The Kennedy Center

Final Scene from Salome

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Peter Laki

In Oscar Wilde's one-act play Salome (1892), the Biblical story was modernized and turned into an erotic thriller focussing 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), withonly a few modifications. The premiere, on December 9, 1905, was a huge success, despite what many saw as an insult to morality and a shockingly modern musical style.

The two excerpts performed at our concert are closely related. Salome performs the famous 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. Salome 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 the shameless Salome. Herod is forced by his oath to comply with Salome's wish. In the final scene we see the bloodthirsty princess being presented with the prophet's head.

In the music of his opera, Strauss uses the leitmotif technique he inherited from Wagner. But whereas most of Wagner's leitmotifs evolve and undergo various transformations in the course of his operas, those of Strauss are most often repeated in an unchanging form, in accordance with the fact that the opera's characters are also static, impervious to change. Salome's obstinacy and Jochanaan's religious conviction are both rock-solid, and much of the opera is about the collision of these two implacable worlds.

Among the opera's leitmotifs, there is one that is equally important in both Salome's Dance and the final scene. This simple theme-made up of the notes of the major triad in a striking rhythm-symbolizes Salome's relationship to Jochanaan, a mixture of awe, revulsion and strong sexual attraction.

The onstage musicians begin to play a fast and wild introduction for Salome's dance, but the princess motions them to slow down since she wants to begin her dance in a languid mood. The music has a distinctly Oriental character at the start, with long notes preceded by rapid ornaments, and the interval of the augmented second, characteristic 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. For a moment, Salome seems exhausted, but she quickly 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 into the cistern where Jochanaan is imprisoned, and then throws herself at Herod's feet, sure of her imminent triumph.

Following the "Dance of the Seven Veils," the drama moves swiftly to its conclusion. Despite his promise to Salome, the weak Herod can't bring himself to actually order Jochanaan's execution. It takes Salome's mother, Herod's wife Herodias (who hates Jochanaan), to remove the ring of death from her husband's finger and give it to the executioner.

The Final Scene begins at the moment when Salome receives Jochanaan's head on a silver platter. She addresses the dead prophet in a solo that is in turn tender, ecstatic, mocking, and mysterious. Herod watches Salome with increasing disgust as she talks to the severed head. Finally, he orders his soldiers to "kill this woman," whereupon the curtain falls rapidly.



