Salome, Strauss, and U2: Part One
… a cool, composed façade, behind which weird fires burned…
(Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, 2007: 14)
Some would call it an obsession.
A decade ago, my ex-girlfriend said those exact words to me about my fascination with Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera Salome, which even extends to the title of this blog. “Obsession” is an apt term, considering the opera’s examination of the title character’s sexual and/or spiritual desire for the prophet Jochanann (John the Baptist). I could easily attribute it to my heritage, which just happens to be German and Irish; after all, Oscar Wilde wrote the play in 1891 (itself an obsession of Al Pacino), providing the foundation for Strauss’ libretto. But Strauss’ masterful orchestration makes Salome a compelling real-time psychological and sensual thrill ride. Synopses can be found elsewhere, but just the final scene alone is a tour de force. [Note: Be sure to play it loud!] Within its 15 minutes, Salome displays a number of emotions upon receiving the ghastly reward of Jochanaan’s severed head. Vindictiveness. Tenderness. Sadness. Rapture, upon kissing his mouth, red “like a scarlet band on a column of ivory” (to quote one of Wilde’s more suggestive lines). After the devastating climax, where Salome enters a state of near-cosmic ecstasy, Herod abruptly orders his stepdaughter’s execution.
Naturally, the powers-that-be expressed concern about the opera’s content. As Strauss noted in his typically dry manner, it enabled him to to build his villa, as audiences went wild for his latest succès de scandale. As the success of controversial rock albums in more recent times indicates, plus ça change…
The premiere took place on 9 December 1905 in Dresden, Notable for the presence of many musical luminaries, the Graz premiere in 1906 opens the first chapter (with musical examples here) of New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’ 2007 book The Rest is Noise. In this highly-readable and accessible work, Ross makes the bold assertion that the musical history of the 20th century began at that time and place. Not only for “classical” music, but for other kinds as well. Although he focuses primarily on that realm, Ross eschews traditional musical narrative by colouring quite a bit outside the traditional lines of genre. He examines the fuzziness of such boundaries, drawing attention to a number of artists one wouldn’t imagine appearing in such a book. Film composers. Jazz musicians. Rock stars. The same can be said about those who have praised the book, ranging from pianist Emanuel Ax to Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood to Björk, who aptly describes it as an “incredibly nourishing book [that] will rekindle anyone’s fire for music.” Unfortunately, a portion that didn’t make it into the book underscores fascinating connections between trends in “classical” and “popular” music in the 1900s and 1960s, respectively
Ross also describes the ambiguous tone world of Salome, embodied by the otherworldly opening notes of the clarinet, as well as the free-flow and convergence (even collision) of different realms of sound. Although the opera takes place in biblical times, Ross postulates that the sounds could just as easily portray a contemporary urban environment:
There’s a hint of the glitter and swirl of city life: the debonairly gliding clarinet looks forward to the jazzy character who kicks off Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (Ross 7, 2007)
When I read Ross’ comparison of the opening bars from Salome and Rhapsody in Blue (just the first few seconds or so from each are necessary for understanding), I felt vindicated in having made the same connection years before. Perhaps Gershwin gave a sly nod to Salome in the opening of his jazz-infused tribute to the hustle and bustle of urban life. I would even go so far as to say that the lonely saxophone theme from Bernard Herrmann’s mid-1970s score to Taxi Driver (another tale of obsession) shares similarities with the music by which Salome persuades the ill-fated captain of the palace guard to bring up Jochanaan (Du wirst das für mich tun, Narraboth…).
Perhaps Strauss had unwittingly tapped into a musical language about which he would have known little or nothing. He visited the United States for a tour in 1904, where he premiered his Symphonia Domestica at a Wanamaker’s department store in New York. Even if Salome contains some elements that sound vaguely like precursors of jazz, no record exists of him encountering the music that would eventually evolve into that genre. The slang term would come into common usage a decade later. When Strauss toured the United States again in 1921, the Jazz Age had already begun and Rhapsody in Blue would premiere a few years later. As outlined in the third and fourth chapters of Ross’ book, a number of composers had actively begun to incorporate jazz elements into their works. And yet, even as late as the 1950s, the notion of a classical musician discussing jazz seemed a bit of a novelty among the general public.
Kurt Wilhelm’s Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait contains what appears to be a typical Q&A from the press conferences to which Strauss would submit during his 1921 visit. One question consisted of his thoughts on jazz. His apparent response:
I have heard some in Europe. Very interesting, especially the rhythms. (Wilhelm 165, 1989)
Strauss wrote no explicitly jazz-infused compositions, and likely had no intention of doing so. He had already begun to focus on less-agitated works than Salome and Elektra, rendering him “obsolete” to composers who claimed to be moving musical language “inevitably” into the new century and beyond.
Strauss lived until 1949, witnessing and trying to survive as best he could the horrors brought on by someone who claimed to have attended the Graz premiere of Salome at the age of 17. Ross aptly contextualizes Strauss’ lifespan… born before Wagner finished his epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, and passing on as “American soldiers were whistling ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ in the streets” (10).
Another 43 years passed before my revelatory experience with Salome. I already had a few versions of the Dance of the Seven Veils, a final scene conducted by Fritz Reiner, and one of the most the iconic complete recordings of the opera (Birgit Nilsson, Georg Solti, Vienna Philharmonic, Decca). In the summer following my first year at university, I obtained a videorecording that really brought home to me the power of Strauss’ opera: Götz Friedrich’s 1974 film with Teresa Stratas, whose singing seems more aptly spritely and youthful than Nilsson’s Valkyrie-sized portrayal. Her acting is also incredible. A diva in the truest sense, Stratas dashes about, pouts, cries, pleads, and zeroes in on the object of her character’s desire with unbridled intensity. Karl Böhm, a conductor who had worked with Strauss during the composer’s later years, whips the Vienna Philharmonic into a vivacious frenzy. Under Böhm’s guidance, the orchestra plays up a number of the opera’s shimmering dissonances, and unleashes horns and timpani with ferocity, as when Jochanaan tells Salome to seek forgiveness for her sins , then curses her when she continues expressing her desire for him .
This, or something like it at least, is how it should sound, I thought.
I sought other Salome recordings that would enable me to explore its mysteries. Luckily, the first few years of the final decade of the 20th century provided a bumper crop of musical recordings of the Salome story. They included multiple renditions of Strauss’ opera, as well as two songs by a rock band with whom I had yet to become acquainted. Maybe to commemorate the impending centennial of Wilde’s play, maybe as a bit of coincidence, or possibly even due to some intangible magic I call “Salome mojo,” 1990 was her year. And Berlin was the epicenter. Another decade would pass, however, before U2’s accounts of the Salome story added another layer to my musical obsession.
To be continued…