Seldom in the history of music has a work had more immediate and widespread impact than Salome. The opera’s libretto was based on the controversial play by Oscar Wilde, which the author described to Sarah Bernhardt, whom he intended to star in the first production, as “quelque chose de curieux et de sensuel.” So curious and sensual was it, in fact, that the British censor forbade the premiere planned for London in 1892, and it was not until four years later that the play was finally seen, in a production in Paris. Strauss first encountered the drama in a German translation (Wilde wrote the play in French) during a time when it was very popular in that country, and he decided immediately that it was proper grist for his operatic mill. The play provided him a decadent eroticism, a strange ambience, a hectic conflict, and a main character female who, poisoned and poisonous, gave him the opportunity to deal with death and blasphemous transformation, as George R. Marek described the drama in his biography of the composer.

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Dance of the Seven Veils

from Salome

Presenting Biblical characters on the stage had been a delicate business for longer than even the censors could remember, and when such personages were portrayed in the salacious manner that Strauss chose for his opera, difficulties were bound to arise. As Martin Bookspan noted, Salome was denounced where it was not censored, and censored where it was not banned. Moralistic hackles were not simply raised but inflamed, not least at the Metropolitan Opera, where the board of directors, headed by the powerful J.P. Morgan, prohibited further performances after witnessing the Met’s American premiere on the grounds that it was objectionable and detrimental to the best interests of the Metropolitan. The opera’s lurid story was destined to cause controversy: Salome, the step-daughter of King Herod, has conceived an overwhelming but unrequited passion for the prophet John the Baptist, a prisoner in Herod's palace. Herod, who himself lusts for his stepdaughter, agrees to give her whatever she requests in return for her dancing for him. She exacts his solemn promise, and performs the Dance of the Seven Veils., after which she demands her reward: the head of the Baptist. Herod, horrified, at first refuses, but to no avail. Salome demands the prophet’s head. The executioner descends into the cistern where John is being kept. Salome hovers above, wildly expectant. The executioner passes to her a silver salver, upon which lies the severed head of the prophet. Salome seizes it and begins the grisly final scene of opera, which culminates with her kissing the dead man’s lips. Herod is so revolted that he orders his soldiers to kill her. They crush Salome beneath their shields.

What was found objectionable by Salome’s early listeners was the unreasoned and fanatical passion of Salome for the wan flesh of the prophet, stilled in death, according to John N. Burk. Strauss’s musical setting did nothing to diminish the shocking aspects of the story. This is music of power and visceral effectiveness such as had never before been heard in the opera house, music which the composer himself believed represented progress beyond Wagner. It is also a blazing, brilliant, thrilling masterwork, such a magnificent piece of theater that it proved unstoppable. Roy Guy wrote, “So great was the outcry of indignation and shock that, within a year, to satisfy the demands of moralists wishing to see for themselves what outrages Strauss had committed, no fewer than thirty productions of Salome had to be mounted on stages all over the world.”

The Dance of the Seven Veils was the last part of the score to be completed, and it contains virtually all of the important themes from the opera. Strauss left instructions for the choreographer indicating the general nature of Salome’s infamous dance: “A purely Oriental dance, as serious and controlled as possible, thoroughly restrained, preferably on one spot, such as a prayer mat greater movement only in the C-sharp minor passage, and in the last 2/4 a rather orgiastic climax.”  While a detailed catalog of thematic associations with the drama is unnecessary to appreciate the Dance, one theme in particular is worth noting for the brilliance of its inspiration. Hardly a theme at all, it is a trill in the high woodwinds, strings and celesta just before the end. The trill plus a little arpeggiated figure heard with it represent Salome’s demented lust for the Baptist, and is one of the most chilling sounds in all of music. It rises to an almost unbearable intensity later in the opera when the Princess lowers her lips to kiss the severed head of the prophet. This sound seems to set some cell deep within us into dizzying, horrific vibration, and is to be matched by only a tiny handful of similar moments of sublime terror in all of opera: the appearance of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, the opening of the sack holding the almost-dead form of the jesters daughter in Rigoletto  and nearly all of Berg’s Wozzeck. The Dance of the Seven Veils is the work of a master technician at the peak of his inspiration: music of thematic beauty and stentorian sonority to which we respond as does Herod: Ah! Herrlich! Oh! Glorious!

Leo Eylar

Oscar Wilde, author of the notorious play Salome. When Strauss saw the play, he realized he had the material he needed for his opera. Wilde was convicted for sodomy and gross indecency by British courts and spent time in prison, and then went into exile.

Richard Strauss

(1864 - 1949)

Salome continues to shock and delight over 100 years after its initial performance.

An early playbill from Salome

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