The Endless, Grisly Fascination of Richard Strauss’s “Salome”
To say that Richard Strauss’s “Salome” is your favorite opera is a bit like saying that “The Shining” is your favorite film or that Edgar Allan Poe is your favorite author: it marks you as something of a freak. This is, after all, a work that ends with a young woman kissing a severed head and her stepfather screaming “Kill that woman!” I hasten to add that “Salome” is not actually my favorite opera; that would probably be “Tristan und Isolde” or “Otello,” depending on the day of the week. But “Salome,” with its delirious text, by Oscar Wilde, is perhaps the opera that fascinates me the most. The score is at once staggeringly original, more than a little trashy, and unsettling in its sexual and racial politics. When the clarinet slithers up a disjointed scale at the outset of the piece, the curtain effectively goes up on twentieth-century music. For that reason, I chose to begin “The Rest Is Noise,” my history of music since 1900, by describing a performance of “Salome”—not the world première, which took place in Dresden, in 1905, but a subsequent staging in Graz, Austria, with Gustav Mahler, Giacomo Puccini, Arnold Schoenberg, and, possibly, a teen-age Adolf Hitler in attendance.
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For a long time, few people took “Salome” seriously. Strauss, who affected the manners of a card-playing businessman, appeared not to give it much deep thought himself. At an early rehearsal, he said, “Gentlemen, there are no difficulties or problems. This is a scherzo with a fatal conclusion.” One who did register the opera’s importance was Schoenberg, who, circa 1906, often had its score open on his piano. “Perhaps in twenty years’ time someone will be able to explain these harmonic progressions theoretically,” he said to his students, six of whom accompanied him to “Salome” in Graz. (So I discovered by reading hotel guest lists in the Graz newspapers.) Many of the building blocks of Schoenberg’s post-tonal style—which came into being between 1907 and 1909—can be found in “Salome,” which introduced a new kind of frenzied, helter-skelter aesthetic into the music of the day. One recurring tic is a rapid run of notes that gives way to a trill—a kind of scurry-and-shake gesture. This became part of the lingua franca of modern music. Here are three samples in succession: “Salome”; Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” from 1912; and Pierre Boulez’s “Le Marteau sans Maître,” from 1955.
Audio: Strauss, “Salome,” Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic (EMI); Schoenberg, “Pierrot Lunaire,” Boulez/Ensemble Intercontemporain (DG); Boulez, “Le Marteau sans Maître,” Boulez/Ensemble Intercontemporain (DG).
You can see and hear more examples of Strauss’s radical methods on this page.
“Salome” has come up in the world. Blotting out most of my desk at the moment is a gigantic critical edition of the score, its cover drenched in a fiery scarlet color. This is part of a comprehensive new critical edition of Strauss’s music that will run to sixty-four volumes. The “Salome” volume is a work of meticulous scholarship, incorporating the emendations that Strauss made after the première. The editorial commentary delves into some wonderful oddities, including a few passages that are impossible to play on the specified instruments. When a proofreader queried these, Strauss replied, “Of course I know that the violin only goes down to G; the corrector should keep this wisdom to himself and leave the notes in peace.” The preface contains a reproduction of the composer’s earliest thinking about the score: his annotations in the margins of a copy of Wilde’s play “Salomé,” which was first published in 1893, in French. Strauss worked from a German translation by the poet Hedwig Lachmann, who belonged to socialist-anarchist circles in Berlin. Her husband, Gustav Landauer, was a revolutionary philosopher who, in 1919, served as the Commissar of Enlightenment in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, before being murdered by right-wing forces. No account of “Salome” would be complete without mention of the fact that the film director Mike Nichols was Lachmann and Landauer’s grandson.
What set “Salome” apart from almost every opera that preceded it was Strauss’s decision to set the Wilde-Lachmann text word for word, without using a librettist. This practice had surfaced among Russian composers in the nineteenth century and had been triumphantly adopted by Debussy in his operatic version of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Strauss cut a great deal of the Wilde play but left its opulent, mischievous language largely unaltered. The choice to deliver “Salomé” more or less unmediated was scandalous at the time, since memories of Wilde’s trial for indecency, in 1895, had hardly faded. Moreover, the play’s presentation of the Biblical story of Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod of Judaea, elicited accusations of blasphemy. John the Baptist, the object of Salome’s desire, is treated as a somewhat ridiculous figure; the court of King Herod features homosexuality and incest; and, of course, the story ends with an act of necrophilia, as Salome kisses the prophet’s head.
