Major Operas | Salome by Richard Strauss | Turn of the Century

Strauss saw Hedwig Lachmann’s German version of Oscar Wilde’s play in Berlin in 1903. Directed by Max Reinhardt, it made an immediate impression on the composer and he decided to set Lachmann’s text himself. The relatively short length of Salome allowed Strauss to approach the composition as though it were another of the tone-poems with which he had established his reputation.

The work is symphonically conceived and the giant orchestra is used with great deftness to create a wide range of colours. It was the perfect find for Strauss. A strong drama, inviting a powerful score and benefitting from grand theatrical effects; it also presented a psychological introversion that invited a more lyrical, chamber-music style. Harmonically, the work is forward-looking. Although the essential language is diatonic, there are moments of bitonality as well as a number of unprepared dissonances, designed for theatrical shock effect.

Composed: 1904–05
Premiered: 1905, Dresden
Libretto by the composer to Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play

Jochanaan the prophet has been imprisoned in a cistern at the palace of the Tetrarch Herodes for foretelling a new kingdom of God and denouncing Herodias, formerly the wife of Herodes’ murdered brother and now of Herodes himself. Narraboth is watching Herodias’s daughter Salome, who is disgusted at the way Herodes has been looking at her. She demands to see Jochanaan, even though Herodes has forbidden the cistern lid to be raised. Aware that Narraboth is obsessed with her, she persuades him to bring out Jochanaan. She is fascinated by the prophet’s pale and wild appearance and declares she will kiss him. Narraboth cannot bear this and kills himself. Jochanaan announces that only the One who is to come can save her. Herodes enters with Herodias. The body is taken away. Herodes is disturbed by a sound of beating wings. Herodias rebukes him for staring at her daughter. Salome rejects his offers of wine and fruit and refuses to sit next to him. Herodias demands that Jochanaan is silenced.

Herodes’ belief that Jochanaan is a holy man who has seen God prompts a discussion by five Jews, while two Nazarenes assert that the Messiah has come and is working miracles, including raising the dead. Herodias is still more disturbed by Jochanaan’s pronouncements. Herodes asks Salome to dance for him. Herodias objects and again Salome refuses to obey Herodes. He offers her anything she desires, even half his kingdom. He hears the beating wings once more and can barely breathe. Salome agrees to dance, to Herodias’s fury. Herodes is so overcome by her dance that he agrees to keep his oath. Her demand for Jochanaan’s head on a silver charger brings Herodias’s delighted approval but fills Herodes with horror. He offers priceless jewels and even the veil of the Tabernacle, but Salome remains adamant. Herodias takes the death-ring from Herodes’ finger and gives it to the executioner, who goes down into the cistern. Salome leans over the side, listening for the sound of the execution. She seizes the severed...

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