THE MUSICAL SCENE IN THE YEAR 1900
GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Puccini, like Strauss, devoted most of his career to opera. In 1900, Puccini was definitely a world-famous composer whose operas were extremely popular on four continents. He was certainly the greatest Italian composer after Verdi, who died in 1901. Strauss, who was one of the most important opera conductors working at the beginning of the 20th century, conducted the works of Puccini regularly. His famous comment regarding Puccini is: "Ja-Ja, very beautiful, all melody, all melody! Everyone thinks I am hostile to Puccini. It isn't true. But I can't listen to his operas because if I do I can't get the melodies out of my head afterwards. And I can't write Puccinian Strauss." And what did Puccini think of Strauss's shocking Salome? "The most extraordinary, terribly cacophonous thing. There are some very beautiful orchestral sounds, but it ends by tiring one out. It is a most gripping spectacle".
GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no. 4 (1900)
Mahler and Strauss: a complicated situation, to put it mildly. Here were two of the giant conductors of the era, as well as two of the absolute giants of composition. They were allies and friends as well as promoters of each others' works. It should be remembered that during most of Mahler's life he was much better known as a conductor than as a composer. His works did not meet with the same rapt enthusiasm as many of the famous works of Strauss. Strauss wrote the following upon first meeting Mahler: "I made a new and very attractive acquaintance in Herr Mahler, who seemed to me to be a highly intelligent musician and conductor--one of the few modern conductors who know about tempo rubato". Mahler worked hard to have Strauss's Salome performed at the Vienna State Opera, where he was Music Director, and the refusal of the Opera to perform this revolutionary work was one of the reasons for Mahler's departure from Vienna in 1907. As for
CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 5 (1896)
Saint-Saens, like Strauss, lived to the ripe old age of 86 and was still composing right up to the very end of his long life. Unlike Strauss, however, Saint-Saens never ventured into the 20th century with regard to his composing, being very conservative. He had no use for "contemporary" composers in the early 20th century and could pour scathing criticisms on his fellow composers. With regard to Ravel, he wrote: "If he had been making shells during the war (WWI) it might have been better for music". Saint-Saens was still a highly respected and incredibly popular composer even in 1900, known all over the world and performed everywhere. His final piano concerto, heard here, is a beautiful example of his mature style. One can only guess what his opinion of Salome was!
Perhaps you are a bit perplexed as to why I would include this composer among the likes of Mahler, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Debussy, and Puccini. The fact of the matter is that Humperdinck was extremely important and famous at the end of the 19th century based solely on his opera Hansel und Gretel. The universally beloved opera was an instant worldwide hit, and it remains so today. Why is it so important? The reason is because it was the first truly successful German opera composed after the death of Richard Wagner (1883), no easy feat for any composer in the shadow of that gigantic master of 19th century opera. Humperdinck showed that there WAS a future for German opera after Wagner that combined elements of Wagner (harmony, orchestration) and something NEW (use of folk-based and folk-like music) to create a synthesis and something fresh and accessible to a wide audience. Unfortunately, Humperdinck wound up being the ultimate classical "one-hit-wonder" composer, and his Hansel und Gretel is essentially the only work you are likely to ever hear by this composer! Guess who conducted the very first premiere performance of Hansel und Gretel? YES, Richard Strauss! Strauss adored Hansel und Gretel!
ANTONIN DVORAK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto (1895)
By 1900, Dvorak was nearing the end of his life and career, and would only compose 5 more works before his death in 1904. He certainly was ranked among the most famous and widely performed composers of his era, having composed (by 1900) nine symphonies, numerous concertos, operas, as well as an enormous amount of chamber music, piano music, songs, etc. He composed his cello concerto while living and working in America, completing it in 1895. Here is a fine performance of the closing bars featuring Abigail Leong and your very own CALIFORNIA YOUTH SYMPHONY!!
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Nocturnes for Orchestra (1900)
Claude Debussy was unquestionably the most radical and forward-looking progressive composer working in the year 1900, along with Strauss himself. Debussy's bold experiments in harmony, rhythm, orchestration, exotic non-Western scales, and form/structure started way back in the 1880s. His absolute disregard for 'tradition' clearly sets him apart from Strauss, who, despite his many innovations, was essentially conservative in nature. What did Debussy think of the music of Strauss? Regarding Strauss's shocking opera Salome, Debussy wrote: "I don't see how anyone can be other than enthusiastic about this work--an absolute masterpiece...almost as rare a phenomenon as the appearance of a comet. There is no resisting the overwhelming domination of this man." As for Strauss, his comment on Debussy's greatest work, the opera Pelleas et Melisande, was as follows: "There is not enough music in this work. I'm a musician, and I can't hear anything. Debussy is more of a great artist than a musician."
ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hansel und Gretel (1893)
Richard Strauss lived to the ripe age of 85 and was composing right up to the very end of his long life. Given that he began composing at the age of 6, his "contemporaries" include composers reaching all the way back to Brahms and Wagner, and all the way forward to Schoenberg, Bartok, Shostakovich, Boulez, and other major figures of 20th century music. Therefore, in this section I will adopt a slightly different tactic from my previous "Contemporaries and Influences" sections found in Conductor's Corner. In the year 1900 Strauss was considered to be perhaps the most famous (infamous?) and forward-looking composer alive. Let us ask the question: "If we were alive in the year 1900, what other working composers would be considered to be among the most highly regarded, influential, etc., and what were their feelings about Richard Strauss, and vice-versa?"
Mahler's opinion of Strauss, here is an excerpt from a letter to Strauss regarding Salome: "I simply must tell you of the thrilling impression the work made when I read through it recently. It is the high point to date. I would even say that nothing you have done so far can stand comparison with it." When Mahler died in 1911, Strauss was unable to work for days and would scarcely speak. Here is an excerpt from Mahler's Symphony no. 4, composed in 1900.