• Email
  • Print

A ‘Beautiful Coloured, Musical Thing’

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 her father’s murder by his brother, who later became her stepfather and would-be seducer. The libretto, however, which is little more than unthinking action, makes nothing of this. Salomé is apparently motivated solely by lust and the desire for revenge, a woman spurned, overreacting, and, at the end, exulting in the triumph of her will. Yet the music is full of shadows that suggest what the libretto ignores.

Wilde’s characters are scarcely developed to the point of self-awareness, let alone to tragic stature. This may be illustrated by comparing Salomé and Lady Macbeth, who comes to mind because she also dominates and misuses her power over a weak man. But the crucial differences between the two women are that Shakespeare’s acts within a moral frame, struggles with her conscience, and, though rationalizing her deeds, survives to experience their consequences. Wilde’s, by contrast, lacks even the concept of any principle higher than the gratification of her own desires, while the likelihood that she would ever be disturbed by conscience seems remote. Obviously the ethical development of the two women was largely determined by their different historical circumstances. Lady Macbeth lived in a society whose values were nominally Christian, while Salomé was the product of conflicting cultures and a “mixed marriage,” the daughter of a Roman tetrarch and the Queen of Judea. No less important, Shakespeare’s villainess is multi-dimensional, Wilde’s a mere silhouette. In fact, Salomé is simply a personification of wickedness, and in this respect the drama resembles a morality play.

Why, then, unlike other embodiments of evil, is the Salomé of the opera believable? One answer is that the Biblical tale is a part of our culture, consecrated by two thousand years of religion and history, and made vivid by art. Josephus, in the Jewish Antiquities (AD 93-94), is the first to mention her by name, the Gospels (Mark, 6: 16-28, probably writing before the fall of Jerusalem, and Matthew, 14: 1-11, who copies him) referring to her simply as the daughter of Herodias. As for Salomé’s familiar role in the death of John the Baptist—which doubtless still has significance for some audiences—this was established by Jerome and other fourth-century Fathers. Salomé was portrayed by artists from Giotto to Caravaggio, Donatello to Titian, and the mosaicists of St. Mark’s to Moreau, but her greatest fame followed the adoption of John as the patron saint of Florence, even though of course the city’s sculptors and painters depicting his martyrdom reduced her prominence in the story.

In the nineteenth century, Salome was reinterpreted by, among others, Delacroix, Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Laforgue, this last introducing the idea, of the greatest importance to Wilde and Strauss, of Salomé’s kissing the slain prophet’s mouth. When Salomé in her terrible soliloquy asks whether the bitterness of this osculation is the taste of love (thereby revealing that she has never experienced the emotion), Strauss succeeds in turning the mauvais goût of Wilde’s feeble irony into true “redemption through love,” the theme of a century of German romanticism of which the composer was perhaps the last exponent.

The Salomé of the opera is also believable in her obsession, so convincingly expressed through the music. But while Strauss could not have been conscious of her aberration as symbolism in any Freudian sense, contemporary audiences can hardly escape this aspect of the opera. First of all, the nocturnal setting suggests the thought that the events are not actual but dreamed. And, second, the cistern in which Jochanaan (John the Baptist) is confined had also been the prison of Salomé’s father; it is a symbol for the tomb, therefore, and Jochanaan’s emergence from under the ground is a “resurrection.” But Salomé’s violation of the grave, the breaking of the taboo, requires that she be punished, and, mythologically speaking, her death is necessary as much for this reason as for her part in Jochanaan’s murder.

J’aime l’horreur d’être vierge….” Salomé’s ambiguousness toward her virginity, the essential question of her psyche, apparently arises from her unresolved Oedipal relationship with her murdered father. In any event, her infantile libido has taken a necrophiliac form, whose object is not only dead during her love scene but corpselike at her first view of him. Finally, she has both wanted and feared her dead beloved’s now inextrusible tongue. (“Viper” is her word, and in Mallarmé she wishes to be a “reptile inviolé” herself.) In other versions of the story, Jochanaan’s decapitation, or castration, is his punishment for beholding Salomé’s nakedness, the crime of forbidden knowledge in symbolic form, but in the opera he is punished for the opposite transgression, that of ignoring her.

