It has been said often enough that music has no nationality. Sometimes, a piece of art can transcend culture and language to reach an apex of perfection, in which music and story fuse to produce a stunning art form that grips the heart and mind of the audience. Richard Strauss’ operatic gem “Salome” in German, based on Oscar Wilde’s French play, perhaps deserves to be counted amongst such pieces.
Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright who was born in Dublin and educated at Oxford, England, notably a language prodigy, was conversant with German, French, Greek and Latin at an early age. The liberal hedonistic life that he led in his youth, whilst being frowned at by the society he lived in, might well have sharpened his senses to give him the needed zest to appreciate the beauty in art that may be hidden from the untrained eye. His most acclaimed works are his only novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the play “The Importance of Being Earnest”.
Lesser known is the play “Salome” which was based on the well-known biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist, and which Wilde wrote originally in French.
The story goes like this. At a birthday party thrown by Herod, the Tetrarch of Judea, Salome, his step-daughter, demanded to see John the Baptist who was being kept in an underground cistern for criticizing Salome’s mother Herodias on her incestuous marriage to Herod, brother of her husband. On seeing the saintly man, Salome fell in love with him and declared her passionate desire for his white skin, his black hair and his red lips. When she was rebuffed, she perversely asked Herod, who was hankering after her, to reward her with John’s head after dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils, with Herodias gleefully prodding her on. Herod tried to dissuade her from her demand by offering her emerald, then white peacocks, then the sacred veil of the temple, which she all refused. When she finally got what she wanted, she kissed the lips of the severed head that was handed to her on a silver platter. Terrified by the sight of this lunacy, the superstitious Herod ordered his soldiers to kill her.
There is an interesting story behind why Wilde wrote “Salome” in French, apart from the artistic reason that effects could be more grippingly sensual in French than in English.
It was said that he had been inspired by French artist Gustave Moreau’s famous painting of Salome captioned “L’Apparition”, which showed with rattling sensual power Salome’s hallucinated vision of the decapitated saint after she was handed her terrible reward. Another source of Wilde’s inspiration came from Gustave Flaubert’s short story “Herodias” (one of three short stories entitled “Three Tales”), which stuck to the original narrative that made Salome an innocent tool of her mother Herodias, and which provided details of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils as Flaubert recalled an Arabian dance that he had watched during a visit to Egypt. Wilde artfully changed the focal point from Herodias to Salome and put Salome right in the foreground. He also made her out to be the sadistic lover of John the Baptist, picking up the hint of sadism and perversity from French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans’ interpretation of Moreau’s painting in his novel “A Rebours” (“Against Nature” or “Against the Grain”).
Thus influenced by these important French creators of art, it was only natural that Wilde would want to re-create “Salome” in the French language so as to pay homage to them, if nothing else.
Then Richard Strauss, the masterly German composer, came along and turned Wilde’s French play into an electrifying operatic piece in German, writing the libretto himself. Debuting in 1905, Strauss’ production garnered an enthusiastic accolade and some of his peers described the opera as “stupendous” and “a live volcano, a subterranean fire”.
Having previously read Wilde’s play (an English translation), I am familiar with the story details. I don’t pretend to know anything about classical music, but when I watched a video of the Strauss opera (conducted by Bohm) on Youtube and listened to the music, it did give me a strange pulsating, eruptive sensation. The story of murderous sexual desire is expressed in a perfect orchestration of musical instruments and soprano singing to fluster the deepest recesses of the human heart. Teresa Stratas, a Greek artist from Ontario, Canada who played the leading role of Salome, indeed impressed me deeply with her haunting performance.
Luckily, one doesn’t have to speak German to be able to appreciate Strauss’ music. In fact one doesn’t have to be of any particular nationality to be able to appreciate good music by musicians of any nationality. As Strauss once said in a letter to a Jewish friend and librettist: “Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am German? Do you suppose that Mozart was ever consciously Aryan when he composed? I only recognize two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none.”