Opera – Strauss’ “Salome”: Its Arts And Its Morals

That Richard Strauss the opera-maker is, for the present, summed up in Richard Strauss the composer of “Salome,” would scarcely, I think, be disputed by any one who is sympathetically cognizant of his achievements in that role. Neither in ” Gun-tram” nor in the later and far more characteristic “Feuersnot” is his essential quality as a musical dramatist so fully and clearly revealed as in his setting of the play of Wilde to which he has given a sagacious immortality. Yet in discussing this astonishing work, I prefer to consider it in and for itself rather than as a touchstone whereby to form a general estimate of Strauss the dramatic tone-poet for I believe that, if  he lives and produces for another decade, it will be seen that “Salome” does not furnish a just or adequate measure of Strauss’ indisputable genius as a writer of music for the stage. I believe that he has not given us here a valid or completely representative account of himself in that capacity. So remarkable, though, is the work in itself, so assertive in its challenge to contemporary criticism, that it imperatively compels some at-tempt at appeasement in any deliberate survey of modern operatic art.

For any one who is not convinced that those ancient though occasionally reconciled adversaries, Art and Ethics, are necessarily antipodal, such a task, it must be confessed, is not one to be approached in a jaunty or easeful spirit, for it means that one must be willing, apparently, to enter the lists ranged with the hypocrites, the prudes, the short-sighted and the unwise with frenzied and myopic champions of respect-ability; with all those who are as inflexible in their allegiance to. the moralities as they are resourceful and tireless in their pursuit of impudicity in art. Yet that there are two standpoints from which this extraordinary work must be regarded by any candid observer I do not think is open to question it has its purely esthetic aspect, and its— I shall not say moral, but social — aspect. To separate them in any conscientious discussion is impossible.

Let us, to begin with, consider, in and by itself, the quality of the music which the incomparable Strauss Strauss, the most conquering musical personality since Wagner — has conceived as a fit embodiment in tones of the tragic and maleficent and haunting tale of the Dancing Daughter of Herodias and her part in the career of the prophet John, as recounted—with non-Scriptural variations —by Oscar Wilde. We may consider, first, whether or not it achieves the prime requisite of music in its organic relation to a dramatic subject an enforcement and heightening of the effect of the play; setting aside, for the present, those other aspects of it which have so absorbed critical attention, and of which we have heard overmuch: its remorseless complexity, its unflagging ingenuity, its superb and miraculous orchestration. These are matters of importance, but of secondary importance. The point at issue is, has Strauss, through his music, intensified and italicised the moods and situations of the drama; and, secondly, has he achieved this end through music which is in itself notable and important?

Never was music so avid in its search for the eloquent word as is the music of Strauss in this work. We are amazed at the audacity, the resourcefulness, of the expressional apparatus that is cumulatively reared in this unprecedented score. The alphabet of music is ran-sacked for new and undreamt-of combinations of tone: never were effects so elaborate, so cunning, so fertilely contrived, offered to the ears of men since the voice of music was heard in its pristine estate. This score challenges the music of the days that shall follow after it.

For the most part, the atmosphere of horror, of ominous suspense, of oppressive and bodeful gloom, in which the tragedy of Wilde is en-wrapped, is wonderfully rendered in the music. There are beyond question overmastering pages in the score—music which has the kind of superb audacity and power of effect that Dr. Johnson discerned in the style of Sir Thomas Browne: “forcible expressions which he would never have used but by venturing to the utmost verge of propriety; and flights which would never have been reached but by one who had very little fear of the shame of falling.” Of such quality is the passage which portrays the agonised suspense of Salome during the beheading of John; the passage, titanic in its expression of malignly exultant triumph, which accentuates the delivery of the head to the insensate princess; the few measures before’ Herod’s patibulary order at the close: these things are products of genius, of the same order of genius which impelled the music of Don Quixote,” of ” Ein Heldenleben,” of ” Zarathustra”; they are true and vital in imagination, marvellous in intensity of vision, of great and subduing potency as dramatic enforcement and as sheer music.

But when one has said that much, one comes face to face with the chief weakness of the score—its failure in the expression of the governing motive of the play: the consuming and inappeasable lust of Salome for the white body and scarlet lips of John.

“Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste and thou didst fill my veins with fire. . . . Ah ! ah ! wherefore didst thou not look at me, Jokanaan? . . . ”

That is the note which is sounded from beginning to end of the play — that is its focal emotion. And Strauss has not made it sound, as it should sound, in his music. When it should be wildly, barbarically, ungovernably erotic, as for the enforcement of Salome’s fervid supplications in her first interview with John, the music is merely conventional in its sensuousness. It should here be febrile, vertiginous. But what, actually, do we get? We get a scene built upon a phrase in which is crystallised the desire of Salome for the lips of the Prophet; and this theme is saccharinely ardent and sentimental, rather than feverish and unbridled; a phrase which might have been a product of the amiably voluptuous inspiration of the composer of Faust.” The Tannhauser ” Bacchanale, even in its original form, is more truly expressive of venereous abandon than is this strangely sentimentalised music. It has, no doubt, a certain effectiveness, a certain expressiveness; but the effect that is produced, and the emotion that is expressed, are far removed from the field of sensation inhabited by Wilde’s remarkable Princess. Yet it would seem to be a point needing but the lightest emphasis that if the passion of Salome is not fitly and eloquently rendered by the music, the cardinal impulse, the very heart of Wilde’s drama, is left unexpressed.

