Opera in one act

Music by Richard Strauss

Libretto from Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of the

play by Oscar Wilde
  (Musical citations in the text are denoted as N/n, meaning n measures after rehearsal number N in the score.)

The opera is scored for a very large orchestra including six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, bass tuba, five tympani, an Eb clarinet, a bass clarinet, a celeste, an organ, a harmonium and a vast array of percussion instruments. Strings specified are 16 first violins, sixteen seconds, ten or twelve violas, ten cellos and eight basses. Also a Heckelphone, whatever that is (it's a baritone oboe, invented by somebody named Heckel). This amounts to about 100 players. However, the opera has been done with less. Strauss wrote of a good performance he heard in Innsbruck with an orchestra of 56 players.

The action takes place at the birthday party of Herod Antipas at his palace Herodium, near Caesarea, ancient seaport city just north of present day Tel Aviv-Jaffa. (The Herods also had a palace in Jerusalem).At Herod's party in addition to his wife Herodias and step-daughter, grand niece Salome there are a number of visiting Roman dignitaries as well as several Jewish zealots who spend most of their time arguing arcane theology. I know you have all read the two short Gospel excerpts describing what took place (Mark 6, 17-28; Matthew 14, 3-11), so I won't say more about them except to point out that in the bible Salome's actions were instigated by her mother, wheras in the opera they are her own idea.


"Ich achte nicht auf die Stimme meiner Mutter. Zu meiner

eignen Lust will ich den Kopf des Jokanaan in einer Silberschuessel haben."

In fact Herodias objected to her daughter's dancing:


"Ich will nicht haben, dass meine Tochter tanzt."

Some historical background: Antipater, the Idumaean (i.e. Edomite) camel herder (note--he was not a Jew) was appointed Procurator of Galilee by Julius Caesar in 55 BC. He in turn appointed his son Herod as an administrator in the Judean government. Later Herod was appointed Tetrarch and still later King of Judea. (A Tetrarch rules approximately one-fourth of a country). He was known as "Herod the Great" because he was active in the restoration of Judea, specifically in rebuilding the Temple. He was also the Herod of the Incarnation story who ordered the slaughter of the innocents. (Matthew 2:16. Two of Herod's own children were slain.)

Herod had 10 wives. (Recall, he was not a Jew. From about 1000 BCE Jews were restricted to one wife at a time. Before that time Jacob had four wives, all sisters or half-sisters by the way. David had seven and Solomon 1000. (Solomon, in the words of Hamlet [III.ii] might be said to out-herod Herod. ) Herod's children included the mother of Herodias and her half brothers Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, Just Plain Philip, and Archelaus. Herod Antipas became Tetrarch in 4 BC. upon the death of his father Herod, sharing the kingdom with Archelus and Just Plain Philip. He was the Herod of the passion story (Luke 23).

Herod Philip married his half-niece Herodias, but Herod Antipas coveted her, so he had his half-brother imprisoned (probably killed--history is not clear on this point) so that he could marry Herodias, also his half niece. According to the opera and the Wilde play Herod Philip was imprisoned for twelve years in the same cistern in which John the Baptist was held, but this may not be historical fact. When Herod at last decided to have his half-brother killed, we read that he sent his "ring of death" to the executioner, and later sent the same ring to indicate that Jokanaan should be executed.

After the events in the opera, Herodias' ambition eventually ruined H. Antipas. She drove him to seek a royal title, eventually annoying the emperor Caligula sufficiently that he banished Antipas (39 A.D.). His nephew Herod Agrippa I took over until he died in 44 A.D. According to Acts 12 he was struck down by the angel of the Lord while addressing the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon, who were hailing him as a god. In the same chapter of Acts we learn that he had James the disciple (St. James the Greater) killed and he imprisoned Peter, who was however freed from prison by an angel. So there are three different Herods in the bible.

Salome was, of course, Herod Antipas' half grand-niece. In case you wondered what happened to her after that fateful birthday party in Caesarea, of course she is killed according to the opera and the play: ("Man töte diese weib" is the last vocal line of the opera)


but historically, Just Plain Philip married a woman named Salome, who may or may not have been the one in our story (remember the paucity of names in that family). Anyway the bible never mentions her by name, so it's not clear how Salome's name got attached to this daughter of Herodias.

