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Richard Strauss: SALOME


On January 22, 1907, audiences at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City came back from intermission, having enjoyed a concert program for the first half of the evening, featuring  singers such as Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Ferrar, and Antonio Scotti. A wide array of  performing a opera excerpts were performed, including “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, “Belle nuit” from Offenbach’s Le Contes d’Hoffmann, and “O, paradiso!” from Meyerbeer’s L’Africane. The second half of the program featured a United States premiere of a new opera that had experienced a considerable amount of success in Europe – Richard Strauss’s Salome. The curtain rose to a set that looked like a courtyard of a palace, with high steps leading to a palace door on the left side of the stage, a cistern in the middle of the stage, and large cedar trees in the background. According to the reviews, by the time the curtain closed, the audience was in complete shock and horror. A review in the New York Tribune described the audience reaction in this way:

“…Many faces were white almost as those at the rail of a ship, many women were silent, and men spoke as if a bad dream were on them. The preceding concert was forgotten; ordinary emotions following an opera were banished. The grip of a strange horror or disgust was on the majority. It was as significant that the usual applause was lacking. It was scattered and brief….. its final horror left the listeners staring at each other with startling eyeballs and wrecked nerves.”[i]

Louisa Morgan, daughter of investment tycoon John Pierpont Morgan, was one individual in the audience gripped by horror and disgust. She was so appalled by the work that she successfully got all further scheduled performances of the opera to be cancelled, and the opera was never performed at the Metropolitan Opera again until the year 1934.

The North American premiere of Salome was not the first time it had caused a stir. The world premiere had been only two years earlier, in December of 1905 at the Hofoper in Dresden, Germany. Although German critics had called it an abomination, it was actually quite successful in box office sales. Five months after its world premier, the opera had its Austrian premiere in Graz, and several very prominent people were in the audience, including Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma, Giacomo Puccini, Alexander Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and allegedly (though this fact is disputable,) a 17 year old Adolf Hitler. Everyone wanted to experience this scandalous work, with a score described as decadent and volatile, and a plot that the New York Tribune critic called “a moral stench in the nostrils of humanity.”[ii]

Although Salome has been a controversial opera from the day it premiered, it has always been incredibly popular, consistently ranking high on statistics covering the most famous and most often performed operas worldwide; it is truly what would be called “success from scandal”. In addition to its popularity, Salome is considered to be one of the most important operas of the early 20th century, dramatically altering the direction of musical style and aesthetics of the time.

Historical Context

Salome premiered in 1905, which lands it squarely within the turn of the century time period – an era in art and culture known as the fin-de-siècle. Before the turn of the 20th century, there were several extremely important movements and cultural figures that inform the fin-de-siècle landscape. The industrial revolution had reached maturity by the mid-1800s, forever changing the economy of the Western world by introducing a sustainable middle-class population and a more capitalist approach to industry. The latter half of the 1800s also began with the second industrial revolution, or the technological revolution, roughly spanning from the 1860s to 1914-1915. The technological revolution defines a period of unprecedented growth in scientific innovations and use of new technologies. This was the era where electricity, telegraphs, radios, motor power, and automobiles were becoming more and more a part of every day life. This time period is also when social change begins happening in the realm of women’s rights. And perhaps not so coincidentally, as women began to fight for more and more freedom within a patriarchic society, there was also an explosion of “scientific” theories targeting women as the weaker gender. In 1859, the English scientist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species, and by the early 1870’s, Darwin’s ideas of evolution had been widely accepted as scientific fact. Darwin’s theories provide the façade of scientific proof that the male gender was superior to the female gender, his theories also suggested that a species as a whole could become either more advanced or degenerate through the process of evolution – which led to the conclusion that women were the weaker gender through which some kind of degeneration was imminent.

