From Botticelli in the 15th century and Dürer in the 16th to Picasso and Klimt in the 20th, painters have been fascinated by the personality of Salome. But before Richard Strauss came along in the early years of the 20th century, only Alessandro Stradella with his San Giovanni Battista (1675) and Jules Massenet with his Hérodiade (1881) had dealt on a large musical scale with the biblical story of the young princess whose dancing so pleased her stepfather, Herod Antipas, that he promised her any reward she might care to name. Prompted by her mother, Herodias, she asked for the head of the itinerant evangelist John the Baptist. He had been imprisoned by Herod for his blasphemous claim to be preparing the way for God’s appearance on earth, and for his denunciation of Herodias’s marriage to Herod as “incestuous” (because her first husband, Salome’s father, was Herod’s half-brother). Herod, though reluctant to grant his stepdaughter’s bloodthirsty request, kept his promise. The executioner, St. Mark records, “brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.”
This is as far as the biblical narrative (which never names Salome) takes us. Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, written in French in 1891–92 as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt and published with the celebrated illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, improved on the legend by introducing the motif of sexual obsession— Salome’s for John and Herod’s for her—and by inventing Herod’s order that Salome should be killed by his soldiers, rather as one might put down a mad dog. Wilde’s interest reflected that of several 19th-century writers, who found in the subject elements of religio-eroticism more in tune with the spirit of the time than the usual biblical themes. In addition, Wilde had a detailed knowledge of paintings of Salome. Only those by Gustave Moreau fully satisfied him. “Her lust must needs be infinite, and her perversity without limits,” was Wilde’s view. “Her pearls must expire on her flesh.”
Wilde’s play, banned in England, was first staged in 1896 in Paris, while its author was in jail. The first German production took place in Breslau in 1901, in a translation by one “Dr. Kisper.” Another German translation, by Hedwig Lachmann, was sent to Richard Strauss by the young Viennese writer Anton Lindner, who offered to convert it into an opera libretto. Strauss asked for some sample scenes but was not impressed by them. He had already detected operatic possibilities in Lachmann’s text as it stood. The opening line, “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht!” (“How beautiful the Princess Salome is tonight”), immediately suggested music to him. His copy of the translation contains musical ideas jotted down hastily alongside crucial lines. When he eventually saw the play on the stage in Berlin (where he was conductor of the Court Opera) in November of 1902, in Max Reinhardt’s production of Lachmann’s translation, he had already made a number of sketches for an opera. Salome was played by the great actress Gertrud Eysoldt, whose striking performance was immortalized in Lovis Corinth’s well-known painting.
Strauss shortened the Wilde–Lachmann text by about one third, eliminating some subsidiary episodes and reducing the floridity of the imagery. He also significantly shifted the balance of the play. Wilde’s central character was Herod. Strauss’s, indisputably, is Salome—“a 16-year-old princess with the voice of Isolde,” he called her. He completed the musical sketch during his 1904 summer holiday and finished the full score on June 20, 1905. The last part to be written was the Dance of the Seven Veils, often decried as the weakest feature of the opera, but more justly defined as a brilliantly effective, self-contained tone poem, its music wheedling, kittenish, teasing, and ultimately demoniacal, as Strauss lashes the waltz rhythm into a frenzy.
Strauss awarded the first performance to Dresden, where the conductor Ernst von Schuch had earned Strauss’s gratitude for the successful launching of his satirical opera Feuersnot in 1901. The composer warned Schuch that the singers of the three principal roles of Salome, Herod, and Jochanaan (the Hebrew name for John the Baptist) would need three months to learn their parts. He had misgivings about the casting of Dresden’s buxom Wagnerian soprano Marie Wittich as the slim, youthful Salome, but decided that the vocal demands of the role overrode the visual. At the first piano rehearsal, all except one of the singers returned their parts in protest to the conductor. The exception was Czech tenor Carl Burrian (Herod), who already knew his by heart. This shamed his colleagues into reluctant action. Later, when Wittich realized the full extent of the “perversities” the director had devised for her, she threatened to go on strike, protesting, “I won’t do it, I’m a decent woman.” As a result, Strauss informed Schuch that he would reserve the first performance for him only until December 9. After that, Arthur Nikisch in Leipzig or Gustav Mahler in Vienna could have it. The premiere was given on the deadline-date and was an overwhelming success: the audience demanded 38 curtain calls. But the critics abused it as immoral and cacophonous.
