Strauss’s Shocks Audiences

When Richard Strauss’s one-act musical drama Salome premiered in Dresden, it shocked many with its eroticism and took music beyond conventional tonality.

Summary of Event

Richard Strauss firmly planted opera in the new century with Salome (pr. 1905), the third of his fifteen operas. Strauss opened the door to the explicit depiction of morbid psychological states, probing the dark recesses of the human mind through music. Determined to conquer the operatic stage with his first opera of the twentieth century, Strauss boldly chose Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé
Salomé (Wilde) (pb. 1893) as the text with which to make his mark; in the process, he created a wholly new type of opera, drawing on the programmatic elements of his tone poems such as Don Juan (1889) and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1894-1895; Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks) and on the Wagnerian system of leading motives, in which characters announce themselves through distinctive musical themes. To these, he added a quite un-Wagnerian urgency and speed. Salome (Strauss)
Opera;Salome (Strauss)
[kw]Strauss’s Salome Shocks Audiences (Dec. 9, 1905)[Strausss Salome Shocks Audiences (Dec. 9, 1905)]
[kw]Salome Shocks Audiences, Strauss’s (Dec. 9, 1905)
Salome (Strauss)
Opera;Salome (Strauss)
[g]Germany;Dec. 9, 1905: Strauss’s Salome Shocks Audiences[01440]
[c]Music;Dec. 9, 1905: Strauss’s Salome Shocks Audiences[01440]
[c]Theater;Dec. 9, 1905: Strauss’s Salome Shocks Audiences[01440]
Strauss, Richard
Wilde, Oscar
Schuch, Ernst von
Wittich, Marie

Although previously successful operas had been based on biblical subjects, none had involved so provocative a setting or so audacious a topic as Salome’s dance for King Herod and the subsequent beheading of John the Baptist. Strauss chose Oscar Wilde’s controversial drama, which conspicuously links female sexuality and death. Wilde’s play was perceived as immoral because of its rendering of a tale of shocking depravity in symbolist poetry, in which the cool surface of events only hints at appalling emotions and behavior. Strauss ignored the artificial beauty of the poetry in favor of a full-blooded musical depiction of the shocking behavior at the court of King Herod. Wilde’s play came to Strauss’s attention some time after its German premiere in Breslau in 1901; the Breslau performance was followed by successful performances in Berlin. Strauss adapted Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of the play (minus roughly 40 percent of Wilde’s original text).

At its most basic level, the opera concerns the gruesome results of the thwarted will of a spoiled adolescent female who is denied the object of her sexual desire. In the corrupt court of her stepfather, King Herod, where spiritual values are seen as incomprehensible, Salome is accustomed to the instant gratification of her materialistic desires. Overwhelmed with desire for the visionary prophet Jokanaan (the biblical John the Baptist), the spoiled Salome demands his head on a silver platter as her reward for performing a salacious dance for her lustful stepfather. Although Jokanaan rejected her in life, after his death she is determined to kiss his mouth. Horrified by her behavior, Herod calls for her death at the opera’s conclusion.

Herod is in some ways the most provocative character in the opera; he is simultaneously voyeur, aesthete, overattentive stepfather, indecisive leader, and stern man of action. In his famous cry, “Salome, tanz für mich” (“Salome, dance for me”), he speaks for the audience as well as himself in demanding instant erotic visual gratification; his mistake is in promising Salome anything she wants in exchange for the dance. Salome, who in the biblical accounts is said merely to have danced to please her mother, is rendered with deep psychological complexity. She is by turns bored, sulking, fascinated to the point of obsession, and appallingly vindictive. Strauss later told one soprano that, to play the part correctly, she should impersonate a sixteen-year-old with the voice of Richard Wagner’s character Isolde from the opera Tristan und Isolde (1859, pr. 1865). None of Herod’s vulgarly materialistic rewards for her dancing (such as jewels and peacocks) can dissuade her from her goal, and she eventually makes seven separate demands for the head of the prophet, based on two musical themes.

The twin climaxes of the opera are Salome’s notorious dance of the seven veils, in which exhibitionistic actions take the place of words, and her long concluding aria, known as the “Schlussgesang” (final song), which reflects Strauss’s lifelong emphasis, as an opera composer, on the power of the female voice. The dance consists of a variety of the opera’s musical motives and constitutes the work’s only attempt at “orientalism,” thus satisfying the period’s fondness for exotic operatic ballets, and it also serves as the opera’s prurient climax. The “Schlussgesang” allows Salome to explain in words her fascination with the body, and now the head, of Jokanaan. Salome assumes wrongly of Jokanaan that “if you had seen me, you would have loved me,” and she asserts the primacy of the erotic and materialistic over the spiritual. Her key words are actually the one statement on which she and the Christian prophet might agree: “The glorious secret of love is mightier than is the secret of death.”


