The Kennedy Center

Salome’s Dance

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Peter Laki

Richard Strauss was born in Munich on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on September 8, 1949. He completed his one-act opera Salomé on June 20, 1905. The premiere took place on December 9, 1905 in Dresden, under the direction of Ernst von Schuch.
"Salomé's Dance" (also known as the "Dance of the Seven Veils") is an excerpt from the opera that runs about 10 minutes in performance. Strauss scored the opera for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, heckelphone (baritone oboe), small clarinet in E flat, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (tamtam, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, xylophone, castanets, glockenspiel), celesta, 2 harps, organ, harmonium and strings.

One of Richard Strauss's most celebrated operas, Salomé, is also one of his most provocative and controversial works. The premiere, in 1905, was a huge success, despite what seemed to be to many an insult to morality and a shockingly modern musical style.

In Oscar Wilde's one-act play Salome (1892), the Biblical story was modernized and turned into an erotic thriller focusing on the morbid aspects of the legend. As soon as Strauss had seen a performance of Wilde's play in Max Reinhardt's Little Theater in Berlin, he knew it had great operatic potential. Rather than having the drama adapted as a libretto, he set Wilde's original text directly to music (in Hedwig Lachmann's German translation), with only a few minor changes.

Salomé performs the "Dance of the Seven Veils" for her stepfather, Herod, the ruler of Judea, who has given his word to grant her wish, whatever it may be, in return. Salomé does not name her prize until the dance is over. To Herod's horror, she then demands the head of Jochanaan (St. John the Baptist), the imprisoned prophet who has pronounced a curse on Salomé because of her shameless behavior.

The onstage musicians begin to play a fast and wild introduction for Salomé's dance, but the princess motions them to slow down since she wants to begin the dance in a languid mood. The music has a distinct Oriental character at the start, with long notes preceded by rapid ornaments, and the interval of the augmented second, typical of much Middle Eastern music. After a while, the languid Oriental dance gives way to a waltz (slow at first, but gradually getting more and more excited as Salomé throws off her seven veils, one after the other). The strains of the waltz include a motif that recurs throughout the opera and symbolizes Salomé's relationship to Jochanaan, a mixture of awe, revulsion and strong sexual attraction.

For a moment, Salomé seems exhausted, but she recovers her strength for the frenzied last section of her dance, in which the Oriental motifs are combined with the accelerated waltz theme. She briefly looks down the cistern where Jochanaan is being kept as the flutes and oboes play the fateful motif, and then, with the last veil gone, she throws herself at Herod's feet, sure of her imminent triumph.