13 April 2012 at 2.28pm | Comment on this article
Salome is a woman possessed – she is determined to kiss John the Baptist’s severed head. The final scene of Strauss’s opera delivers everything this implies and more. It’s a thrilling moment, almost too much to bear. But what's going on in the score?
When Richard Strauss composed Salome (1903), he was emerging from a period of intense orchestral writing. He had created a great stream of tone poems – including Don Juan (1889), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896) and Don Quixote (1897) – and Strauss brought that symphonic understanding to his new stage work.
The Bavarian-born composer’s scores are replete with motifs and signifiers that help us understand the unfolding drama. Over the course of Salome’s final 15-minute scene, all of the themes we have heard during the opera – particularly in the famous Dance of the Seven Veils – come home to roost.
This last scene begins with a huge outburst, as the executioner appears with the severed head of John the Baptist (known in the opera as Jochanaan). The orchestra screams out a theme from the opening bars of the opera: clearly the whole drama is predestined and Salome greets her prize in ecstasy. Salome gradually draws the orchestra from a minor key into the warmer tonality of C sharp minor/major, showing the strength of her will through the shift.
After such gory glory, the music settles down into something more amorous and creepy as Salome toys with Jochanaan’s head. She delays her much-desired kiss, but we know it is coming and, having established the key centre of C sharp, Strauss’s music dances, with sprightly harp and pizzicato strings.
The Princess’s vocal line and the underlying harmonic language become more extreme, throwing the scene into jeopardy. But as soon as Salome says ‘Ah! Ah! Jochanaan, du warst Schön’ (Oh, Jochanaan, you were beautiful) the music settles back into C sharp major. A jangle of celesta announces Salome’s swooping love theme, with kitschy percussion, harp and strings making the whole scene even sicklier.
Something more troubling, however, sits at the heart of this monologue. Salome sings that ‘wenn ich dich ansah, hörte ich geheimnisvolle Musik!’ (when I looked at you, I heard the strains of sweet music!), but she has misinterpreted those strains. The theme that reappears in the woodwind previously accompanied Jochanaan’s assertion that she was accursed.
Even the degenerate Herod is by appalled (while Herodias gloats at the horror on display). Fractured motifs appear in the orchestra, with Herod braying like a hysterical ape. Glowering chords, grinding C sharp minor against elements of E flat major, create a sinister backdrop to Salome’s final moments. She has kissed Jochanaan’s mouth.
Salome glories in her conquest, but Herod will have none of it. After a fiercely iridescent cadence in C sharp major, Herod commands the soldiers to kill his stepdaughter. The music snaps back into minor key and the wilful tragedy of the Princess of Judea comes to a dark end.
Discover more about Richard Strauss and the premiere of Salome in the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, at the V&A Museum 30 September 2017–25 February 2018.