Salome – The Story and Music
Two musical masterpieces open with an ascending clarinet scale which immediately establishes the mood for what is to come. In George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue, the opening clarinet lick takes us inside a smoke-filled dive in New Orleans, where the alcohol may well be brewing in an upstairs bath, but where the jazz is definitely hot. The clarinet in Richard Strauss’s 1905 Salome conjures up a humid evening in Jerusalem, and the sinuous decoration on the sustained note evokes Salome, a snake slithering across the ground, ready to strike.
Strauss was the musical heir to Richard Wagner, so his operas are built with leitmotiven – short melodic or rhythmic ideas that identify individual characters, or aspects of their personalities; or even represent inanimate things. Now bear in mind that when Strauss, in 1903, began to consider Oscar Wilde’s Salomé in operatic terms , his series of tone poems (his orchestral masterpieces) was finished. Those works had orchestrally conjured up a magical night in Italy; a swaggering, ultra-macho, perpetually-horny Don Juan meeting his ideal Woman with the inevitable result in vivid colors; the irrepressible Till and his tragic end; the windmills, the sheep, and, finally, the sweetest death of Don Quixote; the composer-as- Helden-of-his-own-Leben. Now, having found his perfect operatic subject, Strauss lavished his orchestral-painting technique on the canvas of Wilde’s play. Gentle Reader, be advised that while most of the score of Salome is PG, some of it is R, and there are some pages that merit and deserve (and that’s a Good Thing) an X!!
The opening bars settle onto a luscious C# major chord (with an added sixth!), so that Narraboth can sing of the beauty of Princess Salome. What makes the chord so particularly luscious is the way Strauss divides his strings. The first desk of First Violins has a double-stopped chord, without mutes; the rest of the section plays a muted C#. Second Violins tremolo on a muted A#. Violas are divided into four parts, all muted, while three of the five desks of cellos are muted. What an ear he had, to distinguish those various sound qualities! Keep this tonality in your inner ear – it’s going to return later.
A new theme, which might represent Male Lust, leaps up in the cellos, but it quickly dances away high in the flute as Narraboth talks of Salome’s white-dove-like dancing feet. Noise from the off-stage banquet-hall elicits equal noise from the orchestra: screaming woodwinds; “howling” double-basses slithering downwards; note the triplet figure from the contrabassoon. The Second Soldier tells his companion that the Jewish guests are arguing, as they always do, over their religion. Narraboth again sings of Salome’s beauty. The Page is uneasy because Narraboth looks too much at Salome; it’s dangerous to do that; something terrible may happen. The Page’s musical line (three short note upbeats to a major third) seems almost a throw-away, except that it’s repeated at the end of this segment, as if Strauss wants us to file it away for future reference. The soldiers observe the Tetrarch’s “dark” look (contrast this with Narraboth’s description of the pale beauty of Salome). The word “Look” is important here: Narraboth is looking AT Salome; the slave is looking AT the moon; the soldiers are looking AT the banquet and AT the Tetrarch, who, in turn, is looking AT some-one/thing. But the word also has a connotation of “seem”: “The Princess LOOKS/seems pale. She LOOKS/seems very troubled. The Tetrarch LOOKS/seems dark.” It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one, that can followed in the drama.
This first section has been quite chromatic, except for Narraboth’s lines; now we have a few pages of relatively stable, steadily-moving harmonies as we hear the voice of Jochanaan from the cistern, prophesying the coming of the Messiah. A new theme, a simple arpeggio and descending scale, is heard in the cellos. But throughout this scene the Page’s throw-away third (major or minor) is everywhere. Jochanaan, very assured, sings the interval, accented, at “Wenn er kommt…” (“When he comes, the blind shall see and the deaf shall hear”). Low strings, again accented, play it under the conversation between the two Soldiers and the Cappadocain about this strange man; their unease about him is mirrored in the rhythmic instability: the meter keeps alternating between three, four and five beats to the bar. Nobody seems to understand his pronouncements, though he had a large following of young people when he was preaching in the desert. The Tetrarch has forbidden anyone to see him.
