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"Dance of the Seven Veils", Op. 54

About the Work

Richard Strauss
Quick Look Composer: Richard Strauss
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Celebrating R. Strauss at 150 featuring Christine Goerke, soprano, and John Relyea, bass-baritone Mar. 20 - 22, 2014
© 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.