So it is in the music of the final scene, Salome’s mad apostrophe to the severed head. Here we get, not the note of lustful abandonment which would alone remove Salome’s horrible appetite from the region of the perverted and the incredible, but a kind of musical utterance which simulates the noble rapture of Wagner’s dying Isolde. The discrepancy of the music in this regard has been recognised by those who praise most warmly Strauss’ score.

It has been said in extenuation, on the one hand, that music is incapable of expressing what are called base ” emotions, and, on the other hand, that Strauss wished to exalt, to idealise and transfigure, this scene. To the first objection it may be said simply that it is based upon an argument that is at least open to serious question. It is by no means an evident or settled truth that music is incapable of uttering anything but worthy emotions, ideas, concepts. There is music by Berlioz, by Liszt, by Wagner, by Rimsky-Korsakoff, by Strauss himself, which is, in its emotional substance, sinister, demonic, even pornographic in suggestion; and not simply by reason of a key furnished by text, motto, or dramatic subject, but in itself—in its quality and character as music. But the claim need not be elaborated, or even demonstrated, since it is beside the point. One quarrels with the music of the final scene of Salome ” on the broad ground of its inappropriateness: because the emotional note which it strikes and sustains is one of nobility, whereas the plain requirement of the scene, of the psychological moment, demands music that should be anything but noble. And here we encounter the objections of those who hold that Salome herself, at the moment of her apostrophe to the dead head, becomes transfigured, uplifted through the power of a great and purifying love. But to argue in this manner is to indulge in a particularly egregious kind of fatuity. To conceive Wilde’s lubricious princess as a kind of Oriental Isolde is grotesquely to distort the vivid and wholly consistent woman of his imagining and it is to renounce at once all possibility of justifying her culminating actions. For the only ground upon which it might be remotely possible to ac-count for Salome’s remarkable behaviour, except by regarding her as a necrophilistic maniac, is that sup-plied by the conditions and the environment of a lustful, decadent, and bloodshot age. Only when one conceives her as frankly and spontaneously a barbarian, nourished on blood and lechery, does she become at all comprehensible to others than pathologists, even if she does not cease to impress us as noisome, monstrous, and horrible.

The music of Salome,” then, judging it in its entirety, is deficient as an exposition, as a translation into tone, of the drama upon which it is based; for it is inadequate in its expression of the play’s central and informing emotion. One listens to this music, it must be granted, with the nerves in an excessive state of tension — it is enormously exciting; but so is, under certain conditions, a determined beating upon a drum. An assault upon the nerve-centres is a vastly different thing from an emotional persuasion yet there are many who, in listening to Salome,” will need to be convinced of it.

It would be absurd to deny, of course, that Salome is in many ways a noteworthy and brilliant—and, for the curious student of musical evolution a fascinating work. Its musicianship,the sheer technical artistry which contrived it is stupefying in. its enormous and inerrant mastery. The quality of its inspiration and its success as a musico-dramatic commentary, which have been the prime considerations in this discussion, have been measured, of course, by the most exacting standards — by the standards set in other and greater works of Strauss, in comparison with which it is lamentably inferior in vitality, sincerity, and importance.