Suddenly the opening music returns. The Princess is leaving the table (more male lust from the low strings)! She is coming this way! With a very traditional modulation to A major (a tonality we’ve not heard before) and with a new theme, Salome enters. The score says she is excited; “agitated” better describes her mood, I think. She has been somewhat freaked out by the way the Tetrarch, her step-father, kept looking (that word again!) at her. Her agitation is reflected in Strauss’ setting of her words. The time-signature is three-four and the conductor is directed to “beat full bars” – nothing unusual in that. Salome’s time-signatures, however, vary according to what she is saying: sometimes she’s in the orchestra’s three-four, sometimes in two-four, but it all lines up with the conductor’s one-in-a-bar beat! In my experience, only Strauss, in setting a text as it would be spoken, has done this. On the page it looks horribly complicated, but in practice it sounds perfectly natural. The cool air of the terrace introduces a calmer theme. The noise of the arguing Jews returns as she talks about the various guests: the “silent subtle Egyptians” sound down-right creepy, while the “brutal Romans” call forth string chords made only more “coarse” by their rhythmic instability.
Calm returns as Salome gazes at the moon: “It LOOKS like a silver flower, cool and chaste. She has a virgin’s beauty.” Her reverie is interrupted by Jochanaan’s voice announcing the arrival of “the Son of Man.” Violently, in C minor, Salome’s entrance theme erupts from the depths of the orchestra. When told it’s the voice of the “Prophet,” the lower winds play that minor-third motif, while clarinets mutter her opening theme. Narraboth suggests that she might feel better in the garden, but Salome is interested in the “Prophet” because he says terrible things about her mother. A slave enters to summon her back to the feast. Narraboth offers to escort her, but now she wonders whether the Prophet is an old man: he’s very young.
Another pronouncement from Jochanaan contains a variant of his original diatonic arpeggio: the rhythm is the same, but the intervals have become more sinister. His voice intrigues her: she wants to speak to him; the Second Soldier, with that minor third in the bass, explains that not even the High Priest is permitted to speak with him. She insists he be brought before her. She peers into the cistern. Strings tremolo sul ponticello (“near the bridge” – a very eerie sound) while the brass and winds growl around in their lowest registers. “Wildly” Salome demands that the Prophet be produced, but the First Soldier says that is impossible.
In A minor she notices Narraboth: the Page is frightened – what will happen? The oboe plays a languid version of the opening theme. “I’ve always been kind to you, Narraboth” (the first time his name is mentioned!). Narraboth repeats his orders that the cover of the cistern may not be raised, but the “Male Lust” theme hints that his desire for Salome will trump those orders! Salome becomes more insistent, tempting him with a flower, a smile (various of her themes). Narraboth yields to her demand, and orders that the Prophet be produced because the Princess Salome wants to “look AT him.”
Now follows an orchestral interlude which plays with the themes of Salome and of Jochanaan, as well as the creepy cistern theme. About half-way through, the first violins introduce a new idea which will assume increasing importance; call it “Salome’s desire for Jochanaan.”
Finally he is there, in glorious C major! And an idea which had been lurking in the trombones now comes to full light in the winds: a series of descending fourths (C to G; F to C; A to D#. Jochanann’s initial question, “Where is the most sinful one?”, pertains to Herod but neither Salome nor Narraboth understand him. Salome understands that his second question concerns her mother. “He is truly terrible,” says Salome to a rocking third; she adopts the descending fourths as she gazes on his body. “Male lust” accompanies Narraboth’s pleas for her to leave. Jochanaan wonders who this woman is who is looking at him; he will not speak with her. “I am Salome,” (both of her themes), “daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judea.”
