A ‘Beautiful Coloured, Musical Thing’

Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss; drawing by David Levine

In all likelihood Oscar Wilde would not have chosen these same words 1 to describe his Salomé as transformed by Richard Strauss. Yet in spite of substantial cuts the opera follows the play and its deviations from the Bible: Salomé acts on her own behalf, rather than on her mother’s, and is put to death at the end. And while the play is seldom given today, the popularity of the opera, attested to by an epidemic of new European productions, is greater than ever. In New York, too, Salomé is in the repertories of both houses, the Metropolitan and the Rudel,2 though the former is not offering it this season, perhaps because the roster already includes three Strauss operas and a fourth would acknowledge him, at least in numbers of works performed, as the peer of Wagner and Verdi. But then, Strauss is the only other composer whose dramatic pieces, in quantity, currently hold a place on the world’s stages.

The sensational elements in Salomé have not interfered with its appeal, of course, but the position that the opus enjoys in the by no means crowded company of operatic masterpieces requires another explanation. Not that everyone would agree with this high estimate, yet even the most severe critics concede the pre-eminence of Strauss’s creation in the vanguard “Expressionist” music of its time. Compared to Elektra (1909), with its superior dramatic structure and more compact and consistent score, Salomé (1905) is a mere narrative, uneven in musical quality—that of the “Seven Veils,” for instance, coming perilously close to Samson et Dalila.

Salomé, all the same, is a musically more abundant creation than Elektra, and the last scene, its impossible dramatic situation notwithstanding, is the most gripping that Strauss ever composed. The emotional involvement here—Strauss’s as well as the listener’s—is difficult to account for since the stage tableau, superficially if not facetiously regarded, would seem to be no more than “hair raising.” But this is the anomaly of Salomé: while the plot and characters are far below the level of tragedy, the music, at the end, provides both tragic feeling and catharsis.

Writing to Strauss after the first Paris performances, Romain Rolland, 3 the composer’s confidant, refers to “the pity which you try to feel for your unfortunate heroine.” But “pity” is the very last emotion that Salomé inspires, whether or not Strauss sought to evoke it. Nor does the audience feel that she is “unfortunate,” at least not in the sense of provoking personal sympathy, though like other dangerous psychopaths she may arouse compassion for her troubled state. In fact Salomé’s death is morally and dramatically necessary, and hence a relief. This is not to deny that the tale and the character could be interpreted to make her behavior excusable “by reasons of insanity,” but that would require the dramatization of the destructive effect on the young girl of…

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