The Kennedy Center

Salome, Op. 54

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document Strauss composed Salome, the third of his fifteen operas, in 1904 and 1905, taking as his text Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of Oscar Wilde's play (originally in French). The premiere was given by the Dresden Court Opera on December 9, 1905, with Marie Wittich in the title role and Ernst von Schuch conducting. The National Symphony Orchestra has performed the opera on one earlier occasion: concert performances conducted by Howard Mitchell on April 8 and 9, 1958, with the soprano Inge Borkh in the title role. The orchestra has performed individual numbers from Salome with some frequency, as far back March 5, 1940, when Marjorie Lawrence sang the Final Scene, with Hans Kindler conducting (at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore), and as recently as January 21, 22 and 23, 1993, when Mstislav Rostropovich conducted Salome's Dance.

In addition to the singers listed on the program page, the score calls for an orchestra comprising piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, heckelphone, 2 clarinets in A, 2 B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, castanets, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, 2 harps, organ, and strings.

In the last dozen years of the nineteenth century the young Richard Strauss (who was only 36 when that century ended) concentrated his efforts on the symphonic poem, a genre in which he established himself brilliantly with such works as Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Don Quixote, and the shamelessly selfpcongratulatory piece which he modestly titled A Hero's Life. His mastery in writing for the orchestra was acknowledged everywhere, and in 1905 he would publish his own revision of Berlioz's revered book on that subject, the Traité d'instrumentation.

Strauss's love affair with the voice, however, and with the soprano voice in particular, was evident in the exquisite songs he had been writing since his earliest years as a composer. It was hardly unexpected that Pauline de Ahna, the soprano who sang the lead in the premiere of his first opera, Guntram, in 1894, should become his wife shortly after that event, or that his natural flair for the dramatic, so evident in his tone poems, should be transferred to the lyric stage with at least equal effectiveness. It was in the realm of opera that Strauss was to be most conspicuously active for the rest of his life. About 75% of his creative period lay ahead of him in 1901, and it was Salome that established him as the master he was, no less conclusively than Don Juan had done for him in the realm of the symphonic poem when he was 25 years old.

After Der Rosenkavalier, introduced in 1911 (and recognized by the composer himself as his masterpiece), none of his other operas came close to matching the success of Salome. Strauss referred to this work as "a scherzo with a tragic ending." In terms of sheer intensity, it is the most highly charged of all his works, for the stage or otherwise. Oscar Wilde's play, which Strauss clearly relished setting to music, is built on emotions, passions and, one might say, psychoses which most good people of the early 1900s would have been embarrassed to discuss, and yet Strauss produced the work in his matter-of-fact, craftsmanlike way, between conducting engagements, and when he was admired for its "uniqueness" he remarked that he could "fabricate another one in no time at all." The "fabrication," indeed, must have appeared easier to him than bringing the completed work to the world's stages.

Wilde wrote his play on what he called "the sinfulness of innocence, and he wrote it in French, not English. Strauss read Anton Lindner's free German translation before he saw the play performed by Max Reinhardt's troupe. Reinhardt used Hedwig Lachmann's more direct translation of Wilde's text, and Strauss used it when he was seized by the feeling that the play "cried out for music." With his sharp theatrical instincts, he himself undertook to eliminate portions of the play and trim the text to manageable operatic proportions. (He succeeded so well that in that respect Salome is the shortest of all his operas, too short for a full evening in the opera house, but ideally proportioned for concert presentation.) It happened that at about the time he began the project he was approached by Kaiser Wilhelm with the suggestion that he base an opera on Friedrich Hebbel's play Herodes und Mariamne he was able to reply that he was already at work on a "Biblical" opera; the Kaiser apparently saw no problem with that, but he did later, when the work was submitted for performance in Berlin.

Anecdotes about the creation and early productions of Salome are possibly more abundant than similar material relating to any other work in the realm of opera. There were difficulties with censors and religious authorities in various countries, and the word "scandal" (better yet, "scandale") became more or less permanently attached to the work. Marie Wittich, the Bayreuth soprano who created the title role, was so astounded by what she was called upon to sing that she protested, "No, Herr Strauss, I won't do it; I'm a decent woman." The Dresden premiere, however, far from being a scandal in any respect, only thrilled the audience and was so well received that no fewer than 38 curtain calls were taken by the composer and the performers. (Enrst von Schuch, who conducted, was by then Strauss's favorite conductor of his operas; he had presided over the premieres of both of the earlier ones--Guntram and Feuersnot--and would introduce Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier in the same theater before his death in 1914.)