A nasty, dissonant chord paints Jochanaan’s disgust: “Back, daughter of Babylon, daughter of Sodom!” But his words only fascinate her more: “Your voice is music to my ears! Tell me what I should do.” “Seek out the Son of Man.” “Who is the Son of Man?” Here is a perfect example of the suggestive power of this musical system of leitmotiven. The rotating third, sometimes major, sometimes minor, has always been in fast notes. Now it slows down, in the major, and the direction for the flutes and first violins is zart “tenderly.” It’s as if Salome is deeply intrigued by this “Son of Man”. Jochanaan is not having any of it: “I hear the beating wings of the angel of death,” and so do we, thanks to the orchestra. Narraboth, more frantic and frightened, begs her to go inside.
In glorious B major, Salome sings of the sheer whiteness of Jochanaan’s body: “I am in love with your body. Let me touch it.” He recoils. Now she hates his hideous body. “I am in love with your hair.” Again she is repulsed and again her love turns to hate. Another aria, this one praising his mouth. The music becomes more and more passionate and Strauss takes his soprano higher and higher. Horrified, Jochanaan is barely able to speak.
Remember the Page’s throwaway theme, and all those minor thirds we heard near the beginning? The Page was sure something terrible would happen. Now, as the rhythmic and melodic outline of that theme is transformed, Salome passionately sings of her desire to kiss the mouth of Jochanaan, and each time she repeats the words the motif slightly alters. In a final, desperate attempt to keep Salome away from the prisoner, Narraboth stabs himself and falls dead between the two of them. Salome scarcely notices.
Perhaps remembering that mention of the “Son of Man” calmed Salome’s previous hysterical outburst, Jochanaan tells the “daughter of adultery” to seek out the One who can save her; He is with His disciples at the Sea of Galilea, and she should kneel before Him to ask forgiveness for her sins. His aria, a smooth-flowing, beautiful melody, shows us a very different side of this man: tender, loving, forgiving. Salome is silent, but it is obvious from the various reiterations of her rocking third theme that her entire attention is fixated on the mouth that is speaking the words and not on their content. As he finishes, the descending fourths thunder from the strings, trumpets and woodwinds. In despair she asks him to let her kiss his mouth. “Be cursed, daughter of an incestuous mother!” The orchestral interlude that accompanies Jochanaan’s return to the cistern consists mainly of Salome’s various themes, though his fourths make regular appearances. It ends with a very definite V-I cadence in C# minor. But now follow two dozen bars of some very strange stuff. Strings maintain their C#, but everyone else blares in with a chord that contradicts every note of a C# scale. Finally the orchestra agrees on a C# minor tonality, and the bass-clarinet combines Salome’s opening theme with the murkiness of the cistern. But then a weird arpeggio shifts the tonality to E flat minor, and we hear, from low brass and low winds, a very sinister version of the Page’s unease. You have to marvel at the genius of Strauss, who invents a fairly innocuous motif for a very minor character’s fears, which he then morphs and transforms into one of the most powerful ones in the score, while still keeping the Page’s original meaning: “This will end horribly!”
The music of the early uproar announces the arrival on-stage of the dinner-party: Herod; his wife Herodias; and the others mentioned earlier by Salome: the arguing Jews, the secretive Egyptians and the barbaric Romans. Herod’s theme is a whole-tone scale. Classical musicians are raised on regular “major” scales, which combine whole- and half-steps. Play a C major scale; now play the same scale, but only with whole- steps. That’s Herod! A whole-tone scale is nothing harmonically: it cannot make any decisions about its behavior. Neither can Herod. Horns pulse on the beat.
Suddenly we’re back at the question of “LOOK AT” versus “SEEM”. Herodias tells her husband he should not “Look at” Salome and that he is always “looking at” her. Herod notes that the moon “looks” strange – “LOOKS like a madwoman seeking lovers”. The stolidly practical Herodias answers that “the moon is only the moon.” If you thought that, up till now, harmonies were not especially stable, and that vocal lines were more chromatic than not, then the role of Herod will open your ears to even more un-stability! But you have to ask, how stable is Herod anyway?
Against his wife’s desire to go back inside, Herod decides to continue the feast on the terrace and orders torches and more wine. He slips on blood, and notices the body of Narraboth (slide-y licks from the orchestra). Then he feels cold: there must be a wind (typical chromatic scales!), which he compares to the beating of wings, an echo of Jochanaan’s “angel of death”. Again Herod notices Salome: she is so pale. (LOOK AT/vs SEEM!)