The so-called “immorality” of Salome led to censorship problems in several countries. Strauss was bluffing Schuch because, although Mahler was anxious to conduct the opera in Vienna, his intention had provoked a warning shot from the Court Opera House censor as early as September of 1905. But Mahler persevered resolutely; after reading the score he wrote to Strauss: “Every note is right!... I shall leave no stone unturned and shall never flag in championing this incomparable, thoroughly original masterpiece.” Mahler first saw Salome in Berlin in 1907, when he attended two performances within a few days. “One of the greatest masterpieces of our time,” he wrote to his wife. “It is the voice of the ‘earth-spirit’ speaking from the heart of genius.” This was Mahler’s way of saying that he recognized that the opera’s subject was sex. But the censors denied him the chance to conduct it (its first Vienna performance, by a visiting company from Breslau, was given in 1907 at a theater not under the court censor’s control). At one point Mahler hinted to Strauss that he might threaten to resign his directorship of the Court Opera over Salome, which brought the noble response: “We need an artist of your determination, your genius and your outlook in such a position too badly for you to put anything at stake on Salome’s account. In the end we shall attain our ends without this!” Salome was not performed at the Vienna State Opera until 1918.
Strauss’s employer in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, remarked that Salome would do its composer harm. Strauss’s famous retort—that the “harm” enabled him to build his villa in Garmisch—betrays how successful the opera was—both as a coruscating and sensational score and as a succès de scandale. Even today, when our sensitivities have been blunted by far worse horrors than the desire of a depraved girl to kiss the mouth of a decapitated prophet, Salome has the power to shock and sicken an audience, not only because of its uncanny translation into music of Wilde’s fin de siècle decadence, but through the graphic and atmospheric magnetism of Strauss’s marvelous score. It gives the impression of having been composed in one sustained burst of invention, although structurally it is divided into the sections of a symphonic poem.
Dramatically, the opera is superbly paced, rising to the climax of Salome’s final solo, in which all the melodic themes and fragments are drawn together in an orgasmic expression of mounting desire and madness. It is easy to believe that, as has been suggested, this scene was composed first and that the rest of the one-act opera grew from it. Yet it is not Salome’s opera alone. The music for Herod and Herodias and (whatever Strauss’s own misgivings about its quality) for Jochanaan is almost as starkly characterized, while over the whole score, like the moonlight in which the action takes place, a nocturnal luminosity is shed by the masterful orchestration.
The orchestra is, in a real sense, the protagonist in Salome. Although over 100 instruments are required, Strauss only occasionally unleashes their full capacity. Much of the score is light, transparent, and subtly colored. His advice that it should be played “like fairy music by Mendelssohn” is a valuable hint to interpreters. The virtuosity of the scoring of this “scherzo with a fatal conclusion,” in Strauss’s own words, is dazzling, from the clarinet’s opening roulade to the grinding final chords that underline the horror of Salome’s violent death. Borrowed from Berlioz, the famous passage for “pinched” high double bass notes as Salome sighs with anguish while waiting for Jochanaan’s head is but one of numerous loci classici of Strauss’s ability to create sounds that exactly mirror the dramatic situation. It is the orchestra, like a stream of consciousness, that tells us what is in the characters’ minds and hearts even before they know it themselves. Just one example: when Salome’s sexual obsession for Jochanaan becomes murderous, the orchestra converts (by distortion) the theme of her longing to kiss his mouth into that of her demand for his head on a silver charger.