We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits
Richard Taruskin

But now we are broaching a far more important reason why the end of Elektra deserves comment—one that has little or nothing to do with the artifices of musical maximalism per se, but lots to do with their pretext. Within the modernist narrative itself, the pretext of artistic innovation is always progress, liberation, and the authentic value that only the renewal of methods and resources can confer. In the case of Elektra, and perhaps even more in that of Salome, the destructive power the title characters wield over the men in their lives, read in the context of the contemporaneous social emancipation of women, is nowadays often read as a feminist allegory as well.

Yet both of Strauss’s maximalist operas end with the deaths of their title characters; and in both cases these deaths were imported deaths, the product of their fin-de-siècle adaptations, not the original stories. In the Bible we do not learn of Salome’s fate. It was Wilde and Wilde alone who had Herod turn to Herodias and say, “She is a monster, that daughter of yours, a monster!” before ordering his soldiers to “Kill that woman!” In Greek mythology, Electra, having expiated her father’s death, married Orestes’s friend Pylades and bore him two sons. It was Hofmannsthal, and Hofmannsthal alone, who had her dance so strenuously in triumph as to split a gut (or something) and fall dead in a heap. It is hard not to see these alterations as the modern authors’ commentary on feminine monstrousness, and the deaths as a modern male vengeance on the threatening effigy of the emancipated—that is, newly empowered—modern female.

Voyeuristic fantasies of feminine evil were so rampant in fin-de-siècle culture that Bram Dijkstra, a professor of comparative literature, had no trouble filling a four-hundred-page book, to which he gave the title Idols of Perversity, with dozens of pictorial reproductions, verses, and plot summaries suggesting the extent to which the artistic maximalism of the period may have been a vicariously violent male response to the earliest stirrings of female emancipation.27 The last exhibit in the book, after countless Judiths, Jezebels, and Turandots, is of course Salome, the ultimate “headhuntress,” the subject (by Dijkstra’s count) of ten scandalous pictures and a dozen bloodcurdling works of literature produced between 1876 and 1901. Needless to say, Des Esseintes, the outlandish hero of Huysmans’s À rebours, found Salome as irresistible as she found John the Baptist. Contemplating the famous picture of Salome’s dance by the eerie decadent painter Gustave Moreau (1826–98), he exults at seeing at last

the Salomé, weird and superhuman, he had dreamed of. No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles,—a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like Helen of Troy of the old Classic fables, all who come near her, all who see her, all who touch her.28

Critics had already diagnosed a degree of misogyny in the operas of Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) with their wilting heroines suffering their protracted agonies. Conventional music historiography might attribute the difference between Puccini’s relatively gentle, noninnovative style, which no one would ever call maximalistic, and the furious modernistic frenzy of Strauss/Wilde and Strauss/Hofmannsthal to a difference in kind—modernist (boldly progressive, historically significant) vs. traditional (timidly backward, “unhistorical”). Yet from the point of view we are now exploring the difference might appear to be more one of degree, perhaps conditioned less by factors intrinsic to artistic media and more by matters of public and social currency.

Surely it is significant that Dijkstra’s gallery of horrors contains virtually nothing by Italians. It was in the economically developed and (except for France) largely Protestant countries of northern Europe and America that the “new woman” posed the greater threat to male security and aroused the greater backlash. Consequently, it was the English, French, and German artists who invested their response to her with what Des Esseintes pinpointed as hysteria—a marvelously ironic term to use in this context, since its root is the Greek for uterus, so that aggressive male behavior is cast as stereotypically female. The greater social ferment produced a misogynistic response of greater vehemence, greater spite, greater ugliness, and in stylistic terms, greater novelty. Did that make it greater art?


(27) Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-siècle Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

(28) Huysmans, Against Nature, pp. 65–66.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001015.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 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001015.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 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001015.xml