Salome and the new world

11 Feb 2020

Opera expert Phillip Sametz reflects on the origins of the Salome story and how Richard Strauss brought opera crashing into the 20th century with his daring score.

Vida Miknevičiūtė (Salome) and Ian Storey (Herod) in rehearsal for Victorian Opera's Salome. Photo: Craig Fuller

She is probably the most renowned striptease artist in history, yet the bible story concerning Salome does not even tell us her name. 

In the gospels of St Matthew and St Mark we read of her as the daughter of Herodias. Herodias deserted Salome’s father Herod Philippus for his half-brother Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great); the preacher John the Baptist condemned the new marriage as incestuous. For this, and his prophecy of the coming Messiah, Herod Antipas had John imprisoned in a dungeon. One night, after a banquet, Herodias’ daughter danced for the guests, and her performance so pleased Herod that he offered her whatever she desired. Encouraged by Herodias, she asked for John’s head. Although the gospels tell us that Herod was ‘sorry’, he kept his promise, and had the executioner bring to her John’s head on a silver charger; she then gave it to her mother.

There is nothing in the story of Herod’s lust for Salome, of Salome’s desire for John, of Herod ordering Salome’s death or even that the dance involved seven veils (or veils of any kind). These embellishments were the work of Oscar Wilde, in his play Salomé, which he wrote, in French, in 1891. A failure in France, and banned in Britain, the play had been a success in Germany, where it was first performed in 1901. It represents part of a resurgent interest in the Salome story, which coincided with what might be described as the rise of the femme fatale in late 19th century art. There were Salome pictures by Lovis Corinth and Gustave Moreau (and many others), Flaubert’s short story Hérodias and Massenet’s opera based on it, Hérodiade.

Wilde’s Salomé first came to Strauss’ attention through a young Viennese poet, Anton Lindner, who offered to create an opera libretto based on the play, and even wrote some sample scenes. Strauss was underwhelmed, and preferred the new translation by Hedwig Lachmann, created for the production staged by Max Reinhardt in Berlin in 1902. By the time Strauss came to see the play that November, he had already jotted some musical ideas down in his copy of the text. So, after the performance, when a friend said to him: ‘Surely you could make an opera of this,’ Strauss could truthfully reply: ‘I am already busy composing it.’

Strauss had first been attracted to the musical possibilities suggested by the play’s opening line: ‘How beautiful is the Princess Salome tonight!’ He then created his own libretto by cutting Wilde’s text by more than a third. Secondary characters disappeared, as did anything not germane to the central plot.

If any two operas can be said to announce the 20th century in music, they are Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande of 1902, and Strauss’ Salome, which premiered three years later. In both, the declamation of traditional libretto poetry is cast aside in favour of a prose text taken straight from spoken drama. Both composers use this operatic freedom to explore emotion and psychology with exceptional vividness, and to make the orchestra equal – and sometimes dominating – partners as they strike out on bold new paths of expression. The extent to which the orchestra anticipates and comments upon the characters’ emotional states in Salome led Strauss’ contemporary, the French composer Gabriel Fauré, to describe the work as ‘a tone-poem with vocal parts added’.

Not long before he’d finished the score, Strauss played Salome for his father, who responded: ‘My God what nervous music. I feel as if my trousers were full of insects.’ It is this restlessness – harmonically, tonally and rhythmically – that allows Strauss to paint each moment in the opera so precisely, from Salome’s mounting infatuation with John to Herod’s increasingly desperate pleas to Salome. In finding a sound for this erotically charged story of obsession, Strauss, in his own words, ‘penetrated to the uttermost limits of harmony [and] psychological polyphony…’. And in showing how a complex emotional landscape could be explored in a pungent, richly expressive musical language, he also paved the way for the operas of Bartók, Korngold, Berg, Shostakovich and Britten. At the dawn of the 20th century, Salome announced a new era of operatic possibility.

Phillip Sametz 
Writer and Presenter