What I Think About When I Hear Richard Strauss' 'Salome' | Texas Public Radio

What I Think About When I Hear Richard Strauss' 'Salome'

Jan 15, 2015

For years now, I keep coming back to a jazz composition by composer/jazz educator and good friend Dick Goodwin. He wrote the piece back when I first got to know him, in the late '60s, calling it “What I Think About When I Hear 'Bye, Bye, Blackbird.'” It's funny how utilitarian the concept is: “What I Think About When I Hear Beethoven 5th,” or “Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Scheherazade.'” Or what about the visual? How about “What I Think About When I See Edouard Vuillard's 'Yellow Curtain.'” (The answer is Henri Matisse), but I digress in making the point that we regularly encounter everyday sights and sounds, even smells, which trigger other trains of experience.

So the question is: What did I think about when I saw last Sunday's performance of Richard Strauss' “Salome”? Of course, my first reaction was to the wave of sound and vision which swept over all assembled at the Tobin Center for the Performning Arts. It was something like “Wow!' It's true that there's nothing quite like hearing music performed live, and Sunday's experience was overwhelmingly first rank. Everyone in the theatre sat spellbound by the aggregate experience: first, the impact of the performance we were witnessing, but then by the impact of the tawdry tale of lust and unbridled human desire by playwright Oscar Wilde and composer Richard Strauss. I suppose there were some in the audience who were offended, even 110 years after the work first premiered in 1905 to great controversy amidst attempts at banning it from any further performance. But the enthusiastic response by the Tobin Center audience certainly overwhelmed any doubters who might have been present.

Patricia Racette (Salome) & Alan Held (Jochanaan) in Opera San Antonio's Salome
Credit Karen Almond

It's really not so hard to believe that "Salome," the play, and then "Salome" the opera, stirred up a firestorm when they were first performed. Even today, "Salome" presents challenges. It depicts things which are difficult to examine, even in the 21st Century, things like lust, incest and suicide. And it examines the Biblical account of Herod, his wife Herodias and Salome, her daughter by a previous marriage, under a penetrating light not found in Sunday School. Then there is the imprisoned John the Baptist, locked away as a result of his hateful relationship with Herodias. Well, you get the idea. The human dynamics are all there, made even more dramatic by Strauss' bold and radical score. He wanted nothing to do with the pending revolution of absolute atonalism. But he was more than willing to startle in other ways, from the opening bars onward. In a sense, Wagner had laid the groundwork with the chromaticism of "Tristan und Isolde." He gave Strauss permission, as though he might actually have asked for it, to throw old-fashioned do-re-mi tonality under the bus. The clarinet's opening scale begins in C-sharp major but then switches abruptly to G major. This immediately sets the atmosphere of conflict, from the standpoint of musical theory – can music really be played in two contradictory keys at once? Place on top of that the words and ideas of Oscar Wilde's play, and controversies begin to flare. No one in proper society wants to permit a public display of the incestuous desire Herod has for his step-daughter Salome, or of Salome's relentless desire to know the body of John the Baptist. Well before Herod's ultimate madness, when he demands “Kill that woman!” the public, and even the actors, had lost their tolerance for Salome. Even Marie Wittich, Strauss' first Salome, dug in her heels when she was presented with the famous Dance of the Seven Veils. “That I won't do,” she reportedly cried. “I am a respectable woman!”

The earliest performances of "Salome," first in Dresden, then in Graz, Austria, were protested as scandalous but played to audiences thrilled to be witness to the transition from the 19th Century to the Modern. But not all in attendance came away enthusiastic about what Strauss and Wilde had unleashed. Kaiser Wilhelm II noted: “I am sorry that Strauss composed this 'Salome.' Normally I'm very keen on him, but this is going to do him a lot of damage.”

In some cases there was outright refusal by authorities to allow performances of Salome. Lord Chamberlain refused to allow "Salome" at Covent Garden. Sir Thomas Beecham, who desired to bring the work to England, protested the ban and reapplied for a license to give a performance. This time, negotiations took place which agreed to allow "Salome" into Covent Garden, but only if certain changes were made in the opera's content. Beecham grudgingly agreed.