If Salomé has little dimension, apart from her case history and her thralldom, none of the other characters has enough to stir up the slightest interest in what becomes of them. Jochanaan might have been a figure of tragic proportions, as he is elsewhere. But though he is imprisoned as a fatidic nuisance, and loses his life for his beliefs, his death amounts to little more than a bizarre incident, partly because, like Salomé, he is no more than a personification—of virtue in his case. The main failure, however, is that his musical characterization is inadequate, his “heroic” motif belonging to a genre more appropriately associated with the good pioneers in a western than with a mystic, a type for which Strauss admittedly felt no sympathy. But the audience’s indifference to Jochanaan’s fate may also be attributed to his infrequent appearances. Since he is no more than a disembodied voice during much of the opera, a disembodied head at the end of it, and all in one piece only at the beginning, the role is unusually fragmented.

Herod’s part is larger, and his struggle of wills with Salomé supersedes hers with Jochanaan. Though the outcomes of both confrontations are predictable, the one with Herod is the more suspenseful, the feeling being conveyed that just conceivably he could change his mind and avert the catastrophe. He is complex, too, and the audience cannot tell whether the strongest of his motives in ordering Salomé’s death is revulsion, fear, or jealousy, all three being intricately combined in his well-drawn musical characterization. Yet he, not Salomé, has compunctions. In contrast, Herodias and Narraboth are practically featureless, and even the suicide of the latter goes unnoticed, not only by Salomé and the holy man but also by the audience. Human sympathy is not the theme of this opera.

We have been conditioned to regard the “progressive” aspects of many composers as the most important ones, and Salomé makes that thesis difficult to disprove. (Whether the same can be said of Elektra, with its formal introductions to “set” arias, depends on the listener’s perspective vis-à-vis Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne.) Certainly Salomé‘s most exciting moments are in such “Expressionist,” “free association,” and new and unrepeatable passages as the orchestral swirling during Herod’s final dialogue with his wife. But Strauss continually surpasses himself in this scene and in a way that transcends these categories. No doubt believing that his heroine, like Elektra after her, has gone mad, he translates her to a plane beyond communication. “Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan,” she whispers, and muted violins moan an echo under an aura of woodwind trills, an unforgettable effect that isolates her as completely as if she were in solitary confinement.

Progressive,” too, if that is the direction of Schoenberg and Berg, 4 are some of the opera’s thematic metamorphoses. For one example, at the moment of Jochanaan’s first awareness of Salomé=”Wer ist dies Weib?“—her legato initial motif is transformed into a choppy ostinato figure and placed in a clashing counter-rhythm to his music, thus conveying her threat to the Prophet even though the listener may not recognize the motif as Salomé’s. But the same pattern returns when Herod invites her to drink wine with him, and this time the suggestion of “dripping” in the staccato figure suddenly becomes evident, for although she refuses him, the music belies her thirst, or, rather, bloodthirstiness.

The debt to Salomé in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is immense and ranges from the simple borrowing of instrumental devices to the incorporation of stylistic ones. But Berg and his generation, twenty years after Salomé, had not only ceased to regard its composer as a lost leader but had forgotten that he had ever been a real one. The two operas differ from, as much as they resemble, each other, Salomé being a single, sustained symphonic act, Wozzeck a series of brief, self-contained units. But the orchestral interludes, a feature of Berg’s opera, were clearly modeled on those in Salomé, especially on the one which escorts the soldiers to the cistern to carry out the execution, and in which the explosive dynamics, the brutal lower brass and the alarum in the horns, the repeated major seconds, the chromatic harmony and wide intervals, and the combining of different rhythmic patterns might actually have come from Wozzeck.

Among the many instrumental inventions which Strauss’s opera seems to have suggested to Berg’s are the contra-bassoon obligato (in Salomé‘s fourth scene, Wozzeck‘s first) and the high solo bass notes (before the decollation in Salomé, and, in Wozzeck, to represent the snoring in the barracks). No less apparent is the effect on the Hauptmann’s music in Berg’s opera of Herod’s nervous vocal style—“Es ist kalt hier,” “Es weht ein Wind.” Yet the point about these and other innovations is not so much their “influence” as their contribution to the most thrilling passages in Salomé.