Jokaanan was imprisoned because he denounced Herodius (not Herod, note) for her immorality in marrying Herod Antipas. John or Jokaanan, incidentally, was Jesus' second cousin; according to the first chapter of Luke, Jesus' mother Mary and John's mother Elisabeth were cousins--I presume first cousins. (Luke 1:36).

Note that Herodias refers to her husband as a "son of a camel-driver." (For reasons known only to the translator and God, the sub titles say "grandson" but the libretto says


"Meine Tochter und ich stammen aus königlichem blut. Dein Vater war ein Dieb und ein Raüber oben drein."

This is an inaccuracy.The great grandfather, that is the father of Antipater, also named Antipater, and his son Antipater II might have been camel drivers (and perhaps thieves and robbers) in their youth, but the rest of the line were kings.

The Veil of the Temple, one of the enticements which Herod offered Salome as an alternative to her demand for the head of Jochanaan, was the holy tapestry which separated the Holy of Holies, which only priests could enter, from the Temple proper, which was open to the (Jewish) public. Herod had stolen this tapestry. When you read the play, you will see that one of the Jews, overhearing Herod's offer, expresses amazement, since it was not known to where it had disappeared. (This is not made clear in the opera.)


You might recall, in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (27:51), that after the death of Jesus on the cross, the "Veil of the Temple was rent in twain." This is a reference to the new order (i.e. Christianity) in which the old priesthood would no longer play a role. (In the words of the old Latin hymn Tantum Ergo "Et antiqum documentum novo cedat ritui" if I remember my Latin correctly.)

Cappadocia (one of the characters in the opera is a Cappadocian) was a kingdom somewhere in the middle of present-day Turkey. Herod is actually in the midst of a feud with the king of Cappadocia and at one point in the play, when Jokaanan warns "…l'ange du Seigneur Dieu le frappera" Herod protests that it is the King of Cappadocia, not he, Herod, slated to be struck down. In the opera Jokaanan issues the same warning:


"Und der Engel des Herrn wird ihn darneider schalgen"

but Herod's only response is to urge Salome to dance for him:

"Salome,. Salome, tanz für mich, ich bitte dich."

The reference to the King of Cappadocia is cut out. Idumaea, incidentally, was on the border of the Arabian desert, southeast of Judea. Edom was the old name for Idumaea.

Something else that religious Jews believe is that woman,not the love of money, is the root of all evil. This comes the biblical story of the expulsion from Eden, wherein Eve persuaded Adam to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, leading to the expulsion.


Zurück Tochter Babylons!

Durch das Weib kam das Übel in die Welt

Jokaanan preaches, in his rejection of Salome's advances in the scene after Salom bullies Narraboth into bringing him our of the cistern. (Babylon was the symbol of all that was evil to the Jews, who had suffered exile there. The early Christians used the code "Babylon" to refer to Rome, which by then had become the symbol of all evil:

"Mystery, Babylon the great, mother of harlots and abominatons of the earth." Rev. 17:5)

Most likely Jokaanan was referring to Herodias as a daughter of Rome, the Romans at that time being the actual rulers of Judea and, as we have seen, there were Roman envoys attending Herod's birthday party. So part of Jokaanan's dislike of Herodias was that she and her husband were collaborators with his countriy's occupation forces.

By the way, Christian theology takes a different view the expulsion from that of the Jews. Christians call it the "felix culpa" (happy sin) because it was the reason for Jesus Christ to come into the world. Modern theologians even go one step further, declaring that it was inevitable. Before the knowledge of good and evil, human beings were like animals who cannot sin, since they don't know the difference between right and wrong. It this inherent knowledge which distinguishes man from animal, and which made sin come into a previously sinless (animal) world.

In the Jewish philosophy man does not truly know the difference between right and wrong, and thus is obliged to obey unquestioningly a large set of pronouncements God has made, almost arbitrarily it would seem. This point of view is articulated in the following quotation from the play where five Jews are arguing religion :

"On ne peut pas savoir comment Dieu agit, ses voies sont très mystériueses. Peut-être ce que nous appelons le mal est le bien, et ce que nous appelons le bien est le mal."

In the opera we find virtually the identical words:


"Niemand kann sagen, wie Gott wirkt, Seine Wege sind sehr dunkel. Es kann sein dass di Dinge, die wir gut nennen sehr schlimm sind, and die Dinge, die wir schlimm nennen, sehr gut sind.