In was in Strauss's efforts to get Salome staged in Vienna, London and other cities that the difficulties arose, even before the premiere took place in Dresden, and it was the first performance outside Germany, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on January 22, 1907, that really did turn into a scandal. Alfred Hertz conducted, and Olive Fremstad, Toscanini's famous Isolde, sang the title role. The management made the mistake of scheduling the dress rehearsal, to which members of the board were of course invited, for 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning. J. Pierpont Morgan and his friends, coming from church, were ill prepared for such a spectacle, and expressed themselves as having been "revolted" by it. That sort of thing, naturally, helped to sell out the house for the public premiere, but various outcries from pulpit and press led to the work's being withdrawn after only five performances. Twenty-seven years went by before Salome was presented again in New York.

(Fremstad's approach to her role was far more enthusiastic than Wittich's had been. In order to prepare herself for the most convincing gestures in the final scene, she visited a morgue to get an idea of the heft of an unsupported human head. Her stagger when she accepted the salver bearing the severed head of John the Baptist--which of course was only papier-maché--was said to be so convincing that more than a few members of the audience were compelled to flee the theater. Many who remained had to turn away when Fremstad kissed the head's bloody lips.)

Gustav Mahler, who was director of the Vienna Opera when Salome was published, admired the score, but was unable to persuade the Imperial Censor, who was answerable to one Archbishop Piffl, to allow the work to be performed there. In Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm allowed a production only after Georg Hülsen, the Intendant of the Court Theater, came up with the idea of having the Star of Bethlehem appear as the final notes of the opera sounded, signaling a purification of the "putrescent" atmosphere depicted in the work. The Berlin run was enormously successful, as were productions in theaters all over Germany.

In London, where Wilde's play itself had been banned under a rule prohibiting the depiction of Biblical characters on the stage, the legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was able to get the Lord Chamberlain to permit the staging of Strauss's opera in December 1910 on the condition that certain modifications be made in the offending text: John was not to be mentioned by name, but only as "the Prophet"; Salome's lust, central to the entire drama, was transformed into "a desire on her part for spiritual guidance," etc. Beecham recalled in his autobiography, A Mingled Chime:

It is only fair to say that my collaborators in this joyous piece of nonsense were, in spite of their outward gravity, as exhilarated as myself; for we all of us alike felt that we were making a solemn sacrifice on the altar of an unknown but truly national god."

That noble sacrifice, like Abraham's of Isaac, was not actually made. According to Beecham's recollection, the singers all started out observing the approved substitutions in the text, but

gradually I sensed . . . a growing restlessness and excitement of which the first manifestation was a slip on the part of Salome, who forgot two or three sentences of the bowdlerised version and lapsed into the viciousness of the lawful text. The infection spread among the other performers, and by the time the second half of the work was well under way they were all giving in and shamelessly restoring it to its integrity, as if no such things existed as British respectability and its legal custodians.

At the end of the performance the Lord Chamberlain and his party congratulated Beecham for his fine performance and his gracious co-operation, apparently unaware of what they had just heard (or failed to hear).

Wilde's scenario varies a bit from the Biblical one and that of Gustave Flaubert's Hérodias, in which the 16-year-old princess is only used by her mother, Herodias, as an instrument of revenge and does not herself feel lust for the Prophet. It may be summarized as follows:

The setting of the entire drama is the moonlit terrace of the palace of Herod, Tetrarch of Judea, who has put his own brother to death and married his widow, Herodias, who now reigns as his Queen, with her adolescent daughter Salome as Princess. A banquet is in progress inside the palace. On the terrace are the walls of a cistern in which Herold has imprisoned John (Jokanaan in the play, Jochanaan in the German text). Five men are present: the young Syrian Narraboth, a Page, two Soldiers, and the Cappadocian. The first words are those of Narraboth: "How beautiful is the Princess Salome tonight." He and the Page apostrophize the moon, which they liken to a woman rising from a tomb, and then Narraboth sings of Salome's beauty until the Page tells him he's had enough. The Soldiers begin a discussion of Herod's gloomy mood, but this is broken off by the voice of Jokanaan, resonating up from his place of captivity, extolling his all-powerful Master. The Soldiers remark to each other that he is truly a holy man, but to the Cappadocian's inquiries they replay only that Herod has forbidden any contact with the prisoner, or even any looking at him.

