The shock of 'Elektra'

When Richard Strauss's third opera opened in London in 1910, it was hailed as a masterpiece - and damned as dangerously decadent. On the eve of its Proms airing, Bayan Northcott recalls the controversy
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On 12 March 1910, a musical controversy of extraordinary vehemence broke out in the letters pages of The Nation. The disputants were London's leading music critic and Wagnerian scholar, Ernest Newman, and the city's most famous former music critic, and author of The Perfect Wagnerite, George Bernard Shaw. The issue on which they slugged it out over the next month was not, however, Wagner but the latest opera of a composer universally regarded at the time as either the most exciting progressive in modern music, or its most dangerously decadent iconoclast - Richard Strauss.

In fact, until his teens, Strauss had been allowed only to listen to the "classics" by his strict, hyper-conservative, horn-playing father, who believed that music had gone to pot after Mendelssohn. It was only later, under the influence of Wagnerian mentors including Cosima Wagner herself, that the young man took to Romanticism, bursting on to the international scene with the insolent brilliance of his tone poem Don Juan in 1889, at the age of 25. That was already enough to reignite that endless 19th-century aesthetic argument over the relative merits of "absolute" and "programme" music. But it was the scandalous triumph in 1905 of his third opera, Salome, based on Oscar Wilde's deliciously debauched drama, that carried his fame worldwide. The one thing that even the contending Newman and Shaw agreed on was that Strauss was quite obviously "the greatest living musician".

With Salome rapidly taken up by half the opera houses in Europe, the canny Strauss knew that he was going to have to choose his next operatic project with care if he was ever to trump its success. Although excited at a Max Reinhardt production of a new version of Sophocles' Elektra, by the young lyric poet-turned-dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in Berlin in 1904, Strauss was at first worried that a second demented protagonist abandoning herself to a climactic dance might be too much. Ultimately, Hofmannsthal's urgings won him over - inaugurating a collaboration with Strauss that was to yield nine stage works and one of the most fascinating composer-librettist correspondences in operatic history.

All the same, for a professional who more usually prided himself on his ability to "give music as a cow gives milk", Strauss proceeded with exceptional deliberation. Carefully cutting the play-text and prescribing exactly what new material he required from Hofmannsthal, he proceed to annotate it with an array of symbolic key centres and character motifs, before embarking upon the 105-minute score itself, which cost him two years of effort. In the event, the vastly publicised Dresden premiere in January 1909 proved an equivocal success; the first Covent Garden run, launched by the young Thomas Beecham in February 1910, excited press and public far more. But it was at this point that Newman weighed in with his minority thumbs-down review.

The gist of it was that, a few striking pages apart, Elektra marked a new stage in the degeneration of Strauss's undoubted genius into banality, vulgarity and gratuitous ugliness, and that those who praised it could not really like what they heard. Newman's de haut en bas tone was too much for Shaw, who wrote protesting at "this lazy petulance which has disgraced English journalism". Once he had heard the opera under the imperturbable baton of Strauss himself, who appeared for two performances at Covent Garden, he became more partisan still; praising the score as a well-nigh unprecedented union of primordial emotion and consummate technique, "a counterpoint of all the ages", and "a historic moment in the history of art in England".

To this, Newman responded that, for him, "much of Elektra is merely frigid intellectual calculation simulating a white heat of emotion". And so the exchange ran on into the usual stalemate. Yet it set the terms of the enduring critical debate over this most extreme of Strauss's oeuvre, which, in time, would come to be heard not only as heralding the major turning point in his own creative development, but a crisis, if not breakdown, in Western musical tradition.

Strauss himself seems to have been quick to see that Hofmannsthal's Freudian take on his mythological characters offered just the material to deepen and intensify the exploration of obsession, corruption, ecstasy and horror on which he had embarked in Salome. And the play's tight succession of monologues and dialogues evidently suggested a quasi-symphonic design, packed with leitmotivic intertwinings and developments to amplify the emotions. To this end, Strauss deployed an orchestra of 111 players ("Louder! Louder!" he is said to have shouted at the conductor in rehearsal. "I can still hear her!"), and Electra's dance to death, after Orestes has avenged the murder of their father Agamemnon with that of their mother Clytemnestra, rivals in force, if not style, that of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring four years later.

But was Strauss trying too hard, too self-consciously, to create a culminating masterpiece? Others since Newman have detected a sense of cynical manipulation behind the sound and fury; a far less spontaneous response to the dramatic narrative than that of Salome, which suited far better his gifts for the illustrative and the exotic. As a result, it has been alleged, the music teeters uncertainly between the impressive, the cacophonously over-the-top, and, in more lyrical respites, the commonplace.

Not that any of this should deter listeners from packing out tomorrow's Prom, in which a vastly augmented BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be offering a rare opportunity to hear Strauss's amazing orchestration in all its coruscating detail - the clarinet section alone runs to eight players - untrammelled by the boxiness of theatrical acoustics or the compression of recording. And especially since it promises a ringing Electra from Gabriele Schnaut, fresh from the Met, and a terrifying Clytemnestra from the wonderful Felicity Palmer, under the baton of that proven master of vast late-Romantic structures, Donald Runnicles.

In any case, those who follow the Shavian view have always regarded Elektra as the cornerstone of Strauss's output: the work in which his dramatic instincts and orchestral wizardry achieved their apogee. For its fans, the opera's eclecticism of style is not uneven but functional, precisely geared to the contrasting characters and feelings of its participants. And in two scenes especially - Clytemnestra's nightmare, and Electra's recognition of Orestes - Strauss showed unprecedented courage in pushing late-Romantic harmony to the very edge of atonality.

Yet still others have argued that this was precisely the point at which Strauss took fright, retreating into the reactionary luxuriance of his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier, and leaving his protégé Schoenberg to cross the border within months into the "emancipated dissonance" of his Expressionist monodrama Erwartung, and his visionary Five Orchestral Pieces. Their relationship certainly epitomised the fevered musical climate of the 1900s.

Earlier on, Strauss had been impressed by Schoenberg's music and found him paid work. But he discouraged the performance of the Five Orchestral Pieces as too far in advance of audiences, and subsequently remarked, "Poor Schoenberg! Nobody can help him now. He'd be better off shovelling snow" - sentiments that the poisonous gossip Alma Mahler duly conveyed to Schoenberg, who curtly responded that whatever he might once have learnt from Richard Strauss, he was glad to say he had completely misunderstood.

'Elektra' is Prom 15, tomorrow at 7pm, Royal Albert Hall, London SW1 (020-7589 8212)