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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits
Richard Taruskin

In Strauss’s next opera, Elektra (1908), these harmonic mixtures are more the rule than the climactic exception. The story is again an ancient one that embodies in its plot the transgression of age-old taboos, namely matricide and incestuous love (to which the opera added a scene of lesbian seduction between the title character and a sister unknown to Greek mythology). Elektra (or Electra, as the name is rendered in English) was the daughter of Agamemnon, the victorious commander in the Trojan War, who was murdered by Clytemnestra, his wife and the mother of Electra, with the help of Clytemnestra’s lover Aegisthus. Electra longs for the return from exile of her brother Orestes, who alone can avenge the crime. He appears incognito; she recognizes him; they rejoice in their love and plot vengeance. He kills their mother as she looks on in ecstasy.

This gruesome tale had been dramatized by all three of the great Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The version that Strauss set was the one “rewritten for the German stage,” chiefly after Sophocles, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), a distinguished poet and playwright who collaborated enthusiastically with Strauss on the adaptation of his play, and went on to create five more operas with the composer, right up to the end of his life. This hugely cultured and aristocratic gentleman, whom the composer, though ten years older, came to regard as something of a mentor, undoubtedly played a part in eventually moderating Strauss’s modernist zeal.

The grisly Elektra, at the very beginning of their collaboration, was Strauss’s maximalist extreme. Their next work, Der Rosenkavalier (“The cavalier of the rose,” 1911) was a romantic comedy set in eighteenth-century Vienna. There is still a fair share of fin-de-siècle kinkiness in the treatment of the plot—the opera opens with two women in bed (one of them playing a boy), the music before curtain having graphically portrayed his/her ejaculation—but the music has begun to substitute extremes of virtuosity in handling traditional assignments (an ideal often described as “classicism”) for extremes of innovation.

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fig. 1-7 Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier; photo from act II of a performance by the Königliche Oper, Berlin, 1911, with Elisabeth Boehm van Endert as Oktavian and Erna Denera as Sophie.

By the time of his death at the age of eighty-five, Strauss was stylistically perhaps the most conservative European composer of major stature. He certainly regarded himself as such: most of his late works were self-conscious valedictories or farewells to older, supposedly better, times. And yet the fact that by the mid-twentieth century stylistic conservatism was as conscious a stance, and as deliberate a choice, as stylistic radicalism is powerful testimony to the triumph of modernism as the dominant worldview for twentieth-century artists. The only choice was to be modernist or antimodernist, just as for a time one could only be Communist or anti-Communist. (Another testimony is the way in which Strauss’s career has often been described by twentieth-century historians. Extreme but not untypical is the remark by one writer that the composer’s development “from a historical point of view, must be viewed as ‘backward,’”25 rendering all of Strauss’s music after Elektra “curiously ‘unhistorical.’”26 It would be an excellent exercise to deduce the very special philosophy—or definition—of “history” that informs this assessment.)

At the time of Elektra, though, Strauss was still an ardent modernist, which inevitably meant a maximalist. And his own former achievements were the ones he now had to maximalize. He began exactly where Salome left off. Indeed, the two operas had so much in common in plot and even in dramatic structure, and the two title characters were so similar in disposition and behavior, that the possibility of “continuing” Salome into Elektra must have been a paramount consideration in the choice of subject, one plainly dictated by the maximalist ideal.

The opera begins with a D-minor arpeggio motif that fairly blares the name “AgaMEMnon!” (Ex. 1-16), as Elektra will confirm when she appropriates it in her first monologue. And the opening motif seems to be followed in mm. 7–8 by a corresponding arpeggio on the dominant. But before the implied cadence can close, at m. 10 (coinciding with the title character’s first appearance on stage) Strauss begins surrounding D with chords remote from it according to the circle of fifths, but closely related to it in the parallel universe (the symmetrical circle of minor thirds) that he had begun exploring in the last scene of Salome. For fully five bars triads on B minor (a minor third below D) alternate with triads on F minor (a minor third above), describing the “axis” relationship of a tritone.

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ex. 1-16 Richard Strauss, Elektra, mm. 1-18 in vocal score

The strange chord at m. 15 will eventually become Elektra’s “leitharmonie”: it inhabits another circle of minor thirds, being a mixture of major triads on E and D♭(C♯), with A♭(G♯), the melody note, doing double duty as fifth of one and third of the other. When the chord returns to accompany Elektra’s first monologue (Ex. 1-17a), it will take on additional freight: a B♭ major triad, complementing E on the other side of D♭(C♯) and describing another tritone-axis of harmonic symmetry. As for the triads on B and F, they too return in maximalized (i.e., mixed) form to launch the first scene between Elektra and her sister Chrysothemis (Ex. 1- 17b).