The opera’s minor weaknesses include the lapses into inappropriate styles, such as the Viennese waltz at Herod’s table and the Danubian lilt of the Sea of Galilee; and the literalisms—every reference to dancing, for example, being marked by a flick of the tambourine, or to lions by a roar in the trombones. But “Straussian orchestration,” a pejorative term suggesting a diapason of doublings and overrich textures, is comparatively rare. True, Strauss always prefers the many hued to the pure, seldom using the strings or woodwinds or brass alone, as Wagner does so tellingly in the Prelude to Parsifal, yet the most striking effects are obtained from solo instruments, small combinations, or even from the sudden removal of a doubling—as when the first part of the “kiss” motif is played by violins and clarinet, the last part by the clarinet alone (cf. 320), its timbre skillfully exploited by a harmonic turn.

Anyone in search of enlightenment about Salomé should stay well away from the two leading authorities in English on Strauss.5 Although “critical” appears in the titles of their books, “appreciative” would be a more apt word for these potpourris of biographical information, anecdotes about the backgrounds of compositions and their premières, resumés of plots, and impressionistic descriptions of the music. The “technical” aspects of the composition are limited to the identification of tonalities, time signatures, and instrumental combinations—including, in the latter case, some that are not heard:

…one expects organ and harmonium here [but] Strauss does not need them at this moment. [Mann]

Many examples in music type are also included, twenty-eight for Salomé in Mr. Mann’s book, thirty-nine in Mr. Del Mar’s. Since harmonic contexts are provided in only a few of these extracts, however, and tempi in none—is it of no importance that the beginning of the second scene is in a fast “one” rather than a slow “three”?—these scraps of music are as useless as the words that they are intended to supplement. Some of Mr. Del Mar’s examples, moreover, are printed not as they are heard but as the player of the “horn in E” or the “clarinet in A” sees them, which is to say, untransposed. Considering the density of the music at certain of the places where these motifs appear, Strauss himself would have had difficulty in recognizing them.

But a more important objection to both studies is their assumption of an all but absolute literalness of verbal meaning in Strauss’s treatment of motifs. In fact Mr. Mann’s analysis translates the music into words in a way which tends to imply that the composer scarcely thought in musical terms at all:

[When the Prophet] rejects Salomé’s advances…Ex. 14 [Jochanaan’s motif] in diminution marks Salomé’s change of instinct.

Even if Strauss did modify his materials with such precise literal intent, which is doubtful, to approach the music in this way is to detract from it.

But in fairness to Mr. Mann, it must be acknowledged that his own intentions are often obscured by his style. Thus he writes that

the music sinks into a timeless B major while Salomé cries the Prophet’s name, and first horn with oboes and clarinets drag out Ex. 1 as from a sluggish chest of drawers.

Meaning that “Ex. 1” was reluctant to leave its place among the shirts and socks in an unlubricated chiffonier? Or is the allusion anatomical, a complaint about possible respiratory ailments in woodwind players? (What actually happens at this place is simply that Salomé’s first motif is heard in a rhythmic form whose momentary effect is to dissolve or suspend the metronomic beat.) Also, the reader who has followed Mr. Mann’s elucidations of motivic usages up to this point may justifiably ask why Salomé’s, rather than Jochanaan’s, motif is played, since his name, not hers, is being called.

To confound the Strauss lover even further, Messrs Mann and Del Mar disagree on everything from the import of motifs to the question of Salomé’s purity. For Mr. Mann, “Ex. 24 gives voluptuous expression to the action of biting,” while for Mr. Del Mar the same example is simply “a vulgar tune.” And whereas Mr. Mann refers to the “passions that are welling inside Salomé’s untutored heart,” Mr. Del Mar believes that “passions run high in the East and Salomé was no innocent child at the time of these events.” But the subject so disturbs Mr. Del Mar that it must have been a great strain on him to write about it:

Strauss…failed to do justice to a horribly important section of [Wilde’s] work…[and] Salomé’s Ex. 15 combines with her mother’s Ex. 34 in a horrible display of hysterical triumph….

In fact, Mr. Del Mar appears to identify with the victims, since he writes that

After a performance of Salomé one is left with a very nasty taste in one’s mouth.