Strauss rarely was kind to his tenors. With the exception of the Italian Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier (who sings a pastiche of an Italian aria) his treatment of this voice-type is, surprisingly, vocally awkward and not especially lyrical. Now, however, he shows that he could show off the glory of the tenor voice. In E major, with Salome themes weaving in and out of the texture, Herod invites his step-daughter/niece to place her tiny red lips on a glass of delicious wine. She’s not thirsty. Now F major: I want to see your white teeth bite into this fruit. I’m not hungry. Sit by me on the throne of your mother.
The voice of Jochanaan is heard and Herodias chastises her husband, who should have handed him over to the Jews months ago. Herod believes Jochanaan is a holy man who has seen God. Immediate eruption of five Jews who argue, in a very complicated ensemble, whether any man since Elijah has seen God; their discussion is interrupted by Jochanaan’s voice announcing the arrival of “the Saviour of the world.” Two Nazarenes tell of the early miracles, including the raising from the dead of the daughter of Jairus. The music seems calm, though it’s underlined by the Page’s “terrible things will happen.” Herod is freaked out by the notion that the dead might be raised to life. Jochanaan’s voice becomes more insistent: Herodias should be stoned to death, crushed under the soldiers’ shields, so that all should learn not to repeat her sins.
A brief pause. Suddenly Herod asks Salome to dance for him. Herodias forbids it, and Salome says she’s not interested. The voice from the cistern is heard. Herod says that if she dances he will give her whatever she asks. A clarinet trill and, under a flute cadenza, she wonders if he is serious? Herodias advises her daughter not to dance. (This is Wilde’s major, and most horribly effective, deviation from the New Testament, where both evangelists write that the mother encouraged the daughter to dance in exchange for the head of Jochanaan. ) Herod swears by half his kingdom, by his crown, by his gods. Then he feels cold; he hears the beating of the wings of a black bird. No, I’m too hot: loosen my mantle; no it’s this wreath of roses. Various Salome themes weave in and out of the orchestral texture. One more time Jochanaan’s voice is heard, foretelling the arrival of Jesus. Herodias does not want her daughter to dance, especially while that voice keeps on wailing, and while Herod leers at his step-daughter. Salome announces she is ready.
When Strauss was composing the score of Salome, Gustav Mahler was in charge of the Hofoper in Vienna. Mahler considered the subject impossible: the opera would never be allowed in Catholic countries. Unperturbed by such scruples, Strauss invited the Mahlers to a piano store where he played and sang to them the new opera. There was no dance: “Haven’t done it yet,” he said. “Isn’t that risky?” asked Mahler. Strauss didn’t think so, but Mrs Mahler (Alma) considered the dance the one weakness in the score – a sort of hotchpotch of the rest. And, despite the brilliance and effectiveness of the orchestration, she was, essentially, right: it is a hotchpotch which inhabits a different sound-world from the rest of the score.
“The musicians begin a wild dance.” We might wonder where they’ve been all this time! A few bars of vamp and then a very mid-Easterny whine from the oboes. A figure on the violas is echoed by the lower oboes. “Salome rises to her full height and makes a sign to the musicians. They subdue the wild rhythm instantly and lead on to a soft and swaying tune.” Cellos and basses slide up from beat one to beat two, a solo viola sets up a rhythm and the oboe’s “mid-Eastern whine” now becomes, if not the “swaying tune,” then, at least, a theme, with melismatic flourishes at the phrase-ends. Flute takes over and improvises on Salome’s first theme. Her entrance theme mutters around in the lower strings and winds; suddenly there is an upward scale and flute and celesta wind their way down again. What seems to be a very promising melody sings out in the horns and violas, but disappears almost immediately. The viola rhythm reappears, together with the sliding cellos/basses and the whining oboe . A fragmented version of Salome’s desire leads into the ever-present minor-third interval. The dance thus far must be having an effect on the Tetrach, for suddenly the “male lust” theme explodes in the orchestra. Four bars of rising and descending scales from the entire orchestra lead into the central section of the dance. Somehow Richard could never stray very far from the influence of his earlier, but unrelated, Viennese name-sake Johann, and so we have a waltz. In C# minor. (Remember: the opening clarinet solo settled into C# major, and I advised you to keep that tonality in your inner ear! Despite the chromaticism of the score might there, perhaps, actually be a tonal centre? A key we might call “home,” and be emotionally satisfied by its eventual return? Let’s wait and see – or, rather, wait and hear!) The tempo picks up and, in lovely C# major, two of Salome’s themes combine. Too soon we are back with the opening rhythm. The music accelerates and all the themes we’ve heard so far return kaleidoscopically until stopped by a trilling A against a sustained Bb while oboes and flutes play a rocking minor third. The dance crashes to a close.
