"Elektra" was the sensation of the Beecham London Opera season of 1910, the opera being then performed in England for the first time. It had been produced in Dresden only the year before, since which event it was the chief work of its class to challenge the worlds verdict. On the whole, that verdict has been that it displays Richard Strauss genius at its best and worst.
The story dealt with is a somber one -- a Teutonic version of Sophocles great tragedy. Clytemnestra, with the aid of her paramour Aegistheus, has procured the murder of her husband Agamemnon, and is now in fear of the discovery of her guilt by her children, Elektra, Chrysothemis, and their banished brother Orestes. Elektra, who is the embodiment of vehement lust for vengeance, endeavours to persuade her meeker and shrinking sister to kill the guilty pair. Before the design is carried out Orestes, whose death had been announced, appears, and when he learns from Elektra the fearful truth, he resolves himself to avenge his mothers crime. He kills Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, and Elektra, in a delirious joy-dance, falls dead before her horror-stricken attendants. This is the tragic end of the play. There is only one scene -- an inner courtyard bounded by the back of a palace.
It is difficult to say anything effective about the music in a non-technical book like this. But the pregnant remark of an acute critic will go a long way: "It is particularly noticeable with Richard Strauss that his favourite line of work lies in the region of the perverse and unnatural." This is almost painfully obvious in "Elektra," as in the same masters "Salomé." In "Elektra," the gloom and horror which pervade the play are evidently the features which chiefly attracted the composer. Here is a drama whose solitary motive is revenge, a drama containing no love interest, no light relief -- nothing but an hour and three-quarters of black hate. The angularity of some of the vocal music is at times repellent, and being so, seems to defeat its purpose of expression and naturalness. It is admittedly a powerful work, but with features that induce doubt and are unconvincing. It can hardly become popular. Meanwhile, it is novel and so deserving of notice.
Richard Strauss was born at Munich in 1864, where his father was a royal chamber musician. He early drew attention to himself by a serenade for 13 wind instruments, which Von Bülow performed frequently with the Meiningen orchestra. In a recent interview, he says: "I compose everywhere -- in noisy hotels, in my garden, in railway carriages; my sketch-book never leaves me, whether walking or driving, eating or drinking. And soon as a motive, fitting into the theme upon which I am working, strikes me, I commit it to my best companion -- my note-book."
Some confusion exists in the popular mind as to the identity and relationship of the many Strausses who have earned fame in the musical world. It is sufficient to say here that the composer of "Elektra" has no connection whatever with the Strauss family of waltz composers.