Final scene from Salome

Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund
küssen lassen, Jochanaan!
Wohl, ich werde ihn jetzt küssen!
Ich will mit meinen Zähnen hineinbeissen,
wie man in eine reife Frucht beissen mag.
Ja, ich will ihn jetzt küssen, deinen Mund,
Ich hab' es gesagt. Hab' ich's nicht gesagt?
Ja, ich hab' es gesagt.
Ah! Ah! Ich will ihn jetzt küssen...
Aber warum siehst du mich nicht an,
Deine Augen, die so schrecklich waren,
so voller Wut und Verachtung,
sind jetzt geschlossen.
Warum sind sie geschlossen?
Öffne doch die Augen, erhebe deine Lider,
Warum siehst du mich nicht an?
Hast du Angst vor mir, Jochanaan, dass
du mich nicht ansehen willst?...
Und deine Zunge, sie spricht kein Wort,
Jochanaan, diese Scharlachnatter,
die ihren Geifer gegen mich spie.
Es ist seltsam, nicht?
Wie kommt es, dass diese rote Natter sich
nicht mehr rührt?
Du sprachst böse Worte gegen mich, gegen
mich, Salome, die Tochter der Herodias,
Prinzessin von Judea.
Nun wohl! Ich lebe noch, aber du bist tot,
und dein Kopf,
dein Kopf gehört mir.
Ich kann mit ihm tun, was ich will.
Ich kann ihn den Hunden vorwerfen und
den Vögeln der Luft.
Was die Hunde übrig lassen, sollen die
Vögel der Luft verzehren...
Ah! Ah! Jochanaan, Jochanaan, du
warst schön.
Dein Leib war eine Elfenbeinsäule auf silbernen
Er war ein Garten voller Tauben in der
Silberlilien Glanz.
Nichts in der Welt war so weiss wie
dein Leib.
Nichts in der Welt was so schwarz wie
dein Haar.
In der ganzen Welt war nichts so rot wie
dein Mund.
Deine Stimme war ein Weihrauchgefäss,
und wenn ich dich ansah, hörte ich
geheimnisvolle Musik...
Oh! Warum hast du mich nicht angesehen,
Du legtest über deine Augen die Binde
eines, der seinen Gott schauen wollte.
Wohl! Du hast deinen Gott gesehn,
Jochanaan, aber mich, mich, mich hast du
nie gesehn.
Hättest du mich gesehn, du hättest mich
Ich dürste nach deiner Schönheit,
Ich hungre nach deinem Leib,
Nicht Wein noch Äpfel können mein
Verlangen stillen...
Was soll ich jetzt tun, Jochanaan?
Nicht die Fluten, noch die grossen Wasser
können dieses brünstige Begehren löschen...
Oh! Warum sahst du mich nicht an?
Hättest du mich angesehn, du hättest
mich geliebt.
Ich weiss es wohl, du hättest mich geliebt.
Und das Geheimnis der Liebe ist grösser
als das Geheimnis des Todes...
Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst,
Ah! Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund,
es war ein bitterer Geschmack auf deinen
Hat es nach Blut geschmeckt?
Nein! Doch es schmeckte vielleicht nach
Sie sagen, dass die Liebe bitter schmecke...
Allein, was tut's?
Was tut's?
Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan,
Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund.

English Language Translation:

Ah! You would not let me
kiss your mouth, Jochanaan!
Well, I will kiss it now,
I will bite it with my teeth
as one bites a ripe fruit.
Yes, I will kiss your mouth,
I said it. Did I not say it?
Yes, I said it.
Ah! Ah! I will kiss it now...
But why don't you look at me,
Your eyes that were so terrible,
so full of rage and scorn,
are shut now.
Why are they shut?
Open your eyes, lift up your eyelids,
Why don't you look at me?
Are you afraid of me, Jochanaan, that
you will not look at me?...
And your tongue, it says nothing now,
Jochanaan, that scarlet viper that spat
its venom upon me.
It is strange, is it not?
How is it that the red viper
stirs no more?
You spoke evil words against me, against
me, Salome, daughter of Herodias,
Princess of Judea!
Well, Jochanaan, I am still alive, but you
are dead, and your head,
your head belongs to me.
I can do with it what I will.
I can throw it to the dogs and to the
birds of the air.
That which the dogs leave, the birds of
the air shall devour...
Ah! Jochanaan, Jochanaan, you were
Your body was a column of ivory set on
a silver socket.
It was a garden full of doves in the
splendor of silver lilies.
There was nothing in the world so white
as your body.
There was nothing in the world so black
as your hair.
In the whole world there was nothing so
red as your mouth.
Your voice was a censer,
and when I looked you, I heard
mysterious music...
Ah! Why did you not look at me,
You put over your eyes the blindfold of
one who wanted to see his God.
Well! You have seen your God,
Jochanaan, but me, me, me, you have
never seen.
Had you seen me, you would have loved
I crave your beauty,
I am hungry for your body,
Neither wine nor apples can appease my
What shall I do now, Jochanaan?
Neither the floods nor the great waters
can quench my passion.
Oh! Why did you not look at me?
Had you looked at me, you would have
loved me.
I know that you would have loved me.
And the mystery of love is greater than
the mystery of death...
Ah! I have kissed your mouth,
Ah! I have kissed your mouth.
There was a bitter taste on your
Was it the taste of blood?
No! But perhaps it was the taste of
They say that love has a bitter taste...
But what does it matter?
What does it matter?
I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan.
I have kissed your mouth.

English text based on Oscar Wilde, slightly revised to match the sung German translation.