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Who Was Salome?

The character of Salome has intrigued writers and artists almost since the time of the events depicted in the Bible and Josephus. She fascinated Herod, and for almost two thousand years, she has fascinated the rest of the world. Her character has been examined and commented on by writers and artists more than that of almost any other woman. Was she the innocent tool of her mother's revenge, or was she a tempestuous seductress? Was she a nymphomaniac, a normal adolescent driven mad, or merely a spoiled child, determined to get her own way? Was she a child temptress, or the image of the castrating female? Each of these positions has its advocates.

The real Salome would have been a teenager when the Baptist was beheaded. If she was brought up in the courts of the Hellenized Jews, she would have been sexually aware, but probably inexperienced. The Biblical account merely records that she pleased her step-father with her dance. Would a Jewish princess actually dance naked before her step-father and assembled Romans and orthodox Jews without causing some comment? There is no mention of veils or nakedness. These are added or subtracted by later writers. The dance could have been chaste, only seductive in Herod's fevered mind. She is described as a maiden, implying a virgin, and the unwitting tool of her mother's anger. No criticism is implied of the girl herself. We also know from Josephus that she married twice (her first husband died) and had three children, all of whom apparently turned out well. He gave no hint of any criticism of her.

What happened to make her such a villainess? In the fourth century, the purported tomb of John the Baptist was found and broken up by pagans. (Several churches claim to possess his head.) Emperor Theodosius (379-395) began to erect a great church in Alexandria dedicated to the saint. This renewed interest in, and reverence for, the martyr and the circumstances of his death. Church fathers castigated the daughter instead of the mother. St. John Chrysostom (347-407) said, "She entered by exhibiting her body, and the virgin surpassed all the prostitutes in her shamelessness." Salome became the symbol of depravity. St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the great theologian of the Middle Ages, called her a "cruel and obscene dancer." The rest of the world took its cue from them. As late as 1952, H. Denker in his biography, Salome, Princess of Galilee, would write: "Herodias played on Herod's sexual hunger. Salome began to dance more quickly. She allowed the veils to fly from her body. The girl was completely naked beneath the veils...With a single movement of her body, she cast aside the last vestige of covering." The Salome of history had been forgotten, and in the minds of most people had become the Salome of legend.

Richard Strauss

The German composer Richard Strauss, who was born in 1864, has been called "the last of the romantic composers." A prodigy like Mozart, he wrote his first composition at the age of four. Later he said, "I must compose and go on composing, just as a cow must give milk." His last songs were written in 1948, the year before his death at the age of 85.

Strauss and Salome

The first German production of Oscar Wilde's play Salome took place in 1901. At the time, Wilde was very popular in Europe. During the 1903-04 season, there were 248 performances of his different plays in Germany alone. In 1902, Strauss received a copy of the play from an acquaintance who offered to write a libretto for an opera, if Strauss would set it to music. However, Strauss saw the play, in a translation by Hedwig Lachmann, and was so impressed by the musical possibilities that he started work using an adaptation of her translation. As usual when stage plays are turned into opera libretti, cuts had to be made in the original play. Most were probably suggested by Strauss. Many of the conversations which gave meaning to remaining actions and dialogue were eliminated---for example, the significance of the ring. In what remains, most of the words are an exact German translation from the French of Wilde's play. Strauss sometimes simplified the sentence structure. For example: "She is like a dove that has lost her way" became "She is like a lost dove." The final result has been called "the first deeply psychological German opera."

There was trouble at the first rehearsal. Frau Wittich, who had been given the part of Salome, the "sixteen-year-old with the voice of Isolde", rebelled because the part was so strenuous and improper. "I won't do it; I'm a decent woman" she told the composer. Finally, she was brought around and the first production took place in Dresden on December 9, 1905. It was an immediate success. Although the critics, as usual, were not impressed, on the first night there were 38 curtain calls. The opera was soon being played all over Germany, sometimes with restrictions. In Berlin it was only allowed as long as Salome prayed for redemption during her final soliloquy, and the Star of Bethlehem, rather than the moon, shone at the end. (This created an anachronism, since the Star of Bethlehem had shone 30 years before the events of the opera.) In other countries there were larger problems. In order for it to be performed in Great Britain, where Wilde's play was still proscribed, all Biblical references had to be deleted. John the Baptist became a prophet named Mattaniah, the action was moved to Greece, and the Jews became "learned men". There was no head at the end, only a dish of blood. The conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, also agreed to change some of the language, but the singers "forgot" and most sang the original words. The censor, who did not understand German, congratulated Beecham on being cooperative. Many companies did not allow a recognizable head, but substituted a piece of meat or other formless object.

The American premiere, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, was considered so scandalous that, after one performance, and at the insistence of the financier J.P. Morgan, it was dropped and not seen again at that house until 1933. Two years after the Met opening, Oscar Hammerstein presented Salome in New York, and in spite of attempts to suppress it, this was a great success. In Berlin the Kaiser warned that the opera would do Strauss no good, but the composer replied that it enabled him to build his villa at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps. In its first two years, Salome was presented in 50 different places. It is still one of the most performed operas in Germany.

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