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ex. 1-17a Richard Strauss, Elektra, Elektra’s first lines

In addition to the circle of minor thirds, Strauss continues to exploit “arrays” of semitones in contrary motion like the ones we observed in Salome. Ex. 1-16 already contains a telling example: the progression in the last bar from a segment of the “Elektra chord” (B-D♭-F) “outward” to an augmented triad (B♭-D-F♯). The use of semitonal arrays will reach its zenith in the final scene (consisting—again like Salome!—of the heroine’s triumphant dance in celebration of a murder), where the semitone progressions will entirely preempt the circle of fifths as the director of the harmony.

Ex. 1-18a shows how Strauss gets from E♭ major to E major along a semitonal matrix that has one of its octave-points on C, the tonality that will eventually end the opera. More conventional keys are occasionally adumbrated—but never by full cadence, only the sounding of a chord that suffices to imply the rest of a cadence that never comes. In Ex. 1-18b, a descending semitone progression in the bass that had covered more than an octave finally zeroes in (in the fifth measure of the example) on F♯, harmonized as the bass of a chord whose root, B, promises a cadence in that key. Unlike most of Strauss’s chords, this one is followed by its expected dominant. But at the point of expected arrival on the tonic, Strauss substitutes another chord (falsely promising G), and a new semitone progression, ascending this time, gets underway in the bass.

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ex. 1-17b Richard Strauss, Elektra, Chrysothemis calls Elektra

The very end of the opera deserves comment, since it appears to end in two keys at once. Ex. 1-19 shows the last thirty-six measures of the opera, beginning with the tail end of the last appearance of the semitonal array shown in Ex. 1-18a. Contrary motion in the outer voices has produced a juxtaposition of E♭ against A, the sort of tritonal opposition that had generated so much of the opera’s harmony. The harmony that accompanies this last tritonal confluence, a diminished seventh, is liquidated, leaving only the E♭, tremolando and still fortississimo, which finally picks up another harmony, the minor triad of which it is the root, when Elektra finishes her dance in a heap.

That E♭ is now subjected to a tug of war between the E♭ minor triad (henceforth played softly) and bellowing reminiscences of the “Agamemnon” leitmotif in which it is the highest note, so that the other notes of the arpeggio associate it with the implied tonic of C minor. Even the final measure fails to resolve this deadlock, merely giving out both putative tonics at a renewed fortississimo.

This deadlocked ending of course implies that the tragedy of the house of Agamemnon has not come to an end. (Classicists will know why—Orestes, called upon in vain by Chrysothemis, is already being pursued by the Furies!) It replays the famous ending device in Strauss’s most grandiose tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus spake Zarathustra,” 1896) after Nietzsche, his most impressive contribution to the heady literature of Weltanschauungsmusik. To conclude on a properly speculative note, or in acknowledgment that the last questions will never be answered, the final word never said, Strauss contrived an ending that seemed to die away on an oscillation between tonics on B and C, with C (as in Elektra) getting the last word (Ex. 1-20).

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ex. 1-18a Richard Strauss, Elektra, another intervallic “array”

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ex. 1-18b Richard Strauss, Elektra, Elektra tells Chrysothemis to “Shut up and dance!”

Had B been given the last word, or were the extreme registers reversed, the ploy would not have worked. It would then have been obvious that the C (though placed many octaves lower than its rival, in a register the ear is used to associating with the fundamental bass) was, in functional terms, making a descent to the tonic B as part of a “French sixth” chord (itself a decorative substitute for a very plain “Phrygian” cadence that normally identifies a dominant, not a tonic). Rather than an ending in two keys, we are dealing with a registrally distorted, interrupted, yet functionally viable cadence on B.

All right. A lot of philosophical music (like a lot of philosophy) may look like flimflam when subjected to a close grammatical analysis. But that is a logical objection, not an “esthetic” one. The effect of “polytonality,” artificial though it may be, gives the music an uncanny—that is, a “sublime”—aura in keeping with advanced contemporary views of art and its value in life. That is the effect achieved at the end of Elektra as well—a suitable atmosphere for the modern revival of a myth. There can’t be anything wrong with artifice in art.

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ex. 1-19 Richard Strauss, Elektra, end

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ex. 1-20 Richard Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra, ending (with harmonic reduction)


(25) Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 33.

(26) Ibid., p. 35.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001014.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001014.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001014.xml