The score of Salome is one of the most dazzling and distinctive achievements of twentieth century music, a fact even Strauss’s harshest detractors admit. Critic Joseph Kerman has noted that “the whole is bound together with the greatest skill in a form comparable to that of the symphonic poem.” Strauss’s score demonstrated the ability of the operatic theater to achieve the psychological depth of the late nineteenth century novel and the case histories of Sigmund Freud.

American soprano Marcella Craft in costume as the title character in Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, in which she appeared in Munich in 1910.

(Library of Congress)

The score nervously shuttles between the keys of C-sharp and C. The opera opens with a chromatic scale for the clarinet in C-sharp minor but within two measures switches to the major mode; Salome sings her long concluding monologue largely in C-sharp, but Herod’s frightened condemnation of Salome and his call for her violent death are barked out in C minor. Jokanaan, with a simpler musical language that is strikingly different from that of the corrupt Herodians, stays close to his chosen key of C major. Strauss uses short, urgent motives to depict the seething psychological disturbances about to boil over in such characters as Salome and Herod. When Strauss played through the score of the opera for his aging father, the latter reportedly complained, “Oh God, what nervous music. It is exactly as if one had one’s trousers full of May bugs.”

The true climax of the opera coincides with Salome’s successful kiss on the mouth of the severed head—a moment rendered by what has often been called the most appalling chord in all opera, a gruesomely dissonant explosion. The sound superbly renders the audience’s sense of horror at Salome’s misguided obsession, and it also hints at the main impression that audiences carry away from the opera: that there is a coldness, a clinical detachment, and a lack of empathy at the heart of this fascinating but oddly soulless work. This is not to deny the admiring words of one of Strauss’s best critics, William Mann, who has commented that “Salome is the most brilliant and far-reaching of all Strauss’s works.”

Strauss began drafting the score for the opera in September, 1904, and finished the full orchestral score in June, 1905. Ernst von Schuch conducted the world premiere of the opera in Dresden on December 9, 1905. Marie Wittich, who created the role of Salome, allowed a ballet dancer to perform the dance of the seven veils, although at later performances she undertook the dance herself. Salome reached Berlin on December 5, 1906, and had its first performance outside Germany in Turin (in Italian) on December 22, 1906.

Capitalizing on the already scandalous reputation of the opera, Heinrich Conreid, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, staged the first American performance of Salome as part of the Metropolitan’s own annual benefit, at doubled prices, on January 22, 1907. Metropolitan Opera House (New York City);Salome (opera) The outcry of the New York press, typified by the complaint of a critic from the New York Sun that “the whole story wallows in lust, lewdness, bestial appetites, and abnormal carnality,” limited the first American production to a single performance. No further Strauss operas were heard in New York for seven years, and Salome itself was not readmitted to the Metropolitan Opera until 1934.

Strauss’s worldwide success with Salome and Elektra (1909) Elektra (Strauss) revitalized German opera and put him in the vanguard of Western music. With his decision to consolidate his style into a voluptuous but markedly more conservative form in his subsequent operas Der Rosenkavalier (pr. 1911; the knight of the rose) and Ariadne auf Naxos (pr. 1912; Ariadne on Naxos), Strauss quickly surrendered his claim to musical progressivism to such younger composers as Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, and Igor Stravinsky. The far greater scandal attending Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (pr. 1913; The Rite of Spring) allowed audiences to forget how richly Strauss had developed the vocabulary of the late Romantic style. If Strauss slammed the door shut on the leisurely operatic structures of the nineteenth century, such as French grand opera and Wagnerian music drama, he invited further explorations of the psychopathology of the human mind, such as Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (pr. 1925) and Lulu (pr. 1937). Twentieth century operatic composers owe an enormous debt to Strauss, and particularly to Salome, for encouraging opera to explore through music the darker corners of the human experience. Salome (Strauss)
Opera;Salome (Strauss)

Further Reading

  • Conrad, Peter. Romantic Opera and Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Provocatively uses Salome to support the general thesis that, rather than consolidating and merging words and music, opera demonstrates the antagonism between them.
  • Gilliam, Bryan. The Life of Richard Strauss. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Biography covers Strauss’s musical development, including his emergence as a tone poet in the late nineteenth century and his work in opera at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • Kennedy, Michael. Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Large-scale, in-depth biography draws on much previously unpublished material to place Strauss in the context of his times.
  • Kerman, Joseph. Opera as Drama. 50th anniversary rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Kerman’s zestful dismissals of any number of operatic favorites make for enjoyable reading, even when his judgments are amusingly wrongheaded. An example: “No less insensitive than Puccini, Strauss adds an intellectual pretentiousness to Puccini’s more innocent kinds.”
  • Mann, William. Richard Strauss: A Critical Study of the Operas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. One of the best single-volume sources of analysis of each of Strauss’s fifteen operas, written with genuine respect and affection for Strauss.
  • Puffett, Derrick, ed. Richard Strauss: Salome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Detailed technical analysis of the opera from a musicologist’s viewpoint.
  • Schmidgall, Gary. Literature as Opera. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Includes a fine essay on the transformation of Wilde’s decadent symbolist drama into Strauss’s expressionistic shocker.

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