Romain Rolland, though mistaken about Salomé, is nevertheless a keen observer of its composer, noting that in Strauss’s presence

One falls underneath a pride that is cold, self-willed, indifferent or contemptuous of the majority of things and people.6

Strauss conducting a rehearsal, Rolland remarked,

looks bored, sulky, half-asleep, but lets nothing escape him. His music stirs me [but] one always wonders how that can have come out of this….7

Rolland was not afraid to challenge Strauss on the suitability of Salomé for opera:

The sensual ferocity of the ending may frighten an Opéra-Comique audience; and I do not know how the ending can be staged. As it is impossible in the theater to give an impression of the true horror of it, there is a risk that it may arouse irony.8

But these fears were unfounded and Salomé has been an enduring success in the land of the guillotine.

After becoming familiar with the opera, Rolland wrote that

When you speak in your name, as in the Domestica or in Heldenleben, you attain a matchless intensity and fullness of feeling.9

But the exact opposite is true. Strauss is at his most unbearable when he speaks in his own name, and the “coeur mis à nu” in those two orchestral works is shallow and banal indeed compared with the “fullness of feeling” when he speaks in Salomé’s. Rolland also wonders “if music gains as much as the theater does in this victory” and assures the composer that “nervous tension…is not the best…that you have to give.” But the theater rescued Strauss, and rescued “pure” music from him, while that “nervous tension” is the very secret of Salomé‘s power.

Preparing the libretto for the Paris performances, Strauss explained to Rolland that

as Wilde’s…text…is in French, I would like to achieve a quite special French edition of my opera, which does not give the impression of being a translation, but of being a real setting of the original. 10

But just as Wilde had submitted his manuscript to Pierre Louÿs and then accepted only his grammatical corrections, refusing to alter unidiomatic expressions, so Strauss showed his French version to Rolland yet ignored some of his advice. And Strauss’s French seems to have been rudimentary. For example, he allotted only one syllable for “crié” (“De celui qui a crié“), and, in writing “Comme est belle la princesse” (for “Comme elle est belle, la princesse“), seemed to be trying to preserve German word order. Worst of all, he insisted on remaining faithful to Wilde’s faux pas of having Herod repeat the phrase “Je suis sûr qu’il va arriver un malheur à quelqu’un,” for though Herod is not thinking of Jochanaan, the audience would do just that, and, of course, be most inappropriately amused.

Rolland, like Hofmannsthal after him, occasionally talked down to Strauss, though both writers were aware that the composer’s instincts as a dramatist were at least as acute as theirs and that his musical genius included other kinds of intelligence. But Strauss is the most puzzling of composers—to say nothing of human beings. While he was as sensible and shrewd as these two literary friends, unlike them he often seemed unprincipled as a man, and as an artist quite incapable of understanding music as a moral realm. He also, as Hofmannsthal put it, “tried to escape from all of the higher standards of intellectual existence.”

Thus Strauss’s neoclassicism, initiated a decade before Stravinsky’s or Schoenberg’s, cannot be compared to their struggle to reshape an age. Not that Strauss’s “Lully” (1912) is less skillful than Stravinsky’s “Pergolesi” (1920), but whereas the former turns an indifferent and even philistine back on its own time, the latter helps to create it. Thus, too, the songs which Strauss wrote at the end of his life, and which are among the most beautiful of their kind, could have been written nearly a century before. But on the other hand, fifty years of “modern music,” the years of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, have produced only two or three musico-dramatic creations that can compete with the most popular operas of Richard Strauss.

  1. 1

    Oscar Wilde, from an unsent letter, Reading Gaol, 1897, to Lord Alfred Douglas.

  2. 2

    Opening performance March 13, New York State Theater.

  3. 3

    Richard Strauss and Romain Rolland, Correspondence, diary and essays, edited and annotated with a preface by Rollo Myers (University of California Press, 1968).

  4. 4

    Berg, like Mahler and Schoenberg, was profoundly impressed by Salomé, both in score and at the first Austrian performances in 1906.

  5. 5

    Richard Strauss, A Critical Study of the Operas, by William Mann (Oxford University Press, 1966). Richard Strauss, A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works, by Norman Del Mar. 3 vols. (Chilton, 1962-1973).

  6. 6

    Diary, April 1899.

  7. 7

    Diary, March 25, 1906.

  8. 8

    Letter, November 5, 1905.

  9. 9

    Letter, May 14, 1907.

  10. 10

    Letter, September 13, 1905.

  • Email
  • Print