Note that the French and German quotes I have given are almost literal translations of each other.They illustrate the extraordinary way in which the libretto for Salome was created. Usually when a play is converted into an opera, for example Tosca, which was based on the play La Tosca by Sardou, the play serves only as a skeleton for the libretto. This is not the case with Salome as has been suggested by the two quotations above. The text of the opera is pretty much a literal translation of the Wilde text (except that a number of passages are omitted). The translation was by Hedwig Lachmann, the wife of a famous German anarchist. Strauss made the cuts in the Lachmann translation, but that is all. As a result, the libretto of Salome can be read profitably as literature which is certainly not true of the libretto of Tosca.

The somewhat arcane religious discussions which go on among the Jews in the opera are germane to Salome because the Jews in that opera (and even more in the play) were engaging in their favorite pastime of theological argument. This certainly added nothing to the plot, but gave the proper oriental flavorto the happenings, just as the incestuous relationships of the Herod family gave a certain aura of decadence. Nobody can deny that Strauss expressed these aurae brilliantly in his lushly decadent, evil-sounding music! Very early in the opera a horrid orchestral dissonance rends the airs, followed by howling basoons (Strauss' indication) expressing the uproar as the Saaducees and Pharisees argue a theological nicety.


We have to go to the play to find our what it's all about: The Pharisees say that there are angels and the Saducees that there aren't any angels.

"Quel vacarme! Qui sont ces bêtes fauve qui hurlent?" "Les Juifs. Ils sont tojours anisi. C'est leur religion qu'ils discutent." "Pourquoi discuten-ils sur leur religion?" "Je ne sais pas. Ils le font toujours...…Ainsi les Pharisiens affirment qu'il y a des anges, et les Saducéens disent que les anges n'existent pas." "Je trouve que c'est ridicule de discuter sur de telles choses."

In the opera the dialog is identical except for the statement about Angels: .


"Was für ein Aufruhr. Was sind das für wilde Tiere, die da heulen?" "Die Juden. Sie sind immer so. Sie Streiten über ihre Religion." "Ich finde es laecherlich über solche Dingen zu streitren."

The disonance I just played is supposed to resemble the howling of wild beasts mentioned in the text. It is repeated later when the Jews start arguing again about who was the last person to see God.)

(In case you wondered: Saducees: rejected the oral tradition, relying entirely on the written law; Pharisees: accepted both. Nazarenes: Inhabitants of Nazareth, Jesus'childhood home; also a word sometimes used to designate Jesus' followers.)

Another theological argument ensues when Herod, replying to Herodias' demands that he silence Jokaanan refuses. (Recall Jokaanan is calling Herocias a harlot and a sinner for having left her husband to marry Herod.

Herod goes on to defend his position, saying that Jokaanan is a holy man, who has seen God. Of course this sets the Jews off again. No one has seen God since Elias (Elijah). Another replies that Elias didn't see God, only His shadow, and the argument starts again, to the very same orchestral dissonance. (The second of the two German/ French quotes given above come from this argument.)

(This argument starts at 188/11 and continues to 214/1, 19 pages in the vocal score.)

Things go from bad to worse when Jokaanan starts proclaiming that he hears upon the mountains the feet of Him who will be the Saviour of the world. The Nazarenes claim that this is Messias who has performed miracles and raised the dead; Herod, frightned, forbids Jesus to raise the dead.


"Es wäre Schrecklich sein, wenn die Töten wiederkämen!"

(In this case, I think one can agree with Herod. How many horror movies have been based on such a theme!)

Wilde, we recall was a homosexual (the term in those days for a gay man). His lover was Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) and when Douglas' father (The Marquess of Queensbury) publicly accused Wilde of perversion, Wilde sued him for libel. When, in the course of the trial the Marquess defended himself by presenting evidence to prove that his accusations were true, Wilde wound up going to jail. An important incident in the play, is a passionate lament by the page for Narrobeth the Syrian, captain of the guard, who has committed suicide because he has allowed Salome to bully him into letting Jokaanan out of the cistern for her to see. This apparently gay lament entered into the play by its gay author was left out of the opera at some dramatic loss.

