Salome

Mu­sic by Richard Strauss, based on the play by Os­car Wilde. Pre­miere: Dres­den Court Opera, Dec.9, 1905. Sung in Ger­man.

Pasatiempo - - PASA TEMPOS - James M. Keller The New Mex­i­can

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

Richard Strauss

Rita Hay­worth and Stewart Granger in 1953’s Salome

Maud Allen in her chore­ographed “Dance of the Seven Veils”

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