"Critic Henry Krehbiel Excoriates Richard Strauss’s Salome (1907)"
Posted in conjunction with Joseph Horowitz, “Henry Krehbiel: German American, Music Critic,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 8.2 (Apr. 2009): 165-87.
Introduction by Joseph Horowitz
Although Salome strikes twenty-first century ears as a “late Romantic” effusion, early twentieth-century ears heard something different: a radical modernism packed with directionless dissonance and a riot of screaming and tingling new sounds. And what early twentieth century eyes saw was at least as lurid. Richard Strauss had set, verbatim, the morbid and flamboyant language of Oscar Wilde’s play (as translated into German by Hedwig Lachmann), with its singular plot. King Herod’s teenage step-daughter covets the crazed prophet Jochanaan (John the Baptist). When she petulantly refuses to dance for him, Herod promises whatever prize she wants. Her dance is a strip-tease, shedding seven veils. She demands Jochanaan’s head on a silver salver. Ecstatically, she kisses the dead lips of the prophet: a demented Liebestod. “Kill that woman!,” Herod shrieks at his soldiers, and they comply.
Aubrey Beardsley, "The Kiss" (1894) for Oscar Wilde's "Salome" — Wilde wrote this dedication on the copy of the play he presented to Beardsley: “For the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is and can see that invisible dance”
Wilde’s play was banned in England, but Lachmann’s German version succeeded in Germany. Strauss’s adaptation earned 38 curtain calls at its 1905 premiere, in Dresden, after which it was swiftly taken up in many counties—but not England or the United States. Heinrich Conried, director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, tested the Salome waters at a “public rehearsal” on January 20, 1907 and a benefit performance on January 22, 1907. Many in the audience fled at the beginning of the final scene. Of those who stayed to see Salome kiss the severed head, a minority offered brief and scattered applause. “The effect of horror was pronounced,” a New York Tribune news story reported the next day. “Many faces were white almost as those at the rail of a ship. Many women were silent, and men spoke as if a bad dream were on them.” The board of directors declared Salome “objectionable and detrimental to the best interests of the Metropolitan Opera House.” It was not again seen at the Met until 1934 —although Oscar Hammerstein's enterprising New York Company, with a more adventurous constituency than the Met's, presented it (in French, with Mary Garden) in 1909.
Henry Krehbiel’s 4,000-word account of the sole Met performance appeared in the January 23 Tribune—three unillustrated columns of tiny type under the spartan headline “The ‘Salome’ of Wilde and Strauss.”
The first thing to command attention in this masterpiece of opprobrium is its descriptive aplomb; Krehbiel’s disgust does not deafen his capacity to appreciate the score’s sonic amazements. Secondly, even in the throes of turbulent distemper, he retains the coolness of judgment to discern the pabulum of Jochanaan’s stentorian phrases. As for the question, “Is it art?”, Krehbiel renders no final verdict—he appoints his readership the jury. Evidence is offered that Strauss is a meretricious “sensationalist,” that his “business sense is large.”
In the most recent edition of Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the music historian David Murray observes of Strauss and Salome: “It is unlikely that he pondered over the ‘morality’ of the piece; he simply turned it into an opera, with acute faithfulness and all the professional resource which had been awaiting such an opportunity….Strauss was less concerned to fathom any ‘deeper meaning’ it might have than to exploit its operatic potential.” These, precisely, are Krehbiel’s points—and he is unforgiving.
Henry Krehbiel, “The ‘Salome’ of Wilde and Strauss,” New York Tribune, January 23, 1907
A reviewer ought to be equipped with a dual nature, both intellectually and morally, in order to pronounce fully and fairly upon the qualities of this drama by Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss. He should be an embodied conscience stung into righteous fury by the moral stench exhaled by the decadent and pestiferous work, but, though it make him retch, he should be sufficiently judicial in his temperament calmly to look at the drama in all its aspects and determine whether or not as a whole it is an instructive note on the life and culture of the times and whether or not this exudation from the diseased and polluted will and imagination of the authors marks a real advance in artistic expression, irrespective of its contents or their fitness for dramatic representation. This is asking much of the harassed commentator on the things which the multitude of his readers receive as contributions to their diversion merely and permit to be crowded out of their minds by the next pleasant or unpleasant shock to their sensibilities. He has not the time, nor have his readers the patience, to enter upon a discussion of the questions of moral and esthetic principle which ought to pave the way for the investigation. If he can tell what the play is, what its musical investiture is like, wherein the combined elements have worked harmoniously and efficiently to an end which to their authors seemed artistic, and therefore justifiable, he will have done much. In the case before us even this much cannot be done until some notions which have long had validity are put aside. We are only concerned with “Salome” in its newest form,—that given it by the musical composer. If it shall ever win approbation here, as it seems to have done in several German cities, it will be because of the shape into which Richard Strauss has moulded it.