Wilde wrote the play in 1891-92 but it was not performed unti 1896, at which time he was in the midst of his two-year prison term. The English version was not given--it was too degenerate for the Victorians, so the first performance was in Paris. (Part of the rift between the lovers Oscar and Bosie was due to the fact that Oscar expressed his displeasure with the quality of Bosie's English translation.)

The play was an immediate success on the continent and soon made its way to Berlin where Strauss was living. Strauss saw the play at Max Reinhardt's Little Theater in the Lachmann translation, and when it was suggested to him that he turn the play into an opera he replied that he had already begun, using a translation by The Viennese poet Anton Lindner. However he soon discarded the Lindner translation, which was a poetic work, for the literal translation of Lachmann. Strauss completed the composition sketch in 1904 and the orchestration in August 1905. The first performance was conducted by Ernst von Schuch, in Dresden; Strauss had given up on his idea of having it premiered at the Vienna Court Opera where the censors were notoriously strict, choosing Dresden, known for its lax censorship. The singers complained that the music was too difficult, but eventually everyone learned if and the performance on Dec. 9, 1905, was a triumph. The artists received 38 curtain calls!

By the end of 1907 the Opera had been heard in over 50 German and foreign cities, 50 times in Berlin alone. It was the income from Salome which allowed Strauss to give up his job conducting at the Berlin Opera and to devote full time to composing (operas).

Salome did not appear in Vienna until 1918--a certain Archbishop Piffl objected to its immorality when it was proposed in 1906 (infuriating Gustav Mahler, at that time the director of the Vienna Court Opera).

It appeared at the Metropolitan Opera for one performance in 1914, but then was withdrawn at the demand of J. Pierpont Morgan, the richest man in the world and bankroller of the Met. It didn't appear again there until 1934. Since then there have been a number of performances, featuring for example Ljuba Welitsch in the 1948 revival. I saw that myself. Welitsch is still considered the greatest Salome of all time; she coached the role with Strauss himself (he died in 1949). However the number of performances is fewer than one would expect of such a masterpiece, the probable reason being that it is pretty short for a full evening's entertainment (1 hour, 40 minutes) but to pair it with another opera (like Cav-Pag) is really not feasible because of its intensity. I saw it paired with Gianni Schicchi, a comic opera by Puccini, in 1948,a pairing which really didn't work.

Another aspect of the opera that some people object to are the three long orchestral interludes, first when Jokanaan is being brought out of the cistern at Salome's request; second when he is being returned; and finally Salome's dance. Most opera audiences want to hear singing, not playing, otherwise they'd go to the symphony.

Strauss, on his title page, called Salome a a "music drama." This term is defined in the New Grove Dictionary of Music as follows: "In nineteenth-century and current usage, the meanings attach to the terms derived from the ideas formulated in Wagner's Oper und Drama [1851]; it is applied to his operas and to others in which the musical, verbal and scenic elements cohere to serve one dramatic end." The drama is served through the creation of a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) in which music is merely one element among many. A complete discussion of music drama as an art form would take too long for me to go into it here, but I do want to point out some aspects of Wagner's work which are relevant to Salome. The first is that the regular periodicity of the music that had been standard since the middle of the 18th century was replaced with irregular patterns, sometimes called "musical prose."

In particular, cadences were relatively infrequent, and this non-cadential idiom carried further by Strauss was, in my opinion, a precursor of the 12-tone-row composing style of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern which did away not only with cadences but with tonality altogether.

A second aspect was that the orchestra played a major part in shaping the form, no longer merely accompanying the singers but maintaining a type of symphonic development through the use of the leitmotif.

So now let me talk about the use of motifs by Strauss. Most of you are, I assume, familiar with Richard Wagner's leitmotifs, or "leading motives" which he used in most of his operas, but especially in Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner in no sense invented the concept of attaching a melodic fragment to a person, an idea, an object, etc. Just as one example (there are many) Georges Bizet used many motifs in Carmen, and, as Wagner did later, allowed his motifs to evolve as their meaning broadened. For example, the fate motif which first appears in the Carmen overture and is heard again many times throughout the opera is speeded up to become a motif from Carmen himself. Similarly, Wagner would begin with a basic motif, say the nature motif (an Eb Major arpeggio with which the Ring opens) which is modified, transmuted and changed so that it becomes in turn motifs representing

Siegmund's sword, the Rhingold, Valhalla, the Ring (the Valhalla motif in a minor key) etc. Each of these motifs in turn can and do undergo transformations to represent other entities, until in total there are actually several hundred identifiable motifs in the Ring, all based, however, on a handful of original motifs.