Toward the end of the 1800’s, several scientists began to pursue the study of sexuality more seriously, and the man most well known for research in this area was Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud.  Freud published three influential bodies of writing between 1895 and 1905: Studies in Hysteria, On the Interpretation of Dreams, and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Throughout these three works, females were once again targeted as psychological unstable, and for Freud, this instability was directly tied to female sexuality. In addition to Freud, Austrian Philosopher Otto Weininger published a book in 1903 titled Sex and Character, which was another volume of writing focused on issues of female sexuality. Based on the writing of Freud and Weininger, chaste and virginal women were associated with the upper class and evolutionary progress, and any kind of sexual freedom displayed by the female gender became associated with immaturity and insanity.

All of these different cultural influences collided at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s into a fundamentally misogynist mindset, and women were viewed as fragile and inferior creatures that inflicted their seductive ways upon men.  Emerging from this discourse, one trait that strongly marks fin-de-siecle culture is the obsession in artistic works with decadent portrayals of “dangerous” female sexuality. And one of the most popular femme fatale characters of this time was Salome, the biblical princess who danced before Herod. Her popularity turned into what scholars now call “Salomania”,  or “The Salome Craze”.

“The Salome Craze”:

As a biblical character, there were many paintings of Salome long before the fin-de-siècle obsession with her. For example, Andrea Solario’s Salome with the head of John the Baptist is a Renaissance era example of Salome depicted through the medium of painting, where the eye is either drawn to the beauty of Salome’s face or the gruesome decapitated head of John. In paintings of Salome in fin-de-siècle culture, the focus was shifted very strongly toward Salome’s body, often in an overtly orientalized manner.

Circa 1870, Pierre Bonnaud and Henri Regnault’s produced some of the first highly sexualized paintings of her character, with Regnault’s Salomé becoming particularly popular. In 1877, the French writer Gustav Flaubert published a work called Three Tales, in which second tale included a lush and detailed description of Salome’s dance of the seven veils. Corresponding closely to the time of Flaubert’s publication, Gustav Moreau revealed a painting titled Salome Dancing before Herod, and then painted her again in 1876, in a work titled L’Apparition. Moreau’s Salome paintings gained such popularity and success that French novelist Charles Huysmans published a work titled A Rebours (translated as Against Nature), in which the main character purchases a copy the two Moreau Salome paintings, and enthralled with the images before him, describes every aspect of her body in very specific detail. In the late 1880s, Jules Laforgue featured a seductive Salome as the main character in his poem titled Moralités legendaries. New paintings of Salome’s character by a variety of artists continued to proliferate throughout the 1880’s and 90’s ,  and 1893 marked the year Oscar Wilde’s play titled Salomé was first published in French, with an English translation of the play released less than a year later. Because of trouble with censors, the stage premiere of the Wilde’s original version did not take place until 1896 in Paris, and its popularity slowly built over time throughout Franc while translations of the play were instantly popular in Germany. Piggybacking on its growing popularity, actress Maud Allen created a famous adaptation of the play called “Vision of Salomé”, staring herself in the title role and taking England by storm with over 250 performances of the work in less than a year.

In 1905, after seeing a German translated performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, Richard Strauss composed the one act opera Salome, and it is premiere in Dresden was quite a success. Following the opera premiere, the Salome craze continued into the first decade of the 20th century as painters continued to render new imaginings of her character, and the dance of the seven veils became a popular vaudeville routine all over Europe and North America. Suffice it to say, Strauss’s choice of Salome as the focus of a new opera did not happen in isolation; her character, her story, and highly sexualized depictions of her had already deeply permeated the landscape of the fin-de-siècle culture Strauss found himself in, and his choice to turn Wilde’s play into an opera was very much in line subject-wise with trends of the day.

Constructing the Story

The plot of Strauss’s opera is based on the historical figure of Salome, whose existence is documented several times across different sources from antiquity. Her story is told twice in the bible, and details are given about her in Book 18 of Jewish Antiquities, an early encyclopedia-like documentation of Jewish history by Flavius Josephus, created circa 94 AD. She is also mentioned in letters exchanged between Herod and Pontius Pilot, which have survived in the Syriac Manuscripts, and archaeologists have identified her as the figure on several ancient coins from the time period. Across all of these historical records, the historical figure of Salome is most well known for dancing before Herod, and requesting the head of John the Baptist as a reward. Both biblical accounts of this story are fairly short, and give very little details to elaborate on the event.

