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The 20th-century philosopher Ernst Bloch famously described Richard Strauss as a composer of "profound superficialities," one of many masks that the private composer wore. But that one suited him in particular and made him an ideal match for Oscar Wilde's play, Salome, a work so rich with color, imagery, and metaphor, that one is tempted to borrow Bloch's Straussian description for Wilde, who himself was fascinated with the shallow ("only the shallow know true seriosness"). Strauss' score creates an ideal match for Wilde's words, with its sensual sinuous melodies, aching dissonance, twinging chromaticism, and luxurious orchestral euphony. This deep surface nearly buries the awfulness of its actual themes: incest, sexual obsession, dismemberment, and necrophilia.
Salome was his third opera but his first success, which conquered Europe within its initial year and offered Strauss enough royalties to help build his impressive villa in Garmisch. Before Salome, Strauss was firmly established as a successful composer of tone poems and songs, but he remained an enigma as an opera composer. Wagner, the master of the "music drama," was a hard act to follow, he had reached Olympian heights, and Strauss, in his typically Bavarian, self-deprecating way, said that rather than try to scale the Wagnerian mountain, he would simply make a detour around it. Salome was his first successful by-pass, a work that put him on the international map as a German opera composer.
Strauss loved to play cards, and, like any good card player, he kept his hand close to his chest at the game table and in life. Aloof, almost phlegmatic in person, he was paradoxically extraverted and sanguine in his music. The composer who seemed to reveal so much of himself in such works as Symphonia domestica and Intermezzo loathed self-revelation beyond the musical realm, a realm where he was fully in control. Strauss disliked the neo-romantic posture of an artist set apart from worldly life, and he cultivated an image of a composer who treated composition as everyday work, as a way of earning an income. But however true this persona may have been on one level, it was no less a pose, a mask so real to others that he could disappear behind it, allowing Strauss, the artist, his necessary privacy and seclusion for creative work.
On one level, Strauss is one of the most performed, widely recorded composers of our time and appears, therefore to be readily accessible. Yet on another level we inevitably confront a private, contradictory human being who eludes our grasp. Was Strauss a man deeply rooted in inner antagonisms, or did he merely wear several masks? How, indeed, does one come to terms with the creator of adjacent works such as Symphonia domestica, with its harmless depiction of scenes from bourgeois family life, and Salome a work that ends with the title role kissing the bloody head of John the Baptist? That was certainly the question at the time of Salome's 1905 premiere as one critic observed:
The art of Richard Strauss bears, like Salome, deep traces of decay: from Zarathustra it drags itself lasciviously to the children's room [Symphonia domestica]; from the Domestica it staggers to the excesses of impure blood and demands the head of John the Baptist. The public stares hypnotically, like the slaves of [Herod], at the bloodthirsty music, then throws the shield of indignation over it and, laughing sarcastically, leaves the house that has incited its curiosity.
In that year of Salome's premiere, some of Strauss' staunchest supporters openly questioned the seriousness of Strauss' artistry. Ernest Newman, disappointed at Domestica's banality and by Salome's solipsistic pathology, said that his next opera "will probably show whether he is going to realize our best hopes or our worst fears." Sadly, for Newman, it would be the latter; Elektra served as confirmation that Strauss had given in to orchestral sensationalism, to dissonance and noise for their own sake.
Newman was, of course, a devoted Wagnerian, and he – like many other supporters – hoped Strauss would take on the Wagnerian mantel, something in which Strauss, the composer, had little if any interest. I say "Strauss the composer," because Strauss the conductor dearly loved Wagner, a love exemplified, early on, by his voluminous correspondence with Cosima Wagner and a life-long career as one of Wagner's finest interpreters.
Strauss eagerly invited Cosima to Weimar in February 1890 to hear his first Lohengrin, and, while she was there, he played for her his newly composed Don Juan. Cosima was aghast, not only by its flagrant eroticism but by the cinematic concreteness of his musical narrative; she urged him to follow his heart, not his brain. The next blow was Guntram (1895), Strauss' first opera, which started out as a Tannhäuser-like music drama. But where Tannhaüser goes to Rome for penance, Guntram, the minstrel-knight, abandons his knightly fraternity, his beloved Freihild, and even his music, setting off on his own solitary existential path toward self-redmption. Cosima, again, was horrified at the affront; Strauss responded: "I can't help it, I'll never be granted the halo," and, indeed, Strauss remained an atheist until the day he died. It is precisely from this standpoint that we should understand Salome, for what was modern about it was less the obvious post-Wagnerian musical techniques but his blatant pictorialism, eroticism, and desacralization of religion.