Several attempts had been made to habilitate Oscar Wilde’s drama on the New York stage, and had failed. If the opera succeeds it will be because a larger public has discovered that the music which has been consorted with the old pictures, actions, and words has added to them an element either of charm or expressive potentiality hitherto felt to be lacking. Is that true? Has a rock of offense been removed? Has a mephitic odor been changed to a sweet savor by the subtle alchemy of the musical composer? Has a drama abhorrent, bestial, repellent, and loathsome been changed into a thing of delectability by the potent agency of music? It used to be said that things too silly to be spoken might be sung; is it also true that things too vile, too foul, too nauseating for contemplation may be seen, so they be insidiously and wickedly glorified by the musician’s art? As a rule, plays have not been improved by being turned into operas. Always their dramatic movement has been interrupted, their emotional current clogged, their poetry emasculated by the transformation. Things are better now than they were in the long ago, when music took not part at all in dramatic action, but waited for a mood which it had power to publish and celebrate; but music has acquired its new power only by an abnegation of its better part, by assuming new functions, and asking a revaluation of its elements on a new esthetic basis. In “Salome” music is largely a decorative element, like the scene,—like the costumes. It creates atmosphere, like the affected stylism of much of Oscar Wilde’s text, with its Oriental imagery borrowed from “The Song of Solomon,” diluted and sophisticated; it gives emotional significance to situations, helping the facial play of Salome and her gestures to proclaim the workings of her mind, when speech has deserted her; it is at its best as the adjunct and inspiration of the lascivious dance. In the last two instances, however, it reverts to the purpose and also the manner (with a difference) which have always obtained, and becomes music in the purer sense. Then the would-be dramatist is swallowed up in the symphonist, and Strauss is again the master magician who can juggle with our senses and our reason and make his instrumental voices body forth “the forms of things unknown.”
It would be wholly justifiable to characterize “Salome” as a symphonic poem for which the play supplies the program. The parallelism of which we hear between Strauss and Wagner exists only in part—only in the application of the principles of characterization by means of musical symbols or typical phrases. Otherwise the men work on diametrically opposite lines. With all his musical affluence, Wagner aimed, at least, to make his orchestra only the bearer and servant of the dramatic word. Nothing can be plainer (it did not need that he should himself have confessed it) than that Strauss looks upon the words as necessary evils. His vocal parts are not song, except for brief, intensified spaces at long intervals. They are declamation. The song-voice is used, one is prone to think, only because by means of it the words can be made to be heard above the orchestra. Song, in the old acceptance of the word, implies beauty of tone and justness of intonation. It is amazing how indifferent the listener is to vocal quality and intervallic accuracy in “Salome.” Wilde’s stylistic efforts are lost in the flood of instrumental sound; only the mood which they were designed to produce remains. Jochanaan sings phrases, which are frequently tuneful, and when they are not denunciatory are set in harmonies agreeable to the ear. But by reason of that fact Jochanaan comes perilously near being an old-fashioned operatic figure—an ascetic Marcel, with little else to differentiate him from his Meyerbeerian prototype than his “raiment of camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins,” and an inflated phrase which must serve for the tunes sung by the rugged Huguenot soldier. Strauss characterizes by his vocal manner as well as by his themes and their instrumental treatment; but for his success he relies at least as much upon the performer as upon the musical text. A voice and style like Mr. [Anton] Van Rooy’s give an uplift, a prophetic breadth, dignity, and impressiveness to the utterances of Jochanaan which are paralleled only by the imposing instrumental apparatus employed in proclaiming the phrase invented to clothe his pronouncements. Six horns, used as Strauss knows how to use them, are a good substratum for the arch-colorist. The nervous staccato chatter of Herod is certainly characteristic of this neurasthenic. This specimen from the pathological museum of Messrs. Wilde and Strauss appears in a state which causes alarm lest his internal mechanism fly asunder and scatter his corporeal parts about the scene. The crepitating volubility with which Strauss endows him is a marvelously ingenious conceit; but it leans heavily for its effect, we fear, on the amazing skill of Mr. [Karl] Burrian, not only in cackling out the words synchronously with the orchestral part, but in emotionally coloring them and blending them in a unity with his facial expression and his perturbed bodily movements. Salome sings, often in the explosive style of Wagner’s Kundry, sometimes with something like fluent continuity, but from her song has been withheld all the symmetrical and graceful contours comprehended in the concept of melody. Hers are the superheated phrases invented to give expression to her passion, and out of them she must construct the vocal accompaniment to the instrumental song, which reaches its culmination in the scene which, instead of receiving a tonal beatification, as it does, ought to be relegated to the silence and darkness of the deepest dungeon of a madhouse or a hospital.