Salome now enters, arousing further excitement on Narroboth's part and expressing her profound distaste for Herod and his banquet guests. Strauss wrote that she was to be played "as a chaste virgin, an Oriental princess, with but the simplest, most dignified gestures, if her shipwreck on encountering the miracle of a brave new world is to arouse compassion and not horror and disgust." Her own apostrophe to the moon (nearly every character acknowledges the moon in one way or another on taking the stage) reflects the composer's image of herself: "like a little flower of silver, cool and chaste." John's voice is heard again, filling Salome with the most insistent curiosity. She demands she be allowed to see the prisoner, but the Soldiers, following Herod's orders, steadfastly refuse. She goes to the cistern and peers into its depth of darkness. What the Soldiers deny her, she will have from Narraboth. Only bring up the prisoner, she purrs, and tomorrow I'll look at you from behind my veil--perhaps even give you a smile. Narraboth's hesitation is brief; he orders the terrified Soldiers to open the cistern.

The Prophet is brought up from the cistern, the personification of Biblical majesty despite his filth and chains, proclaiming the glory of God and denouncing Herodias (without naming her) in her "bed of incest." Salome's passion is inflamed; she sings of her lust for him. Like a paraphrase of the Song of Songs, she sings, "It is your hair that I adore. . . . It is your mouth that I desire. Your mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. . . . Let me kiss your mouth, Jokanaan." Narraboth, who brought the prophet out of the cistern only to score points with Salome, is undone by all this and stabs himself, falling dead between the Princess and the Prophet--neither of whom pays any notice. Jokanaan entreats Salome to mend her ways and find redemption; when she again sings, "Let me kiss your mouth, Jokanaan," he pronounces a curse upon her, and voluntarily returns to the cistern.

Now comes the appearance of the royal couple. Herod remarks that the moon is like a madwoman looking everywhere for lovers. His Queen replies irritably that the moon is simply like the moon. The King, slipping in Narraboth's still moist blood, takes that as a bad omen, and he then feels a chill wind. He tries to get Salome's attention, while Herodias, who doesn't care for the way he looks at her daughter, taunts him with the consequences of his imprisonment of the holy man. But Herod is still concerned with Salome, and, after listening to five Jews discussing the coming of the Messiah (a discussion traditionally omitted in concert performances of the opera), he asks her to dance for him.

This, of course, is the fatal gesture. Salome at first refuses, with her mother's approval. Herold is by now as obsessed as Narraboth was earlier, and offers her half his kingdom. He registers fear for a moment in the face of cold winds followed by fierce gusts of heat, but then renews his urging. Salome finally agrees, over her mother's continued protest, to dance for him when he promises to give her afterward anything she may demand. Salome's Dance, known as the Dance of the Seven Veils, has circulated as a concert piece since shortly after the opera's premiere; it is a sort of thematic digest of the entire work, combining virtually all the important motifs. At its end, Salome tarries meaningfully near the cistern, then falls in an obeisant gesture at the Tetrarch's feet. She not utters her demand: "I wish brought to me, on a salver of pure silver . . . " Herold laughs, but his laughter is abruptly stilled when Salome completes her statement " . . . the head of Jokanaan."
Now Herod know fear as he had never known it before. He tries desperately to talk Salome out of her horrifying demand, offering her other prizes instead: emeralds, perhaps, or peacocks, or all the jewels of his secret treasury, or even the most sacred tgreasures of the Holy Temple. But Salome is firm, and her mother now smiles her approval: now to be rid of that fellow who has been saying such horrid things about her. Herod recognizes the futility of his protest and, stupefied, allows Herodias to slip a ring from his finger; she gives it to the executioner as authority to perform the decapitation.

Salome listens at the opening to the cistern, into which it is too dark for her to see. The sound of the severed head falling is clearly heard, and the orders it sent up to her. It appears almot at once, on a silver shield borne up by a huge black arm. She gazes at the head, caresses it, kisses it, apostrophizing the dead Prophet who refused her kisses in life. She has achieved the macabre consummation of her passion, as the Tetrarch and his consort look on, the former aghast, the latter contentedly approving. Again and again Salome exults, "I have kissed your mouth, Jokanaan. I have kissed your mouth!"

Suddenly, as the caresses the head and kisses its mouth, the moon's light vanishes and Herod, roused from his trance by the power of sheer revulsion, orders, "Guards, kill that woman!" Two soldiers rush at Salome from either side and crush her beneath their shields. The darkness then is total, the drama is done.