This was not the only time that revisions had to be made to "Salome" in order to get her into various opera houses around the world. In particular, there were constant protests from religious leaders in addition to the general public opposition to the work. Some religious circles contended it improper to present Biblical stories in dramatic and musical dress. When it was pointed out that Camille Saint-Saens had already told the tale of Samson and Delilah in operatic form, opposition ceded that it was alright to tell Old Testament 

Harper's Weekly cover, February 9, 1907
Credit Metafilter.com

stories on stage, but that the line had to be drawn when it came to granting similar latitude in telling New Testament stories. This meant, of course, that "Salome," based upon the gospels of Matthew and Mark, would not be tolerated. The Vatican, in particular, voiced its opposition, urging women not to attend the opera, while also referring to Oscar Wilde as a heretic. Further protest pertained to the depiction by both Wilde and Strauss of John the Baptist. As a result, certain opera houses permitted performance of Salome only if John were not referred to as John the Baptist, but rather more generically as The Prophet.

Of course, both Wilde and Strauss stirred the controversies, not only by their forthright examination of the topics of lust, incest, suicide, and necrophilia, but by the on-stage characterization of religious debate by the several Jews arguing over the nature of God, and later the arguments between the Nazarenes regarding the miracles attributed to their Messiah. These short, but lively scenes play almost like comic relief.

 

First Jew: “There is no man who hath

seen God since the prophet Elias. He is the last

man who saw God.”

 

Another Jew: “Verily, no man knoweth if the prophet Elias

did indeed see God. [Perhaps] it was but the

shadow of God that he saw.”

 

Third Jew: “God is at no time hidden. He showeth Him-

self at all times and in everything. God is in

what is evil even as He is in what is good.”

 

Valid religious dialogue, perhaps, but Strauss frames it in an almost satirical manner. Thus further protests from representatives of religious interests, protests which are still heard today regarding Strauss' depiction of Salome's tale.

Salome encountered even more opposition when it came to the Metropolitan Opera in January, 1907, for its U.S. premiere. Protests were loud from numerous important patrons, forcing the show to close after only one performance. The caricature on the cover of Harper's Weekly showed Salome being discharged through the rear stage door. The caption read: “DISCHARGED WITHOUT HONOR.” Oscar Hammerstein then attempted to organize a performance of Salome in Philadelphia. His efforts made headlines in the Philadelphia Inquirer, where clergy and society mavens publicly called upon Philadelphia's mayor to forbid Hammerstein's efforts. In contrast to the debacle at the Met, the show went on in Philadelphia, though Hammerstein took a financial beating for it. Strike two against Salome in the U.S.

Strike three came in Chicago when the fledgling company which eventually became the Chicago Lyric Opera agreed to mount a run of Salome. Despite good reviews in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Law and Order League demanded the chief of police shut down the performances. In the end, Chicago's Salome could not bear the noisy and contentious debate. They closed the show in advance of the third performance.

Da Capo. Let's go back to the top and my comment that I find myself constantly recalling the title of Dick Goodwin's jazz chart: “What I Think About When I Hear 'Bye, Bye Blackbird.'” My thoughts as I reveled in the Opera San Antonio's presentation of Salome were focused upon the marvelous performance. Everyone involved with this production deserves the standing ovation given last Sunday's performance. It was beyond my expectations, and I'm so glad that Opera San Antonio's Artistic Director Tobias Picker chose Salome as the centerpiece for the company's inaugural season at the Tobin. And I am ecstatic for the future of the San Antonio Symphony as the anchor arts organization at the Tobin. Let's not forget to support their efforts in making San Antonio a desirable place to put down roots, but also the promotion of San Antonio as an arts destination.

So that's some of what I thought about while hearing "Salome." However, I couldn't help also finding some interesting parallels with the recent tragic instances of hate and intolerance which erupted in Paris, resulting in numerous dead and our world in turmoil. Fortunately, I know of no instances of physical violence against Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss' "Salome." It is sad enough that this opera had to endure so many instances of censorship during much of its early history. Thankfully, however, there were no scores burned and no assassinations of the principals involved in the history of "Salome" the opera. All in all, Strauss and "Salome" weathered the controversies rather well. In fact, Strauss loved to say that the monetary successes of "Salome" enabled him to build his villa in Garmisch.

 

Translation: “Charlie Hebdo must be censored.”
Credit Charlie Hebdo

So what more have I thought about in these post-Salome reflections? That it's imperative we steel ourselves against the intolerance of terrorists who invoke the names of their various gods and prophets as they inflict violence upon the Universal right to free expression. To grant such free expression is not to say that we must agree with every opinion offered by stubbornly independent media such as Charlie Hebdo. Nor do we need to agree with those who promote the gospel of one prophet or another, one god or another. But what we do need to agree upon is the right we all have to express ourselves in a free and open manner. Let's stand against the zealots who would tell us otherwise. Neither we nor they have the right to censor the opinions of others.

“What I Think About When I Hear 'Salome.'” All of the above.