Here is a matter, of the profoundest esthetical and ethical significance, which might as well be disposed of now, so far as this discussion is concerned, regardless of the symmetrical continuity of the argument. There is a vast deal of ugly music in ”Salome”—music that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddle strings played on by a coarse file. In a criticism of Strauss’s “Symphonia Domestica,” I took occasion to point out that a large latitude must be allowed to the dramatic composer which must be denied to the symphonist. Consort a dramatic or even a lyric text with music and all manner of tonal devices may derive explanation, if not justification, from the words. But in purely instrumental music the arbitrary purposes of a composer cannot replace the significance which must lie in the music itself—that is, in its emotional and esthetic content. It does not lie in intellectual content, for thought to become articulate demand speech. The champions of Richard Strauss have defended ugliness in his last symphony, the work which immediately preceded ”Salome,” and his symphonic poems on the score that music must be an expression of truth, and truth is not always beautiful. In a happier day than this it was believed that the true and the beautiful were bound together in angelic wedlock and that all art found its highest mission in giving them expression. But the drama has been led through devious paths into the charnel house, and in “Salome” we must needs listen to the echoes of its dazed and drunken footfalls. The maxim “Truth before convention” asserts its validity and demands recognition under the guise of “characteristic beauty.” We may refuse to admit that ugliness is entitled to be raised to a valid principle in music dissociated from words or stage pictures, on the ground that thereby it contravenes and contradicts its own nature; but we may no longer do so when it surrenders its function as an expression of the beautiful and becomes merely an illustrative element, as aid to dramatic expression. What shall be said, then, when music adorns itself with its loveliest attributes and lends them to the apotheosis of that which is indescribably, yea, inconceivably, gross and abominable? Music cannot lie. Not even the genius of Richard Strauss can make it discriminate in its soaring ecstasy between a vile object and a good. There are three supremely beautiful musical moments in “Salome.” Two of them are purely instrumental, though they illustrate dramatic incidents; the third is predominantly instrumental, though it has an accompaniment of word and action. The first is an intermezzo in which all action ceases except that which plays in the bestially perverted heart and mind of Salome. A baffled amorous hunger changes to a desire for revenge. The second is the music of the dance. The third is the marvelous finale, in which an impulse which can only be conceived as rising from the uttermost pit of degradation is beautified. Crouching over the dissevered head of the prophet, Salome addresses it in terms of reproach, of grief, of endearment and longing, and finally kisses the bloody lips and presses her teeth into the gelid flesh. It is incredible that an artist should ever have conceived such a scene for public presentation. In all the centuries in which the story of the dance before Herod has fascinated sculptors, painters, and poets, in spite of the accretions of lustful incident upon the simple Biblical story, it remained for a poet of our day to conceive this horror and a musician of our day to put forth his highest powers in its celebration. There was a scene before the mental eye of Strauss as he wrote. It was that of Isolde singing out her life over the dead body of Tristan. In the music of that scene, I do not hesitate to say again, as I have said before, there lies the most powerful plea ever made for the guilty lovers. It is the choicest flower of Wagner’s creative faculty, the culmination of his powers as a composer, and never before or since has the purifying and ennobling capacity of music been so convincingly demonstrated. Strauss has striven to outdo it, and there are those who think that in this episode he actually raised music to a higher power. He has not only gone with the dramatist and outraged every sacred instinct of humanity by calling the lust for flesh, alive or dead, love, but he has celebrated her ghoulish passion as if he would perforce make of her an object of that “redemption” of which, again following Wagner but along oblique paths, he prates so strangely in his opera of “Guntram.”
