et les Sortilèges. The latter is particularly fascinating, with its outlandish, multi-lingual libretto by the great French writer Collette, and an extremely strange score influenced by early Broadway Musicals viewed through Ravel’s own bizarre creative lens. The score incorporates everything from ragtime to “found objects” instrumentation to a strange quasi-Wagnerian duet for two cats written not in human words but in Ravel’s interpretation of the feline language. Story-wise, the Opera slightly recalls Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but more closely seems to foreshadow Maurice Sendak’s works, particularly Where the Wild Thing Are (the resemblances were likely intentional on Sendak’s part, as he later adapted his own book into a children’s opera as well).
Ravel was not the only follower of Debussy’s perceived “school” (although virtually all who were, like Ravel, denied the label vigorously): others included Erik Satie and a sextet of influential French and Swiss composers simply referred to as Les Six. With their pioneering compositions, particularly for ballet, they helped lay the ground for the so-called “Modern Dance” forms of ballet theatre that would come to prominence in the later Twentieth Century. In particular, 1917’s Parade was the artiest ballet up to that point in history, with a scenario by legendary director Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie, choreography by famed Russian dancer Leonide Massine, and sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso of all people. Granted, the music itself is less interesting than you would expect from all of that, but that’s still quite some pedigree!
Of the members of Les Six, it was Francis Poulenc who had the most success with the musical-theatre model, creating a minor staple of the Twentieth-Century operatic repertoire called Dialogue of the Carmelites. The opera, which told of a group of nuns during the French revolution who have to decide between abandoning their faith or dying for it, featured surprisingly traditional music given Poulenc’s musical background, but its most innovative element came from its lack of external action: as the title implies, apart from the dramatic execution scene at the finale, the opera mostly consists of people discussing what to do about the oncoming tragedy. In using this device, which was far from unheard-of in literature and ‘straight’ drama but had never really penetrated Opera, Dialogue of the Carmelites stands as a direct predecessor to the plotless Concept Musicals of the Seventies and Eighties, and also to their more recent successors such as The Band’s Visit, A Strange Loop and Six. This doesn’t necessarily make it groundbreaking in the conventional sense…it took that structure directly from its source play, and likely those later examples were also copying non-musical dramas that used this technique and were largely unaware of this Opera…but it does, at the very least, make it worthy of notation for being the first work to apply this idea to a musical setting.
Perhaps the most popular Modernist Opera that remains a major part of the repertoire today is Bluebeard’s Castle, a bone-chilling psychological horror piece by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. Bartok was probably the scariest composer in all of Classical music, the musical equivalent of Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, and his two major works for the theater, Bluebeard’s Castle and the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, are two of the most terrifying horror pieces ever written, musical or otherwise. The latter even seems to have had a major influence on the jarring ‘scare chords’ used in Bernard Herrmann’s groundbreaking instrumental score for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho.
Also coming out of the Eastern European music scene was Moldovian composer Leos Janacek, who was marginally softer than most of the above-mentioned Modernist composers, albeit still harsher than most composers of the Romantic era. In some sense he could be described as a Czech Mussorgsky: while he favored more intimate subjects for his Operas than Mussorgsky’s vast national panoramas, he too wrote in a distinctive style modeled on the speech patterns of his own native people. He also had a proclivity for extremely esoteric subject matter even by Modern Opera standards, including a bittersweet animal fable (The Cunning Little Vixen) and an adaptation of a Dostoevsky novel set in a Siberian prison camp (In the House of the Dead).
Less successful in the field of musical drama were the Twelve-Tone composers like Arnold Schoenberg or his protégé Alban Berg. This style grew out of Atonal music (music that is in no specific key), which in itself can work well in an Opera (such as Berg’s Wozzeck, which is Atonal but not Twelve-Tone) because it sounds extremely dramatic in a nightmarish sort of way. Indeed, Wozzeck was so compelling and groundbreaking that it launched a whole school of Expressionist Operas that was later to give us such works as Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. However, full-fledged Twelve-Tone, which is dictated by a set of mathematical rules, tends to get in the way of effective dramatic writing. Theater music has to be dictated by the needs of the drama, not a mathematical formula, so Twelve-Tone operas tend to come off as stilted and dramatically tone-deaf, as seen in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron or Berg’s Lulu.
One unfortunate side effect of the Modernist movement in Classical Music was to push the boundaries of composition so far that they created music that only appealed to a small group of intellectuals. Granted, this is something that their modern-day equivalents in Musical Theater are still doing to this day. Still, when this attitude essentially took over the entire field of Classical Music, it’s not surprising that listeners turned increasingly to the new paradigms inspired by the use of African rhythms and harmonies, leading to the Jazz revolution and later to the further revolution of Rock’n’Roll. (Czech Composer Antonin Dvorak was the first person to see this coming, predicting that African musical influences would wind up being the future of music decades before anyone else had figured it out. He was scoffed at in his day for these assertions, but now they make him seem like the greatest visionary music has ever known).