I mention this because that is what Strauss did not do. He used motifs, but they were basically unchanging, repeated in the same form through out the opera. There are rhythmic and key variations, but these do not change the essential nature of the motif. (I have already mentioned the horrible orchestral dissidence which serves as a motif for the Jews' theological arguments.) I am going now to point out some other of these motifs to you in the score, but before that I want to mention that Strauss also assigned meaning to particular keys. For example, d minor is associated with the Jews; D Major with Jokanaan; Db Major is associated with the moon; while its enharmonic equivalent, c# minor is associated with Salome. In fact the first words of the opera, sung by the young Syrian Narraboth "Wie schön ist die Prinzessen Salome heute Nacht" are in that key. In this way the chaste Salome is associated with the moon, in mythology the chaste goddess Selene (Artemis, Diana). (Also addressed by Norma in her famous aria "Casta Diva, i.e. "Chaste Goddess.") Salome's chastity is an important point. Her lustful desires have never been consummated. The key of c minor in which the opera ends, is associated with Herod or, more specifically with the death sentence.

The opera opens with a swift upward run in the clarinet; at measure 6, under the vocal line of Narrobeth, the cellos play a motif characterizing his longing.


At measure 8 the bass clarinet begins the motif of somber foreboding, accompanying the Page who eerily expresses his unease "Sieh' die Mondsheibe…wie eine Frau die aufstieg aus em Grab." Note the key of c# minor (four sharps) denoting Salome.

I've already talked about the motif of the Jew's arguing, measures 4/1-4/5, more or less. Narrobeth sings, again, the motif of Salome'e beauty which we already heard in measures 0/4-8. This is the first repetition.


The Page immediately follows with the motif of DANGER!


At measure 11/2 the voice of Jokaanan is heard, for the first time from the cistern followed at measure 12/1-7 with a theme attached to Jokaanan. This is just one of several. Another occurs when he first rises out of the cistern at measure 65/10. It soon intertwines with the previous one.


Soon thereafter we hear for the first time Salome's motif, at measure 67/1 repeated soon after, accompanying Salome's muttered "Er ist schreklich. Er ist wirklich schrecklich."



This motif permeates the rest of the opera. I note just a few repetitions at measures 140/14-141/3; 254/2-4; 315/1-4; 316/1-3. But there are no doubt many other.

There is a wind motif to Herod's words "...ich habe es gehoert...das Wehn des Windes."


And a whole-tone scale indicating Herod's unease at rehearsal number 150. The whole-tone scale was used only occasionally in 19th century music, but was heard frequently in the works of the French impressionists. In particular Debussy used it extensively in his opera Pelleas et Melisande which premiered in 1902, only three years before Salome. The whole-tone scale was another progenitor of the atonal music of the early 20th century. The fact that it contained the "Devil's interval" or tritone (the augmented fourth) began to accustom people's ears to unusual idioms.(Wagner was big into tritones but as diminished fifths, which appear in diminished chords. The augmented fourth is known as the "melodic tritone," while the diminished fifth is the "harmonic tritone.")

Then there's the oath motif as Salome, demanding Jokaanan's head, reminds her step-father:


"Du hast einen Eid geschworen, Tetrarch."

This too is heard many times in the scene preceding the actual beheading, with slight modifications, e.g. 256/5-7, 261/2-5, etc.

Motif of Jesus: Jokanaan:


Und suche des Menschen Sohn."

"Son of man" was a term which Jesus used in referring to himself. Matthew 27:24.

I guess you've figured out by now that I could probably go on all day. I just want to mention one more important motif, namely that of Salome's perverted desire. It first occurs at


to the words "Ich will deinen Mund küssen, Jokanaan," and is immediatly repeated. It appears frequently in the last scene, Salome's monologue, and in fact accompanies her last words (with a slight change due to the fact that instead of "will küssen" she sings "habe gekuesst."


This is followed by the third excerpt cited above (Man tötet dieses weib) as Salome is killed by the soldiers' shields and the opera ends.