It is obvious on a moment’s reflection that, had Strauss desired, the play might easily have been modified so as to avoid this gruesome episode. A woman scorned, vengeful and penitent would have furnished forth material enough for his finale and dismissed his audience with less disturbance of their moral and physical stomachs. But Strauss, to put it mildly, is a sensationalist despite his genius, and his business sense is large, as New Yorkers know ever since he wound up an artistic tour of America with a concert in a department store. 1 When Nietzsche was the talk of Germany we got “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Oscar Wilde’s play, too unsavory for the France for which it was written, taboo in England because of its subject, has been joyously acclaimed in Germany, where there are many men who are theoretically licentious and practically uxurious; and Strauss was willing that his countrymen should sup to their full of delights and horrors.
To think back, under the impressions of the final scene, to the dance which precipitated the catastrophe is to bring up recollections of little else than the striking originality of its music, its piquancies of rhythm and orchestration, its artfully simulated Orientalism, and the thrilling effect produced by a recurrence to the “love music” (“Let me kiss thy mouth, Jochanaan.”) at a moment before the frenetic close, when the presentation of Salome (a professional dancer, Miss [Bianca] Froelich, was deftly substituted for Miss [Olive] Fremstad at the Metropolitan performance) approaches the cistern in which the white flesh, black hair, and red lips of her idolatry are immured, and casts wistful glances into its depths. Since the outcome was to be what it became it would have been folly in Mr. Conried’s performance to attempt to disguise the true character of the “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Miss Froelich gave us quite unconcernedly a danse du ventre; not quite so pronounced as it has been seen in the Oriental quarters at our world’s fairs, not quite so free of bodily covering as tradition would have justified. Yet it served to emphasize its purpose in the play. This dance in its original estate is a dramatic dance; it is, indeed, the frankest example of terpsichorean symbolism within the whole range of the pantomimic dance. The conditions under which Wilde and Strauss introduce it in their drama spare one all need of thought; there is sufficient commentary in the doddering debility of the pleading Herod and the lustful attitude of his protruding eyes. There are fantastical persons who like to talk about religious symbolism in connection with this dance, and of forms of worship of vast antiquity. The dance is old. It was probably danced in Egypt before the Exodus; in Greece probably before Orpheus sang and
“Ilion, like a mist, rose into towers.”
But it is not to be seriously thought that from those days to this there was ever any doubt as to its significance and its purpose, which is to pander to prurient appetites and arouse libidinous passions. Always, too, from those days to this, its performers have been the most abandoned of the courtesan class.
There is not a whiff of fresh and healthy air blowing through “Salome” except that which exhales from the cistern, the prison house of Jochanaan. Even the love of Narraboth, the young Syrian captain, for the princess is tainted by the jealous outbursts of Herodias’s page. Salome is the unspeakable; Herodias, though divested of her most pronounced historical attributes (she adjures her daughter not to dance, though she gloats over the revenge which it brings to her), is a human hyena; Herod, a neurasthenic voluptuary. A group of Jews who are shown disputing in the manner of Baxter Street, though conveyed by Wilde from Flaubert’s pages, are used by Strauss to provide a comic interlude. Years ago a musical humorist in Vienna caused much amusement by writing the words of a quarrel of Jewish peddlers under the voices of the fugue of Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute.” Three hundred years ago Orazio Vecchi composed a burlesque madrigal in the severe style of that day, in which he tried to depict the babel of sounds in a synagogue. Obviously the musical Jew is supposed to be allied to the stage Jew and to be fit food for the humorist. Strauss’s music gives a new reading to Wilde; it is a caricature in which cacophony reigns supreme under the guise of polyphony. There are five of the Jews, and each is pregnantly set forth in the theme with which he maintains his contention.
