Cheat Sheet: Salome
Richard Strauss, one of the most famous German composers writing music in the late 19th and early 20th century.
A photograph of composer Richard Strauss, 1900. Source: Bain News Service, author unknown. Copyright: public domain.
He was born in 1864 in Munich, and learned music from his father Franz, who played horn for the Court Opera. His father ensured the young Strauss received a rigorous private music education, and Strauss studied violin in particular. He wrote his first composition at six years old.
As a young man, Strauss abandoned his study of philosophy and art history to take up a post as assistant conductor to Hans von Bülow. Under his wing, Strauss learned the art of conducting.
Over his long career, Strauss had an enormous influence on music. His music is inventive, colourful and ambitious. He created disturbing, dissonant soundscapes and lush, romantic melodies.
Even if you’ve never heard anything by the composer, you’ve felt his impact. His musical style shaped film music as it developed through the 20th century, influencing composers like Max Steiner, Erich Korngold and even John Williams.
Today, Strauss is most famous for his operas Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra and Salome, as well as many instrumental works. His setting of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra,’ launched into popular culture when Stanley Kubrick used it in the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Strauss died at 85 in Germany. At his burial, singers performed a famous trio from Der Rosenkavalier, but could not hold back their tears, each one dropping out in turn before pulling themselves together to finish the piece.
Salome is used to being wanted: by Narraboth, by her stepfather Herod, by anyone who sees her beauty. But the prophet Jokanaan does not want her – and he denies her advances forcefully. The prophet condemns the evil in Herod’s court.
Salome is incensed, and she uses Herod’s weakness to have her revenge on Jokanaan.
Who are the main characters?
Salome – the teenage daughter of Herodias
Jokanaan – the prophet John the Baptist
Herod – the King
Herodias – his wife. They married after Herod had his brother, her first husband, killed.
Narraboth – A guard who loves Salome
The ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. You can hear an excerpt of it in the trailer.
Something to listen out for
Strauss, like Wagner, gave each of his characters a theme or ‘leitmotif’. Listen out as each character appears and you’ll hear a short theme that introduces their character. Herod’s is decadent, Jokanaan’s is noble and assured, Salome’s is sensual and at times agitated.
When Salome sings of her lust for Jokanaan, listen to the way the passion rises in the music. Her voice travels higher, and higher, and you can feel her ecstasy. Meanwhile, Strauss revisits a theme from the beginning of the opera, where the Page foresaw something terrible happening. With that motif repeating insistently under Salome’s ecstatic line, something terrible does happen. Narraboth kills himself.
When Salome gets her wish, and kisses the lips on Jokanaan’s severed head, her rapture is tinged with sadness for what she has destroyed. Salome’s and Jokanaan’s themes swirl around each other in disharmony.
But Strauss gives us the resolution of her desires in a dramatic C# major chord: “I have kissed your mouth, Jokanaan!” To the ear, the chord is a pleasant return to home, but Strauss doesn’t let us enjoy it for long. An explosion of dissonant notes bursts forth from the orchestra.
This production is …
Edwards takes the biblical setting and makes it stylised and timeless. The costumes marry ancient and contemporary elements to tell a story of excess and violence.
With choreographer Kelley Abbey, Edwards makes a particular feature of the famous ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, as dancers and Salome in turn portray a series of clichéd male fantasies.
A crop from Gustav Moreau's painting 'Salome with Column', painted between 1885-1890. The painter was fascinated by the story of Salome and painted her many times. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Copyright: public domain
The opera was scandalous from day one. Combining erotic scenes with a biblical story was always going to get people talking, but Strauss really pushed the line by adding modernist, unfamiliar music.
Strauss began working on Salome after reading a copy of Oscar Wilde’s stage play of the same name in 1902. He got the idea from an Austrian poet, who sent him the play along with a request to collaborate on the opera. Strauss loved the idea, but not the libretto poor Anton Lindner had supplied, so he rejected the request and began writing his own.
When he saw a German version of Oscar Wilde’s stage play Salome later that year, at Max Reinhardt’s famous ‘Little Theatre’ in Berlin, he’d already begun setting it to music.
The opera was also a hit from day one. Salome premiered in Dresden on 9 December 1905, and within two years, more than 50 opera houses had performed the opera. Despite performance bans in London and Vienna, audiences all over the world were clamouring to see the sensation.
After its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 1907, patrons asked composer Edward Elgar to spearhead a campaign denouncing the opera. He refused, declaring Strauss “the greatest genius of the age”. The Metropolitan pulled the opera after one performance.
Today, Salome remains a thrilling, disturbing opera. Tim Ashley, writing for The Guardian, describes it as “one of the most extreme experiences classical music has to offer”.
- Salome made Strauss a rich man. He claimed to have built his villa in Bavaria off the royalties alone.
- The first Salome, Marie Wittich, almost refused to sing the part on moral grounds. When Strauss threatened to pull the premiere from Dresden, she compromised. Wittich performed the role but refused to dance the erotic “Dance of the Seven Veils’. A dancer stood in, and many opera houses continue with this tradition.
- Strauss’ father oversaw a wonderful music education for his child, but refused to let his son study Wagner’s music, considering it too progressive. In spite of (or perhaps because of this), Wagner’s music had a profound influence on Strauss.
Salome in a nutshell
The composer: Strauss. German. 19th-20th century.
The music: A modernist web of exotic melodies, enticing rhythms and dissonance.
The big hit: The ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’
The setting: Biblical times, in the court of King Herod
The history: Salome was banned in London and Vienna, but that only added to its appeal. Audiences flocked to see the sensational story and erotic music on stage.
A quirky fact to impress your date: Despite its taboo-breaking subject matter and music, the premiere was such a success that the performers took 38 curtain calls.