Saturday, November 9, 2013

The last scene from Strauss's "Salome"

Continuing my series of program notes:

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Salomé: ‘Ah, du wolltest mich nicht...’ 

At the time of its first performance, Salomé was considered the ultimate extension of Wagner’s methods. Wagner had originally sought a reform of opera in the marriage of music and words; he wrote his own librettos. For Salomé Strauss used an actual play, Oscar Wilde’s French-language drama, Salomé, of 1891. 

But Strauss faced the same problem as Wagner with music’s primacy. ‘[Salomé],’ he concluded, ‘is the symphony in the medium of drama...’ But nothing in Wagner, to borrow Jennifer Hambrick’s words, was ‘any match for Salomé’s psychologically charged libretto and surprisingly dissonant score.’

Strauss had seen a production of Wilde’s play in Berlin in 1902, and a poet Anton Lindner suggested that it would make a good libretto. Strauss tried out the play’s opening lines (in German translation): ‘Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht’ (How beautiful is the Princess Salome this night) and realized that he could create a libretto essentially by trimming the text.

This was his third opera. Strauss had been stretching form in his symphonic poems, even to the extent of trying to render a philosophy in music (Thus Spake Zarathustra); he now took Wagner’s chromaticism and stretched it further in the quest to render the sickness of Salomé’s love. Even Wagnerians had difficulty swallowing the subject matter. Siegfried Wagner said his father ‘was ‘already turning in his grave’.

The plot is Wilde’s variation of a Bible story: Salomé has longed to kiss the lips of the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist); he has repulsed her. King Herod who ogles Salomé despite her being his step-daughter, says he’ll give her anything she wants if only she’ll reveal herself to him in a dance of the seven veils. She does so, and demands the head of Jokanaan as reward. The final scene, in which Salome finally kisses Jokanaan’s lips, is a tour-de-force. It unfolds in several long paragraphs, each building to a larger and larger climax as the dramatic soprano brings the opera to its repellent, if emotional conclusion.

Having feared that the executioner would resist killing the prophet, Salome exults as Jokanaan’s head is presented to her on its silver platter. There is a mighty roar in the orchestra and a horrific revision of the motif which preceded the opera’s opening reflections on Salome’s beauty. Over the top of this, Salome gloats: ‘You would not let me kiss your mouth, Jokanaan’. The music settles down and Salome praises the closed eyes that would not look on her, the silent tongue that spat venom... She compares Jokanaan’s voice to incense... The blending of sensations is Tristanesque. Finally she concludes: ‘The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death’. 

In the opera Herod now interjects. ‘She is a monster.’ We enter an evil place. ‘Ah! I have kissed your mouth Jokanaan’, sings Salomé to a chilling accompaniment. And then, as she exults, Strauss builds his music to its most radiant, lyrical and discordant height. A beam of moonlight falls on Salomé. Herod sees her kissing the head. He orders that she be killed. His men crush her under their shields.

This last scene has been described by musicologist Michael Kennedy as a ‘perverted Liebestod’. But we’ve come a long way from the love-deaths of Wagner's heroines who play redeeming roles in their dramas; Salome has few redeeming features as she upbraids Jokanaan’s trunkless head for not succumbing to her beauty.

In opera sometimes love, sometimes death wins, sometimes they both win in the same crushing conjunction. Either may be a soprano character’s fate, sometimes both.

Gordon Kalton Williams © 2012

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:
Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013
Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
Stravinsky's Les Noces orchestrated by Steven Stucky, published 8 August 2013
Liszt's Hamlet, published 15 August 2013
Scriabin's Piano Concerto, published 18 August 2013
Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich, published 27 August 2013
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier selections, published
Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, published 30 August 2013
'Traditional terms' - an interview with John Adams, published 5 Sep 2013
Berlioz' Waverley Overture, published 9 Sep 2013
Tchaikovsky's Fatum, published 17 Sep 2013
Wagner, arr. Henk de Vlieger A Ring Adventure, published 29 Sep 2013
Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique', published on 29 Sep 2013

Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony, published 13 October 2013 
Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture, published 21 October 2013
Shchedrin's arrangement of music from Bizet's Carmen, published 25October 2013

Articles on mine on composers include:

Sousa and the Sioux, 19 August 2011

"...above the canopy of stars..." - Beethoven's Ninth, 28 May 2012
Percy Grainger, the chap who "wanted to find the sagas everywhere", 17 June 2012
A Star and his Stripes - Bernstein, the populist, 29 June 2012
Igor in Oz: Stravinsky Downunder, 17 July 2012
Wagner - is it music, or is it drama? 27 July 2012
"Beautiful...sad": Puccini's La boheme, 29 July 2012
Philippa - an opera [blog 1], ideas for an opera on Philippa Duke Schuyler, 16 Sep 2012 

'Traditional terms?' - an interview with John Adams, published 5 Sep 2013

On my website, click on "USA blog" to scroll down the full range.

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