Opera directors today seem to believe that this “Dance of the Seven Veils” is a strip-tease, and some sopranos, having spent as much time preparing the role with a personal coach as with a vocal coach, seem happy to acquiesce. Let us take a look at the dramatic situation. Herod, the Tetrarch, (essentially the Judean representative of the Roman Emperor) is hosting a first-century-AD equivalent of a State Dinner with a guest list that includes local Jewish dignitaries, Roman officials and some neighboring Egyptians (if we are to believe Salome). Undoubtedly Herod is slightly askew. But not so askew as to ask his step-daughter/niece to dance naked at a State Dinner. Strauss said this: “I would rather not have any dramatics in the dance at all. No flirting with Herod, no playing to Jochanann’s cistern, only a moment’s pause beside the cistern on the final trill. The dance should be purely oriental, as serious and measured as possible, and thoroughly decent, as if it was being done on a prayer-mat…I have only once seen the dance done really aristocratically and stylishly…”
Herod wildly applauds the dance and again offers Salome her heart’s desire. An ominous clarinet trill combines with that rocking third as Salome begins her request: “I would like them to bring me, on a silver charger…” Herod interrupts her, tickled by the detail of a “silver charger,” but his harmonies are very vague, with flute, clarinet, celeste and eventually the harps, outlining the chords with arpeggios. His voice dies away as he asks her what she wants. Salome stands; “laughing” and delicately (staccato, piano, then pianissimo on the high note): “The head of Jochanaan.” Herod’s whole-tone scale bursts from the trombones, while the strings rush around, helter-skelter, harmonically aimless. Herodias thinks it’s a wonderful idea: since he was imprisoned in the cistern, Jochanaan’s consistent condemnations of what he considers her incestuous re-marriage have been acutely embarrassing to her. Herod assumes that Salome has consulted her mother (the Gospel versions say that she did). But Wilde’s greatest stroke of genius in his (re)imagining of the story is that Salome’s request is not influenced by her mother. She now makes that defiantly clear.
Herod is distraught. He is only too aware that he has sworn an oath, in public, at a State Dinner, with all these various dignitaries as witness, that he would grant Salome her wish. His situation is not helped by his wife’s reminding him of that and of her insistence that her daughter should not be tempted to change her mind. (Perhaps it was this husband-wife squabble, coupled with earlier indications of their marital problems,that occasioned the, probably apocryphal, comment of one dowager to another, overheard at the first Covent Garden performances: “So different from the home life of our own dear Queen!”).
The German translation, or maybe it was Strauss’s textual cutting, abbreviates Wilde. Strauss’s Herod merely says that a severed head is disgusting to look at. Here is Wilde: “The head of a man that is cut from his body is ill to look upon…It is not meet that the eyes of a virgin should look upon such a thing. What pleasure could you have in it? None.” He offers her the finest emerald in the world: I demand (that horrible trill) the head of Jochanaan. Herod calls for more wine. He offers her his flock of white peacocks. The truth is that he is horribly scared. What if Jochanaan’s utterances are true? What if someone can raise the dead ( i.e. his brother, who will testify that he was murdered)? That this “Son of Man” will rule the world? Jochanaan is a holy man and he could damage her step-father/uncle. Salome is obdurate. She has already refused the white peacocks and the stunning emerald, but maybe his secret horde of jewels? No. The Veil of the Temple? (Horror from the Jews!) No. “Give her what she wants.”