This is but one of many instances of a marvelous astuteness in the delineation and characteristic portions of the music. The quality which will be most promptly recognized by the public is its decorative and illustrative element. The orchestra paints incessantly; moods that are prevalent for a moment do not suffice the eager illustrator. The passing word seizes his fancy. Herod describes the jewels which he promises to give to Salome so she relieve him of his oath, and the music of the orchestra glints and glistens with a hundred prismatic tints. Salome wheedles the young Syrian to bring forth the prophet, and her cry, “Thou wilt do this thing for me,” is carried to his love-made brain by a voluptuous glissando of the harp which is as irresistible as her glance and smile. But the voluptuous music is not more striking than the tragic. Strauss strikes off the head of Jochanaan with more thunderous noise upon the kettle-drums than Wagner uses when Fafner pounds the life out of Fasolt with his gigantic stave; but there is nothing in all of Wagner’s tragic pages to compare in tenseness of feeling with the moment of suspense while Salome is peering into the cistern and marveling that she hears no sound of a death struggle. At this moment there comes an uncanny sound from the orchestra that is positively blood-curdling. The multitude of instruments are silent—all but the string basses. Some of them maintain a tremolo on the deep E flat. Suddenly there comes a short, high B flat. Again and again with more rapid iteration. Such a voice was never heard in the orchestra before. What Strauss designed it to express does not matter. It accomplishes a fearful accentuation of the awful situation. Strauss got the hint from Berlioz, who never used the device (which he heard from a Piedmontese double-bass player), [but who] recommended it to composers who wished to imitate in the orchestra “a loud female cry.” Strauss in his score describes how the effect is to be produced and wants it to sound like a stertorous [loud, grating] groan. It is produced by pinching the highest string of the double-bass at the proper node between the finger-board and the bridge and sounding it by a quick jerk of the bow. This is but one of a hundred new and strange devices with which the score of “Salome” has enriched instrumental music. The dance employs a vast apparatus, but the Oriental color impressed upon it at the outside by oboe and tambour remains as persistent as its rhythmical figure, which seems to have been invented to mark the sinuous flexure of the spine and the swaying of the hips of the dancer. Devices made familiar by the symphonic poems are introduced with increased effect, such as the muting of the entire army of brass instruments. Startling effects are obtained by a confusion of keys, confusion of rhythms, sudden contrasts from an overpowering tutti to the stridulous whirring of empty fifths on the violins, a trill on the flutes, or a dissonant mutter of the basses. The celesta, an instrument with keyboard and bell tone, contributes fascinating effects, and the xylophone is used;—utterances that are lascivious as well as others that are macabre. Dissonance runs riot and frequently carries the imagination away completely captive. The score is unquestionably the greatest triumph of reflection and ingenuity of contrivance that the literature of music can show. The invention that has been expended on the themes seems less admirable….There is no escape from the power of the music when it soars to grandiose heights in the duet between Salome and the prophet, the subsequent intermezzo and the wicked apotheosis. It overwhelms the senses and reduces the nervous system of the listeners to exhaustion….
[As Salome,] Mme. [Olive] Fremstad accomplished a miracle. A sleek tigress, with seduction speaking in every pose, gesture, look and utterance, she grew steadily into the monster which she was when she sank under the shields of the soldiers while the orchestra shrieked its final horror and left the listeners staring at each other with starting eyeballs and wrecked nerves.
The story, according to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, verses 17-29 (King James Version)
The story, according to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 14, verses 1-12 (King James Version)
The text of Oscar Wilde's "Salome" along with the original illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley (at the University of Virginia)
The text in English of Gustave Flaubert's Herodias at the University of Adelaide in Australia; the portion mentioned in Krehbiel's review, about the arguments among the Jews, is in Part Three.
Judith and Salome: Priestesses of Man's Severed Head at Décolleté: A Severed Head Gallery — this page contains numerous artistic renderings of Salome and of Judith, who saved the Jews from the Assyrian general Holofernes:
Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes' head, and took down his fauchion [one-handed, single-edged sword] from thence, And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day. And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him. And tumbled his body down from the bed, and pulled down the canopy from the pillars; and anon after she went forth, and gave Holofernes his head to her maid. — The Book of Judith 13:6-9 (King James Version)