Thus, Strauss did not choose Salome as a subject for pious reasons, but because of the compelling imagery and language of Oscar Wilde's play and, later, on, by what he saw on stage in Max Reinhardt's production, featuring the famed Gertrud Eysoldt as Salome (she would play Elektra for Reinhardt just a few years later). Strauss also had a personal fascination with the Middle East, where he had traveled extensively in 1893. Strauss suffered from pleurisy and went to Greece and Egypt as a cure, funded by an uncle. Upon his return he gave his uncle a little tongue-in-cheek "Arabian Dance" for piano quartet as a sonic memento of his journey, a Middle Eastern dance that predates the "Dance of the Seven Veils" by a dozen years. Ex. 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ACnbQ7YHiI
Of all the characters in Salome, John the Baptist was the least sympathetic for Strauss, who remarked that, in Salome, "I tried to compose the good old Jochanaan more or less as a clown. A preacher in the desert, especially one who feeds on locusts, seems infinitely ridiculous to me. Only because I had already caricatured the five Jews and also poked fun at Father Herod did I feel that I had to follow the law of contrast and write a pedantic-Philistine motif for four horns to characterize Jochanaan." Ex. 2:
Like the major figures of Strauss' tone poems (Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, the Hero of Ein Heldenleben), Salome and Elektra are ego-assertive; they live in dissonance with their surroundings, but unlike their male predecessors, the two women are both pathologically narcissistic, unaware of any responsibility to the world around them, and because of that total lack of connection, they must die.
The late-19th-century bourgeois-artist paradox that so troubled the German writer, Thomas Mann, didn't bother Strauss at all. He enjoyed his luxurious Berlin apartment, and he loyally served his Philistine Emperor as court conductor (even dishing up occasional marches to keep him satisfied). Yet his artistic inclinations at the time were at one with the Berlin anti-establishment, secessionist painters and writers of his day.
But perhaps his most kindred spirit of this time was the writer Ernst von Wolzogen, the estranged half-brother of the Wagnerian Hanns. Ernst was a satirical playwright and founder of the Berlin literary cabaret, the Überbrettl. Both Strauss and von Wolzogen were like-minded when it came to debunking Wagnerian metaphysics, more specifically the notion of transcendence or redemption through art. They sought to negate Schopenhauer's ideal of the denial of the Will (that primal – and to Schopenhauer's thinking – dangerous, sexual life-generating force). Strauss and Wolzogen were convinced of quite the opposite, that the Will should be affirmed by embracing physical sexuality.
The sexual act should not be sublimating or transfiguring, as in Tristan, rather it should simply be enjoyed- as in Strauss' Don Juan – for what it is. Just a few years after Don Juan, a recently married Strauss wrote a diary entry describing the blissful, post-coital expression on a woman's face. "That smile – I have never seen such [an] expression of the true sensation of happiness! Is not the way to the redemption of the Will to be sought here (in the condition of the receiving woman)! ... Affirmation of the Will must properly be called affirmation of the body." Strauss had enjoyed fame as a sensualist in the tone poem, now he sought to bring sexual material to the stage.
Wolzogen suggested Feuersnot (1901), or Fire Famine, where that famine is amply replenished by the libinal flames of the opera's hero (a thinly-disguised Strauss). It was a critical and public misfire, but that all changed with Salome. Lust, decapitation, incest, and necrophilia joined forces with sinuous chromaticism and dazzling orchestration to create a work that seemed simultaneously to provoke fascination and revulsion.
With the confidence of a seasoned opera composer, Strauss set Wilde's play to music, cutting some forty percent of the dialogue, accentuating the play's contrasting images as well as its symmetries. Contrasting images made for contrasting musical styles: the stiff and pedantic for Jochanaan (Ex. 2, above), the deliberately cheesy for Herod (Ex. 3):
...the nervously contrapuntal for the Jews (Ex. 4):
...and the sensuously chromatic for Salome (Ex. 5):
Strauss reduced the play to a confrontation between Salome and John the Baptist, with Herod as the short end the triangle. Salome sings three seduction songs, each rebuked by Jochanaan, then after the dance, Salome's "ostinato" to her stepfather, "I want the head of John the Baptist," culminating in her disturbing final monologue.
