Music by Richard Strauss, based on the play by Oscar Wilde. Premiere: Dresden Court Opera, Dec.9, 1905. Sung in German.
For this week’s New Testament reading, let us turn to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 14, verses 3 to 11:
Herod had arrested John, put him in chains, and thrown him into prison, on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for John had told Herod: “You have no right to her.” Herod would have liked to put him to death, but he was afraid of the people, in whose eyes John was a prophet. But at his birthday celebrations, the daughter of Herodias danced before the guests, and Herod was so delighted that he took an oath to give her anything she cared to ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a dish the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed when he heard it; but out of regard for his oath and for his guests, he ordered the request to be granted, and had John
beheaded in prison. The head was brought in on a dish and given to the girl; and she carried it to her mother. The same story makes an appearance, told in quite similar terms, in the Gospel of Mark. It’s not a pretty tale, but it passes quickly without giving more offense than necessary. In both cases, it segues to the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, which pastors have been more comfortable recounting to their flocks over the years. Though Herodias’ dancing daughter is not named in the accounts of Matthew and Mark, cross references to the first-century historian Flavius Josephus identify her as Salome. One suspects a touch of divine comedy in this: the name Salome reflects the Aramaic word for “peace” (parallel to the familiar Hebrew shalom), an ironic moniker for a young lady who stretches violence to its limits.
Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, composed from 1903 to 1905 and premiered at the Dresden Court Opera on December 9 of the latter year, probably qualifies as the most high-profile artistic elaboration of the story, but it was far from the first. Visual artists had been drawn to its grisly details since the Renaissance, with memorable depictions coming from the brushes of Fra Filippo Lippi, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Titian, Caravaggio, and Guido Reni, to cite just a few famous names. During the 1870s, the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau produced many paintings and drawings in which Salome is depicted performing the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” for which she became famous in legend. In 1876, one of them, titled L’apparition, caused a sensation when it was displayed at the Salon de Paris.
In 1884, Joris-Karl Huysmans, in his novel À rebours (Against the Grain), a pinnacle of the Decadent school of literature, let loose a riff on that painting, here translated by Toni Bentley: 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.
Gustave Flaubert produced a novella, Hérodias, in 1877, in which Salome is presented as a puppet manipulated by her mother; this became the inspiration for Massenet’s opera Hérodiade, produced in 1881. Oscar Wilde was well acquainted with Huysmans’ book, had read Flaubert’s novella while in college at Oxford, and similarly immersed himself in other literary treatments of the tale, including a poetic one by Stéphane Mallarmé. In November 1891, Wilde moved from London to Paris, and there he penned his drama Salomé, which he wrote in impressively fluent, esthetically evocative French. The play was originally published in French, in 1893, and the following year it appeared in English translation, accompanied by what would become renowned illustrations by Aubrey
Beardsley. The English version states that the translation was by Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s boyfriend, but in fact Wilde himself had greatly rewritten Lord Alfred’s relatively feeble rendering.
Sarah Bernhardt scheduled its premiere for London in 1892, but the governmental licensor of plays put the kibosh on it, admonishing that it was forbidden to present stage plays with biblical characters. The premiere did not take place until 1896, when it was given in Paris, in French. By that time, Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, having been convicted of gross indecency; during his trial, Huysmans’
À rebours was hauled out as an example of the sort of “sodomitic” writing that Wilde’s works were also presumed to reflect. After Wilde was released, in 1897, he moved immediately to the Continent, and he died in Paris in 1900, at the age of forty-six.
His Salomé finally reached the London stage in 1905, but neither French nor British audiences showed much enthusiasm for it. The piece met a different fate in Germany. It was given in Breslau in 1901, and the next year it scored a huge success when a production was mounted (using Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation) by Max Reinhardt’s Kleines Theater in Berlin, running for more than 200 performances. Whereas the French had approached it as a Symbolist play, which aligned with their literary taste at the time, Reinhardt presented it as a work of stark realism, and he spelled out the characters’ outrageous behavior with in-your-face ruthlessness.
Strauss was bowled over by Reinhardt’s production when he caught it in early 1903. He already knew about the work, since a young Viennese poet had approached him earlier proposing to adapt it into a libretto. But seeing the play “in the flesh,” Strauss seized on the idea of using Wilde’s original text just as it had been put into German by Lachmann. Once he embarked on the project, he trimmed the piece considerably, which is normally the direction things take when a stage play is turned into an opera libretto. Among the excised material is the frequent repetition of text, which in the French version is so prevalent as to yield an incantatory aura. That flavor was surely one of the reasons the Parisians viewed it as a Symbolist drama, but it sat less easily with Reinhardt’s realist approach,
and it probably would have created awkward selfconsciousness in an opera. By the time he was done, Strauss had shortened Wilde’s play to about half its original length, but everything he did use was actually by Wilde — or at least by Wilde via Lachmann.
