by Elizabeth Pugh
Salome by Richard Strauss is an operatic retelling of the Biblical story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom, which focuses on the daughter of Herodias. Her strange fascination with John the Baptist ultimately leads to the demise of her and her father in this tragic opera. Strauss based his opera on the one-act play written by Oscar Wilde in 1884. Salome debuted in early December 1905 in Dresden, German. The score for the opera made modernist strides through the use of unique instruments and dissonance, and the story created controversy among music and theater critics.
Summary of the Work
Salome, the mystical daughter of Queen Herodias and step-daughter of King Herod, is entranced by John the Baptist, because of his prophesies that she hears echoing up through the floor as well as his dislike for her mother. Later, her fascination with him attaches to his appearance. Narraboth, the captain of the guard who is infatuated with Salome, orders that he be brought up to the great dismay of the Page and contrary to his orders after Salome pleads with him. When he refuses to let her come near him, her obsession escalates, and she becomes determined to have him (69-114). She does not take notice when Narraboth kills himself, but instead continues in her pursuit of John the Baptist (102). John’s rejection and retreat into the cistern lead her to revenge. Herod struggles with many different conflicts throughout the opera, as he fears and admires John, resents his wife and the constant bickering of the religious officials who surround him, and obsesses over his step-daughter. Salome, knowing these varying pressures, takes advantage of the situation. She twists the king’s fixation with her by using a dance (the “Dance of the Seven Veils”) to get what she wants: the head of John the Baptist on a platter, with which she can do whatever she desires without John’s protests (142-350). Terrified and scandalized by such behavior, King Herod orders her death (351).
Biblical and Legendary Background
In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the story of John’s death is written similarly, though the Gospel of Mark has more details as to the specific circumstances, such as how Herod felt about John (Matt 14:3-12; Mk 6: 17-29). Curiously enough, neither Gospel ever mentions the daughter of Herodias by name. In early commentaries, both this character was called Herodias until she was given the name Salome by Isidor of Seville, due to the name’s repeated occurrence in Herod’s family line. Salome has also been known as Boyzia and Pharaildis in different legends as well. The works of Strauss and Wilde are not alone in their interpretation of Salome’s strange attraction to John the Baptist. In one particular legend, Salome “vows not to belong to anyone but John, and her infuriated father has him decapitated.” This particular legend differs from the Biblical story in several key details, such as the fascination felt by Herod and the bitterness felt by his wife (Herodias) toward John the Baptist.
Strauss’s Musical Strides in the Opera
Described as “thunder,” “noise,” and “orchestral cacophony,” Strauss’ music in Salome managed to shock the audience, which had never before heard this type of music on stage or perhaps even in their lives. Quite complex, the arrangement includes forty-nine instrument and voice parts weaving with each other to create a score that changed the scene of opera, compared to much smaller numbers of parts within its predecessors. The dissonance, bitonality, and even effects created by the orchestra all help to create the feelings expressed in the opera. from terror to infatuation. For example, the mystical quality of the music matches that quality of John the Baptist as he emerges from the cistern. These concepts like bitonality would have been unheard of in an opera before Salome, indicating that Strauss turned towards modernity by leaving the older models of opera behind in favor of trying something new. Strauss even brought in strange instruments that were rarely used in operatic or orchestral works before, such as the heckelphone and even kettledrums. The use of these instruments shows a departure in Strauss’ mind from the traditional concept of what an orchestra should be, and consequently another modernist leaning. It also shocked with its dance scene, the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which brought in oriental elements in a dramatic shift from the traditional, as well as from the other parts of the opera (202-241). One critic railed that the opera “rattled and banged until the emotions are worn out; it no longer wants anything but explosions, and the dynamics of these has no effect but that of dynamite.”