Strauss, with his tremendous instincts for the musical stage, successfully streamlined the text, making cuts that created an overwhelming sense of escalation culminating in Salome's deadly finale, where she becomes detached from the outer world. With tongue placed firmly in cheek, Strauss remarked that, after the fact, it was easy to say that Wilde's play was "crying out for music." Nonetheless, he wryly added, "that [music] had to be discovered." The discovery process was remarkably fast (he sketched the whole work in less than fifteen months), suggesting that whatever ideas he was digging for were fairly close to the surface.
While she was in Berlin in 1905 – on Good Friday, no less – Cosima Wagner asked a reluctant Strauss to play a bit of his new score for her, and after he finished Salome's final monologue, she declared it to be utter madness. "You are for the exotic," she observed, "[my son] Siegfried is for the popular." It was the last time the two ever saw each other. A later newspaper article by Siegfried Wagner, in which he decried the work and Strauss' modernist direction, concluded their relationship as well. The actual end occurred at the expensive Hotel Adlon in Berlin shortly after the article appeared. Siegfried saw Strauss in the lobby and awkwardly exclaimed: "Ah, Richard, you here too! Is your business making such good profits?" "Yes," replied Strauss, "but with my own hard-earned money and not my father's."
If there was a contemporary buzzword to characterize Salome it was "nervousness." Even Strauss' father admitted that hearing it made him feel as if he had "maybugs in his pants." Conservatives likened such a work as an extension of the hectic, bustling, and noisy world of modern Germany with its trains, trams, and electric lights. A look at Strauss' busy engagement calendar shows a conductor on the road as much as he was at home. What kind of music could come from an artist who seems to have such little time for artistic reflection? Materialist music is they would answer, music derived from the technical potential of the orchestra and not from the spirit. As one critic noted, "[Salome] ceaselessly discharges the spirit; it rattles and bangs until the emotions are worn out; it no longer wants anything but explosions, and the dynamic of these has no effect but that of dynamite."
Strauss was accused of being a Jew in music, curiously – in two notorious instances – by Jewish critics. Robert Hirschfeld decried Salome's "distorted harmonic images, its restless, grotesque gestural language, precisely the role of that group of Jews in Wilde's drama." Julius Korngold (father of composer Ernst Wolfgang) suggested that "[with] the quintet of quarreling Jews..., Strauss is in his element.... Doesn't the entire score of Salome sound somewhat Jewish?"
One can well imagine that Cosima Wagner, beyond judging Salome to be insanity, made a few choice anti-Semitic statements of her own against Strauss' work upon hearing him play the score on that fateful Good Friday. Strauss' outspoken wife, Pauline, might well have got into the fray, for in a sarcastic follow-up letter to Cosima's infamous Berlin visit, he wrote: "I hope that, after making the acquaintance of my crazy Jewish girl, you did not have a bad night in the train and that you had a pleasant trip home. Best wishes from me and my not always un-crazy wife."
Looking back, we can say that the first catalyst for Salome was Wilde's engaging text, and the second catalyst, the one that brought together word, image, and gesture, was Strauss' visual experience in the theater. But let's remember the third and main reason: Strauss was allied with what his friend Arthur Seidl called "left-wing" Wagnerism, an anti-metaphysics that offended Cosima, her son, and their crowd. The composer was serious when he called the opera a "scherzo with a bad ending." Siegfried Wagner dreaded the day Parsifal would lose its exclusive Festspielhaus-only copyright, which would allow Strauss' opera to share with Parsifal "the same floorboards" upon which the "disgusting Salome" had danced."
Salome, subtitled as a "music drama," is an ironic response to Wagner's Parsifal, for Salome's so-called redeemer is not himself redeemed but beheaded. Both Jokanaan and Parsifal resist sexual advances, but the results could not have been more different. John's denial of the body (Schopenhauer's Will) through his strident chastity, proved a deadly affair for all. Strauss punished body denial one more time with Elektra's death, but by then the composer had had enough.
Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's idea for a Rosenkavalier collaboration could not have come at a better time for Strauss who saw in it a new type of modernity, one which rejected Wilde's decadent symbolism and dark Greek tragedy and that embraced a new type of drama, "a bourgeois comedy" that affirms the social gesture. Thus, Der Rosenkavalier was not a regression, but a way to the socially-critical modern. Strauss had grown weary of deadly, decadent fin-de-siècle inwardness, and Hofmannsthal gave the composer renewal and rejuvination in social comedy.
So – what to watch? Start with this stunning film version with Teresa Stratas in the title role: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJ1kHi1HjQE.