He provided a sumptuous score that was exceptional even by the lavish aspirations of his time. When he composed Salome, Strauss had just recently reached the provisional end of the string of symphonic poems that had occupied him since the 1880s, compositions that served as a workshop for his imaginative manipulation of orchestral resources. In 1904, while working on Salome, he prepared a new German edition of Hector Berlioz’s revered Treatise on
Instrumentation, bringing it up to date to reflect the progress in the field since Berlioz’s time. Salome served as a conduit for everything Strauss had mastered in that field, both practical and theoretical. His instrumentation list for the piece suggests that its orchestra would ideally comprise 105 players, although the forces are typically slimmed down by about 30 musicians in most stagings. The slenderizing comes out of the 60 or 62 string instruments Strauss lists; many orchestra pits (and theater budgets) simply cannot accommodate so many. It’s less easy to economize when it comes to the winds and percussion. There, Strauss calls for at least four of each instrumental clan — for example, four of the flute family (in this case three flutes and a piccolo), four of the oboe family (two standard oboes plus an English horn and the deepvoiced heckelphone), and so on. Even at that, there are six parts for various clarinets and six for French horns, and the percussion complement is usually divvied up among eight or nine players, factoring in two timpanists. Together, all these instruments make an overwhelming sound, but they also offer a detailed array from which the composer puts together unusual instrumental combinations of colorful delicacy.
Against this spacious sonic background we get to know one of opera’s most dysfunctional families. We meet Herod (son of the Herod notorious from the Christmas story), who seems simultaneously imperious and pusillanimous and whose loins itch for his stepdaughter, Salome. We have Herodias, formerly Herod’s brother’s wife and now his own; she snipes at him constantly, and he largely ignores her. She can’t stand Jochanaan (John the Baptist), whom Herod holds captive in a cistern, because he won’t let up on his view of the marriage of Herod and Herodias as illegitimate — and anyway, he really is annoying, what with all his preaching wafting in from afar. And then we have Salome, who in this telling of the tale seems to act entirely on her own (if with her mother’s approbation) in demanding that Jochanaan’s head be served to her on a silver platter as a reward for doing a titillating dance for her stepdad.
Strauss reels out the story in discrete episodes, all in a single act running about an hour and three-quarters. Everything is tied together musically through a web of Wagner-style leitmotifs, musical ideas that allude to specific characters, concepts, or actions. The dramatic climax begins with Salome’s sensual “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which was the last piece of the score Strauss composed. The redoubtable Alma Mahler wrote in her memoirs that she and her husband, Gustav (a long-time friend of Strauss’), went to hear Strauss play through his work in progress: We came to the dance — it was missing. “Haven’t got it done yet,” Strauss said and played on to the end, leaving this yawning gap. “Isn’t that rather risky,” Mahler remarked, “simply leaving out the dance, and then writing it in later when you’re not in the same mood?” Strauss laughed his light-hearted laugh: “I’ll fix that all right.” But he did not. The dance is the one weak spot in the score — just botched-up commonplace.
Its music does rather stand apart from what surrounds it, but that hasn’t prevented it from being excerpted as a popular orchestral showpiece in its own right. Many years after he composed it, apparently in the 1920s, Strauss set down a scenario for the dance. Some of his directive is quite specific, including a point where Salome is to adopt a posture shown in one of Moreau’s pictures. On the other hand, it isn’t detailed enough to obviate the need for a choreographer; in fact, Strauss failed to mention the shedding of the fourth, sixth, and seventh veils altogether.
Salome was a scandalous opera when it was new. Its first presentation at the Metropolitan Opera consisted of a single performance in 1907. The scions of society who controlled the Met’s theater threatened to throw the company onto the sidewalk if such an abomination was allowed to continue. After that opening night, a physician wrote to the editor of The New York Times: “I am a man of middle life who has devoted upwards of twenty years to the practice of a profession that necessitates a daily intimacy with degenerates. I say after deliberation that Salome is a detailed and explicit exposition of the most horrible, disgusting, revolting and unmentionable features of degeneracy that I have ever heard, read of, or imagined.” Most of the critics were similarly alarmed. “There is not a whiff of fresh and healthy air blowing through Salome except that which exhales from the cistern,” stated H.E. Krehbiel in the New York Tribune. “If this be art,” proclaimed W.J. Henderson in the New York Sun, “then let the music of the future find her mission in sewer, pesthouse and brothel.” The piece still shocks more than a century later. But, like it or not, it is a classic.
The scandalous success of Wilde’s play and Strauss’ opera gave rise to Salomania in popular culture
Rita Hayworth and Stewart Granger in 1953’s Salome
Maud Allen in her choreographed “Dance of the Seven Veils”