Throughout the opera, there are some interesting sections that could use further investigation by the viewer. One example of this is Salome’s obsession with John the Baptist. After he initially rejects her, she begins to admire just parts of him, showing an objectification of John as she sings to his mouth, his skin, etc (69-114). In light of this objectification, his beheading can be more clearly understood. She could not have all of John while he was living, so she wanted him dead. She has, as Paul Banks writes, “no interest in him as a prophet.” His beheading furthers this theme of objectification: even in his martyrdom, she only has a part of John the Baptist with which to do her bidding. Another interesting idea that both Strauss and Wilde bring forth is that Salome acts in John’s death of her own will and pleasure. This reading diverges from the Biblical interpretation, in which she acted more as her mother’s pawn or in revenge for things John said about her mother. Strauss’s portrayal, deemed one of “demonic feminine sexuality” by Banks, placed Salome in a femme fatale position. The men who are involved with her (Narraboth, John, and Herod) all meet tragedy in one way or another. She herself meets her demise after her obsession escalates to a point beyond what the society of her time deems appropriate and Herod orders her death. Repeatedly, this theme of obsession comes forward, and each time it leads to the character’s destruction. For instance, the character of Narraboth is infatuated with Salome, and even allows the guards to bring up John the Baptist at her request (against his own orders). Yet as she grows more obsessed with John, Narraboth’s warnings and pleadings to her go unheeded. He kills himself in despair of her lack of attention to him and the danger she is in.
Controversy and Backlash
Even before this opera was staged, it was controversial. The original play by Wilde did not make it to opening night in England because “a license for its production was refused by the Lord Chamberlain’s office.” The cast of the opera also had some scruples due to the material, especially their roles within it. The actress playing Salome in the production reportedly cried “That I won’t do; I am a respectable woman”! Because of the controversial nature of the subject matter with Biblical characters, such as suicide and necrophilia as well as the sexual nature of the material, like the obsession of Herod with his step-daughter and a femme fatale in the character of Salome, the opera was widely denounced by clergy and those of conservative values. This opera clearly contrasted with the cultural and traditional ideals of Strauss’ time. The cast’s trouble with the material shows how provocative these portrayals are. The opera raises crucial questions involved in the taboo topics of obsession, revenge, necrophilia, incest, and suicide, questions that society cannot ignore. It also shows a dissent for religious authority, as can be seen through the ever-bickering religious figures, repudiating that traditional value of following dogma and doctrine. The opera premiered just as Biblical criticism was emerging, which was not embraced in its early stages by church authority (in the broadest sense), but instead was seen as modernist encroachment upon faith. Because of this, any questioning of Biblical characters (their motives, their stories, etc.) by the modernist movement especially would have been seen as a particular danger, which explains the protests and denunciations.
Through its innovative use of themes, music, and reinterpretation, Strauss’ Salome managed to shock audiences with its modernist way of departing from and questioning the traditional cultural values of its day. Refusing to be still, it rouses the audience to think about how they see the world through music and taboo issues to this day.
- ↑ Ernest Newman, “Salome,” in Great Operas, vol. 1. 1943 (New York: Vintage, 1959), p. 372.
- ↑ Richard Strauss, Salome  (Berlin: Adolph Fürstner, 1916), 5, 37-48. All subsequent parenthetical citations refer to this edition.
- ↑ Herbert Haag et al., “Herodias and Salome,” in Great Women of the Bible in Art and Literature, ed. Emil Bührer, trans. Joe H Kirchberger (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), p. 256.
- ↑ Ibid.
- ↑ Ibid.
- ↑ Petra Dierkes-Thrun, “‘The Brutal Music and the Delicate Text’? The Aesthetic Relationship between Wilde’s and Strauss’s Salome Reconsidered,” Modern Language Quarterly 69.3 (2008), p. 376.
- ↑ Ibid., p. 376.
- ↑ Ibid., p. 377.
- ↑ Dierkes-Thrun, p. 378.
- ↑ Paul Banks, “Richard Strauss and the Unveiling of Salome,” in Salome/ Elektra, ed. Nicholas John (New York: Riverrun, 1988), p. 19.
- ↑ Newman, p. 372.
- ↑ Ibid., p. 373.
- ↑ Ibid.
- ↑ Ibid., p. 383.