A terrifying trill on low winds followed by high winds scream Salome’s rocking third. Herodias removes a ring from Herod’s right hand and gives it to one of the soldiers who brings it to Naaman, the Executioner, who goes down into the cistern. Now begins what are probably the most horrifically vivid pages ever composed. Salome is listening at the cistern: she can hear nothing. But we do. A repeated B flat from a solo double bass who is directed to pull the string away from the sounding-board and bow it. Strauss claimed it represented “the stifled sighs and groans of a woman.” But, to my ears, it’s the sound of Naaman sharpening his sword. A fortissimo sforzando thud leads Salome to think that Naaman has dropped his sword. But we know exactly what that sound is. Salome calls to the Page, to the soldiers and to the Tetrarch to bring her the head of Jochanaan.
With a frightening combination of Salome’s themes, “the arm of the executioner comes forth from the cistern, bearing on a silver platter the head of Jochanaan. Salome seizes it.” And so begins the final scene.
We don’t know in which order Strauss composed the opera. There’s no reason to believe that he started on page 1 of the libretto and worked his way through to the end, but it’s very plausible to believe (Norman Del Mar, in his musical biography of the composer, advocates this theory) that Strauss began with this scene, even if it was only to sketch out some musical ideas and motifs. The text fits the music, and vice versa, in a way they didn’t in the earlier scenes. We’ll never know for sure. What is certain is that the last twenty minutes of Salome constitute one of the most glorious arias (THE most glorious aria? – and I’m including Brünnhilde and Isolde in this!) for the soprano voice. (Elektra’s ecstasy is not lyrical and Daphne’s is not earthly. The closest glory is the Countess in Capriccio. But that does not have the emotional catharsis of this early opera.)
“You would not let me kiss your mouth, Jochanaan! Now I will kiss it.” She will bite it as one would a ripe fruit (flash-back to Herod’s request!). Your eyes were so frightening, but now they’re closed – why? Look at me! Are you afraid of me? Your tongue is now silent. I, Salome, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judea, am alive and you are dead. Your head belongs to me and I can do with it whatever I want!
What we don’t expect is the loss Salome now feels. And her sorrow for that loss. It is heartbreaking to hear her sing “Ah, Jochanaan, you were beautiful”, settling into the home key of C# major. In his 1897 poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde wrote: “Each man kills the thing he loves.” But six years earlier he dramatized that line in Salomé. The text recalls Salome’s earlier scene with Jochanaan: his white body, his dark hair, his red lips, his musical voice. You talked of God – you’ve seen Him now! But you never saw me (LOOK AT – again!). If you had, you would have loved me. I was thirsty for your beauty, I hungered for your body. And wine could not slate my desire. If only you had looked at me, you would have loved me. The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.
Herod orders everyone to return inside the Palace and to extinguish the torches. “The stars disappear” says the stage direction. “A great black cloud crosses the moon and conceals it completely.” The horrible trill returns with an even more horrible chord from everything low in the orchestra, including an off-stage organ. I kissed your mouth (a sigh on the violins). There was a bitter taste on your lips. Was that the taste of blood? They say that love has a bitter taste. That doesn’t matter now. In stunning C# major: “I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan!”
But this seemingly glorious diatonic resolution is destroyed by the most violent discord ever heard before 1905!
This magnificent scene recapitulates all of Salome’s themes, and many of Jochanaan’s, sometimes by themselves, sometimes in combination, in an extraordinary musical portrait of a distorted adolescent mind.
The moon emerges from behind the clouds and Herod is horrified by the sight of Salome kissing the severed head. “Kill her!” he yells. Soldiers rush forward and crush her beneath their shields. Low brass and timpani, in C minor ( a complete contradiction of her ecstatic C# major) vividly depict her death throes.