The Opera Plot:

The opera plot elaborates significantly on the biblical story, as does its source material, through a 90 minute, one act operatic framework that unfolds in the following manner:

The opera opens with the slave Narraboth gazing at the moon, and telling us that the Princess Salome looks beautiful tonight, immediately focusing us on her physical beauty, before we even meet her. Narraboth describes his love for Salome, and a page chastises him for obsessing over her, because no good can come of it. Then, the voice of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) is heard coming from a cistern. As Salome is fleeing Herod’s feast, the voice of Jochanaan catches her attention. Salome realizes that Jochanaan is cursing her mother, Herodias, for marrying her husband’s brother. This piques Salome’s curiosity, and she persistently asks the guards to bring Jochanaan up out of the cistern, so she can see him and speak to him. The guards refuse, under strict orders from Herod that no one is to speak to him. Salome then turns her attention to Narraboth, seductively asking him to fulfill her request. Narraboth gives in, and orders Jochanaan to be brought out.

Jochanaan continues to shout curses about Herod and Herodias, but as soon as Salome sees him, she is filled with an overwhelming sense of desire. She asks to touch Jochanaan’s skin, and he refuses her. Then she asks to touch his hair, and he refuses her. Then she asks for him to kiss her, and he refuses her a third time. Seeing Salome so taken with Jochanaan, Narraboth is overcome with jealousy and kills himself. Having refused to even look at Salome, Jochanaan is returned to the cistern, and continues shouting his prophesies.

Then Herod and Herodias appear, and Herod gazes lustfully at Salome. Herodias chastises Herod for looking at Salome so much, and Salome gives Herod the cold shoulder. She has no interest in Herod, as she is consumed with thoughts of Jochanaan. After listening to a conversation among a group of Jewish men about the nature of God, Herod gets up and approaches Salome, singing “Tanz für mich, Salome” – “Dance for me, Salome.” Herodias objects, and Salome rejects him as well, as she is still focused on Jochanaan. Herod then promises to grant Salome whatever her heart desires, even half his kingdom, if she does as he asks. After swearing this in an oath to Salome in front of all his guests, Salome agrees to dance for him.

This leads to the infamous dance of the seven veils – a purely orchestral section designed by Strauss to be the most seductive and alluring music ever written. When Salome finishes the dance and Herod asks what she wants as a reward, Salome demands the head of Jochanaan brought to her on a silver platter. Herod resists her requests, offering her peacocks, rare jewels, and even the veil from inside the temple. Salome refuses, and three times demands the head of Jochanaan. Herod is forced to grant her request, and when she receives the head, she declares her love for Jochanaan. At the climax of an intense musical build up, Salome passionately kisses his decapitated head, and exclaims “Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan!” –  “I have kissed your lips, Jochanaan.” Terrified, Herod orders his soldiers to “Man töte dieses Weib!” – “kill that woman!” and the curtain falls as Salome is crushed to death by the soldier’s shields.

Musical Analysis


When Richard Strauss began composing Salome, he was emerging from a period of intense focus on orchestral writing. He had just finished creating several symphonic tone poems that made use of an expanded orchestra (such as Don Quixote and Also sprach Zarathustra),and he was in the middle of creating a modern edition of Hector Berlioz’s instrumentation treatise Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modern. By the time Strauss began composing Salome, he was bringing with him a new kind of orchestral understanding and compositional style based on an expanded orchestra. As a result, the score for Salome calls for over 100 players, including an expanded first and second violin section, a fifteen-piece brass section, and some new and non-traditional keyboards instruments, such as the celesta, harmonium, and organ. This orchestra was designed for maximum power, and singers must have powerful voices to be heard over top of them. As Strauss said to his orchestra during a rehearsal of Salome in Prague: “That is too gentle! We want wild beasts here! This is not civilized music; it is music that must crash!” Strauss was intentionally trying to create music that fit the violent, decadent themes of opera, and he was intentionally pushing the boundaries of musical volume and style.

