Richard Strauss and Salome

Richard Strauss saw a German production by Max Reinhardt of Oscar Wilde's Salome in 1903. He'd already been told of its potential as an opera subject, but the Reinhardt production convinced him and he immediately began setting this German translation by Hedwig Lachmann. Strauss took about a year to lay out the work in 'short score', then began the orchestration, completing it in June, 1905. During this time he also completed his Sinfonia Domestica, additionally updating and expanding Hector Berlioz' treatise on orchestration. One cannot help but notice the artistic motif of the dangerously sexual femme fatale in Austrian arts and culture at the time, and Strauss's clever appropriation of it. Franz Wedekind's Erdgeist (which was eventually set by Alban Berg as Lulu), Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Elektra (set later by Strauss himself), Franz Von Stuck's painting The Kiss of the Sphinx and Edvard Munch's Vampire all contributed to this motif, not to mention Klimt's and Schiele's erotic ladies.

But what a visual artist could render on paper was quite different from what producers of a theatrical work could get away with on a public stage. The Lord Chamberlain in Great Britain had already banned the Wilde play (1892) so a Covent Garden production was out of the question. Church and state censors blocked it in Vienna, ignoring the desire of Gustav Mahler to have it produced at the Staatsoper. (Mahler was at first non-committal about Salome but when Strauss came to Vienna to play and sing the score from the piano, Mahler's wife relates: "Strauss played and sang incomparably well. Mahler was overwhelmed. We came to the dance - it was missing. 'Haven't got it done yet,' Strauss said and played on to the end, leaving this yawning gap. 'Isn't it rather risky,' Mahler remarked, 'simply leaving out the dance, and then writing it in later when you're not in the same mood?' Strauss laughed his light-hearted laugh: 'I'll fix that all right.')

When the composer played the opera for his aged musician-father, he complained about the 'restlessness' of the music, comparing it to having insects crawling around underneath one's clothes. This wasn't atypical of the reactions of Strauss's contemporaries. The rehearsal period for the opera's premiere at Dresden under conductor Ernst von Schuch was difficult, to say the least. Singers rebelled, especially Marie Wittich in the title role who was appalled by what she was required to do on stage by the producers: "I'm a decent woman!," she complained. But the work finally reached the stage on December 9, 1905, and the audience responded by giving the artists thirty-eight curtain calls. The critics were less kind, in fact condemnatory. Despite problems with censors and critics, however, Breslau, Graz and some fifty other German and Austrian opera houses staged the work within the next couple of years. The Metropolitan Opera tried to stage it in 1907 but J. P. Morgan's daughter, who saw a dress rehearsal of Salome on a Sunday afternoon, described such a cacophonous battery of offensive sounds and purple imagery that the performances were scrapped. For performances in Berlin the Kaiser insisted that the Star of Bethlehem be painted on a backdrop for the final scene, a bizarre addition to the scenario that was featured at the opera house for three decades of performances!

The Source of the Libretto: Oscar Wilde's Salome

By the early 1890s Oscar Wilde was a very well known literary figure in the UK, but he sought fame abroad and traveled to Paris in 1891. While there he had the opportunity to meet Stéphane Mallarmé, the symbolist poet and he came under the influence of both Mallarmé and Maeterlinck, the poet who crafted Pelleas et Mélisande, later set as an opera by Claude Debussy. After a lengthy discussion with friends about the depictions in history and art of the story of John the Baptist and Salome (unnamed) from the Bible, he wrote the play quickly, in French. Although in the published version the playwright acknowledged Alfred Lord Douglas, his lover, as the French translator, it was Wilde himself who completed the task, so disappointed was he by Douglas's schoolboy French. This caused quite a rift in their relationship for a time, but did not harm it irrevocably. (That, of course, was to happen later at the hands of the Marquess of Queensbury, Douglas's father, who publicly denounced Wilde as a "somdomite" [sic] and which led to Wilde's devastating two-year imprisonment and exile to Paris. Even after all they'd been through Douglas and Wilde attempted reconciliation, but it only lasted a few months after which Wilde died in poverty.)

Wilde recognized that in the original Biblical account the 'damsel' from the story who dances for her stepfather Herod Antipas is tantalizingly out of reach of our imaginations: "This has made it necessary for the centuries to heap up dreams and visions at her feet so as to convert her into the cardinal flower of the perverse garden." Mallarmé's poem Hérodiade was certainly an influence, as well as Joris-Karl Huysman's À Rebours (Against Nature). Huysman describes two paintings by Gustave Moreau in his work, and captures the essence of Wilde's eventual creation: "In this picture she was truly a whore, obedient to a temperament which is that of a cruel and passionate woman. She lived again, more polished and more barbaric, more hateful and more exquisite. Arousing the languorous sense of man more vigorously, she bewitched and subjugated his will more surely, with charms as of some great venereal flower which had burgeoned in a sacrilegious seedbed and had grown to maturity in a hotbed of impiety." Wilde, too, was fascinated by the Moreau paintings and tried to capture through language what the artist captured in color.

Hedwig Lachmann's translation of Wilde's play from French into German was used for Max Reinhardt's production of it at the Kleines Theater in Berlin, a show that ran for 200 performances. There were other German translations of the play but this one, some scholars say, even improves on the Wilde original and it was the translation that Strauss used in crafting his own libretto. He excised quite a bit of the original but what is left intact is Lachmann's and not enough attention has been given to her contribution to this fin-de-siécle operatic masterpiece.

The Music of Salome

As with every German opera written after Richard Wagner, the leitmotif is an important technique used in Richard Strauss's Salome. His edition of Berlioz' Traité d'instrumentation was being prepared while he was writing the opera, so it stands to reason that brilliance of orchestration and focus on leitmotifs were things that were of utmost importance for him at the time: "Richard Wagner's scores are the alpha and omega of my additions to this work," he said of the treatise. "They embody the only important progress in the art of instrumentation since Berlioz."

One could consider Salome as a kind of "tone poem" for the stage, and if you are familiar with Strauss's Til Eulenspiegel, Don Juan, Also Sprach Zarathustra or Don Quixote you will understand that pictorial representation was crucial in the composer's attempt to communicate atmosphere, story and character. In order to achieve the necessary effects, he calls for an orchestra of 105 players! This often necessitates an approved orchestral reduction as very few orchestra pits in the world can handle that many players. The easiest pictorial effects to hear in Salome are those that quite specifically attach themselves to an image in the text. For instance when Salome refers to John the Baptist's (Jokanaan) hair, comparing it to the cedars of Lebanon which give refuge to lions, the brass instruments roar. When she threatens to throw Jokanaan's head to the watchdogs, the muted horn section 'barks' appropriately. In one of his scenes Herod reacts to the cold and an icy wind that he seems to feel: the orchestral 'comment' is extremely naturalistic and has a 'cold' aspect, but as well bears reference to the psychological and emotional state of the character. This is all part of the craft of Strauss, something that he developed a talent for in those brilliant tone poems.

Similarly, we have the leitmotifs, one for each character or group of characters (the Jews) in the opera. But his sense of development was looser than Wagner's, so often it is not possible (certainly not on first hearing) to track these musical ideas. Generally speaking, however, the music of Jokanaan is diatonic and declamatory, as if everything the character speaks is the 'word of God'. Salome's music is often dance-like and light, but with angular twists and turns. The music of Herod and Herodias can be described as purposely ugly and abrasive, with barnacled effects in the brass and winds. The fabric of the work is complex but there are tunes which recur and capture the attention of the ear. Familiarity with the work reveals more and more levels of beauty, but its surface beauty is certainly the brilliance of the orchestration which is endlessly fascinating.

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