One “Salome” question to which I’ve never found a satisfactory answer is why Strauss picked the play to begin with. The standard answer is that he was trying to whip up a provocation and thereby increase his box-office receipts. But there were easier ways to make a buck. Austrian censors’ refusal to allow the work to be staged at the Vienna Court Opera, despite Mahler’s strenuous efforts, certainly cut into Strauss’s profits, as did the cancellation of a Metropolitan Opera production after only one performance, in 1907. On that famous occasion, a physician wrote to the Times denouncing “Salome” as a “detailed and explicit exposition of the most horrible, disgusting, revolting, and unmentionable features of degeneracy . . . that I have ever heard of, read of, or imagined.”
Strauss, despite his cynical image, was a complicated man who felt drawn to sexually charged material throughout his life. Women dominate his operas; men tend to be weak and shallow in comparison. In “Salomé,” Wilde eroticizes John the Baptist—Salome savors the sight of his body, his hair, his lips—and Strauss preserves most of that language. Right from the start, something curious is happening with the male gaze. Over shimmering, harmonically unstable music, Narraboth, a captain of Herod’s guard, exclaims, “How beautiful is the princess Salome tonight!” A royal page sounds a different tone, commenting that the moon looks pale and dead. It turns out that the page is smitten with Narraboth and implores him not to look at Salome in that lascivious way. Narraboth is himself beautiful, as Herod will later point out. Although Strauss cuts a little monologue in which the page mourns Narraboth—“He has slain himself who was my friend! I gave him a little box of perfumes and ear-rings wrought in silver, and now he has killed himself!”—the gay subtext of the character remains intact.
The intellectual historian Sander Gilman, in an essay titled “Strauss, the Pervert, and Avant Garde Opera of the Fin de Siècle,” argued that the sexual bizarrerie of “Salome” is designed to conjure an unflattering picture of a degenerate society. That the setting is also Jewish—one notorious section of the score consists of five Jews arguing with one another—suggests that Strauss’s intention was rooted in anti-Semitic assumptions about Jewish sexuality. The musicologist Peter Franklin offers a more positive reading in an essay that appears in the recent scholarly anthology “Music & Camp.” Instead of reinforcing the patriarchy, Franklin writes, Strauss permits “an alternative discourse of pleasure and experience whose actually transgressive nature was defined by the female subject.” Salome’s outlaw desire can be seen as an extreme critique of sexual convention. Franklin pinpoints similarly subversive elements in other Strauss works, notably the ballet “Josephslegende,” which eroticizes the Biblical figure of Joseph. None of this is to say that Strauss was secretly gay or bisexual; he seems to have been exclusively devoted to his wife, Pauline de Ahna. Rather, Strauss responded to a German-speaking milieu in which gay desire was expressed more freely than in most other societies.
The persistence of this scholarly debate testifies to the complexity of what Strauss achieved. Modern productions feast upon the opera’s layers of decadence and irony. In a recent staging at the Bavarian State Opera, which I watched on a Webcast, the director, Krzysztof Warlikowski, addressed the anti-Semitic context head on, by placing the action in a Central European Jewish community in the Nazi period. “Salome” becomes a dark, ironic entertainment that Jews mount for themselves as they face extinction. I wasn’t sure whether this approach alleviated the opera’s sinister undertow or actually exacerbated it, but, in musical terms, the performance gave a persuasive demonstration of how modern “Salome” remains. Kirill Petrenko elicited a kind of crystalline menace from his orchestra; Marlis Petersen sang with disconcerting beauty and purity of tone, undermining the standard picture of the character as a demented femme fatale. A recording of this performance would put up a strong challenge to Herbert von Karajan’s 1978 Vienna version, with Hildegard Behrens, which has long been my top choice.
In Warlikowski’s version, and also in a Salzburg Festival staging by Romeo Castellucci, no action is taken after Herod shouts his murderous command. I first saw this revisionist plot device in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 1989 production, at the Met, where the final curtain swooped down on an impotent tyrant. Such an attenuation of misogynist violence makes the opera a bit more palatable to modern-day audiences. If you look closely at the libretto, though, you notice that Herod has actually lost the authority to deliver his order. He wears a ring symbolic of his power, but Herodias, his wife, took it from his hand while he quivered at Salome’s demand for the Baptist’s head on a silver platter. Whether Salome lives or dies, she has shattered her stepfather’s corrupt and hypocritical regime. As an angel of destruction, she is worthy of respect.