The Use of Leitmotif:

Salome is considered a work a genius in its use of leitmotif, a musical concept that Strauss picked up from Wagner. In Salome, every character has their own leitmotif, in addition to several conceptual or thematic motifs. The main motif associated her Salome’s character is important to listen for as it returns continuously throughout the opera in various expanded and elaborated forms. Isolated on its own, Salome’s leitmotif is as follows:

Salome Motif
Salome’s Motif

Salome’s motive is one of the first things we hear as the curtain rises, following and opening scale in the clarinet. Another motif strongly associated with Salome is the obsession motif:

Obsession motif
Salome’s Obsession Motif

Jochanaan’s motif has a strong tonal sound, contrasting the chromaticism of Salome’s motive. Jochanaans motive is strictly diatonic, capturing his stoic character:

Jochanaan's Motif
Jochanaan’s Motif

Another important motif associated with Jochanaan is the prophecy motif, which can be heard as Jochanaan repeatedly curses Herod and Herodias:

Prophesy Leitmotif
Prophesy Motif

While there are many more motifs used throughout the opera, one more example of an important motif that can be easily identified is the kiss motif. As Salome becomes more and more determined to kiss Jochanaan, the kiss motif is brought to the forefront of the texture. It can be heard most clearly whenever she sings “Ich will dein mund kussen, Jochanaan” – “I will kiss your lips Jochanaan”:

The Kiss Motif
The Kiss Motif

Large Scale Tonal Connections:

In addition to the embedded fabric of leitmotifs, another important musical element in Salome is the way in which specific harmonic changes and tonal structure within the opera mirror relationship dynamics and conflicts within the story. Generally speaking, the two main characters that are connected through tonal structure are our title character Salome, and the object of her desire: Jochanaan. Jochanaan is assigned the key of purity, C major. The first and last time we hear Jochanaan sing in the opera, his music is in a C major/minor realm. Although Salome wanders through a variety of keys throughout the opera, she tends to move through sharp keys that consistently bring her back to C# major/minor, a key that has historically been associated with an exotic “other”, mysticism, and sensuality. The harmonic relationship between C and C# is both interesting and odd, as these two musical keys – and the characters associated with them – are simultaneously fundamental opposites, as well as completions of one another. They share no common tonal ground, and as a result, each character fills the tonal void that the other lacks. Since Salome is treated in this time period as a trope representing the dangerous sexuality of the female, she cannot exist in the same key signature as Jochanaan. In addition to this C / C# dichotomy, Strauss heightens the juxtaposition of purity versus sensuality by ensuring that all of Jochanaan’s music is very diatonic sounding, with austere melodic lines and cadences that resolve, while Salome’s music is chromatic and ornamental, rarely resolving or giving the sense of closure.

A final note on Singing Salome

The role of Salome is an incredibly difficult role to sing, as the soprano needs to have the power and range of a Wagnerian singer, coupled with the ability to display the emotional vulnerability of a teenage princess. Salome’s character is one of multiple duplicities, as she needs to be both fragile and empowered, being the fundamental opposite to Jochanaan, as well as inextricably linked to him. A soprano technically capable of singing the role can only be found in a mature voice; yet, to be convincing, the singer must be able to portray a spoiled teenage girl going through a kind of sexual awakening. The soprano singing Salome must also grapple with the Dance of the Seven veils. Several sopranos throughout history have refused to perform the dance of the seven veils because of its perceived indecency, resulting in dance doubles being dropped in to replace them. 

[i] Henry Krehbiel, “”SALOME” DISGUSTS ITS HEARERS: Enormous Crowd Gives Little Applause to Singers at Conried Benefit.” New York Tribune , Jan. 23, 1906

[ii] Ibid.


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