In at least one respect, however, it compels the most unreserved praise; and that is in the case of its superlative orchestration. Strauss has written here for a huge and complicated body of instruments, and he has set them an appalling task. Never in the history of music has such instrumentation found its way onto the printed page.. Yet, though he requires his performers to do impossible things, they never fail to contribute to the effect of the music as a whole; for the dominant and wonderful distinction of the scoring lies precisely in the splendour of its total effect, and the almost uncanny art with which it is accomplished. One finds upon every page not only new and superlative achievements in colouring, unimagined sonorities, but a keenly poetic feeling for the timbre which will most intensify the dramatic moment. The instrumentation, from beginning to end, is a gorgeous fabric of strange and novel and obsessing colours—for in such orchestral writing as this, sound be-comes colour, and colour sound: it is not a single sense which is en-gaged, but a subtle and indescribable complex of all the senses; one not only hears, one also imagines that one sees and feels these tones, and is even fantastically aware of their possessing exotic and curious odours, vague and singular perfumes. It is when one turns from the bewildering magnificence of its orchestral surfaces to a consideration of the actual substance of the music, the fundamental ideas which lie within the dazzling instrumental envelope, that it is possible to realise why, for many of his most determined admirers, this work marks a pathetic decline from the standard set by Strauss in his former achievements. The indisputable splendour of this music, its marvellous witchery, are incurably external. It is a gorgeous and many-hued garment, but that which it clothes and glorifies is a poor and unnurtured thing. There is little vitality, little true substance, within this dazzling instrumental envelope; and for any one who is not content with its brave exterior panoply, and who seeks a more permanent and living beauty within; the thing seems but a vast and empty husk. It is not that the music is at times cacophonous in the extreme, that its ugliness ranges from that which is merely harsh and unlovely to that which is brutally and deliberately hideous; for we have not to learn anew, in these days of post-Wagnerian emancipation, that a dramatic exigency justifies any possible musical means that: will appropriately express it: to-day we cheerfully concede that, ,when a character in music-drama tells another character that his body is ” like the body of a leper, like a plastered wall where vipers crawl . . . like a whitened sepulchre, full of loathsome things,” the sentiment ,may not be uttered. in music of Mendelssohnian sweetness and placidity: It is because the music is so often vulgarly sentimental, when it should be terrible and unbridled in its passion, that it seems to some a defective performance. For sheer commonness, allied with a kind of emotionalism that is the worse for being inflated in expression, it would be hard to find, in any score of the rank of ” Salome,” the equal of the two themes which Strauss uses so extensively that they stand almost as the dominant motives in the score: the theme which is associated with Salome’s desire to kiss the lips of John, and that other theme—it has been called that of ” Ecstasy ” — which begins like the cantabile subject in the first movement of Tschaikowsky’s ” Pathetic ” Symphony, and ends —well, like Strauss at his worst.

An astounding score ! — music that is by turns gorgeous, banal, delicate, cataclysmic,’ vulgar, sentimental, insinuating, tornadic: music which is as inexplicable in its shortcomings as it is overwhelming in its occasional triumphs.

We may now consider that other aspect from which, I have said, the candid observer is compelled to regard this remarkable work.

Those over-zealous friends of Strauss who have sought to justify the offensiveness of Salome ” by alleging the case of Wagner’s Die Walkure,” and the relationship that is there shown to exist between the ill-starred Volsungs, are worse than misguided; for however unhallowed that relationship may be, it conveys no hint of sexual malaise.

Siegmund and Sieglinde are superbly healthful and untainted animals: to name their exuberant passion in the same breath with the horrible lust of Salome is stupid and absurd.

Let us not confuse the issue: The spectacle of a woman fondling passionately a severed and reeking head and puling over its dead lips, is not necessarily deleterious to morals, nor is it necessarily an act of impudicity; it is merely, for those whose calling does not happen to induce familiarity with mortuary things, horrible and revolting. No matter how, in practice on the stage, the thing may be ameliorated, the fact,–the situation as conceived and ordered by the dramatist,—is inescapable. It has been said that this scene is not really so sickening as it is alleged to be, since the stage directions require that Salome’s kisses be bestowed in the obscurity of a darkened stage. But to that it may be replied, in the first place, that darkness does little to mitigate the horror of the scene as conveyed by the words of Salome — so little, in fact, that Herod, who was any-thing but a person of fastidious sensibilities, is overcome with loathing and commands her despatch; and, secondly, that the stage directions expressly declare for an illumination of the scene by amoonbeam ” . . . which covers her with light,” just before the end, while she is at the climax of her ghastly libido.

Mr. Ernest Newman, a thoroughly sane and extremely able champion of all that is best in Strauss, has said, in considering this aspect of Salome,” that the whole outcry against it comes from a number of;too excitable people who are not artists, and who there-fore cannot understand the attitude of the artist towards work of this kind. Human nature,” he goes on, breaks out into a variety of forms of energy that are not at all nice from the moral point of view — murder, for example, or forgery, or the struggle of the ambitious politician for power, or the desire to get rich quickly at other people’s expense. But because these things are objectionable in themselves and dangerous to social well-being there is no reason why the artist should not interest us in them by the genius with which he describes them. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde was a dangerous person whom, in real life, we should want the police to lay by the heels; but sensible people who read the story do not bristle with indignation at Stevenson for creating such a character, they simply enjoy the art of it. The writing of the story did not turn Stevenson into a monster of deception and cruelty, nor does the reading of it have that effect on us. Things are different in art from what the same things would be in real life, and an artist’s joy in the depiction of some dreadful phase of human nature does not necessarily mean that, as a private individual, he is depraved, or that the spectacle of his art will make for depravity in the audience. Now Wilde and Strauss have simply drawn an erotic and half deranged Oriental woman as they imagine she may have been. They do not recommend her; they simply present her, as a specimen of what human nature can be like in certain circumstances. . . . The hysterical moralists who cry out against ‘Salome’ . . . have a terrified, if rather incoherent, feeling that if women in general were suddenly to become abnormally morbid, conceive perverse passions for bishops, have these holy men decapitated when their advances were rejected, and then start kissing the severed heads in a blind fury of love and revenge in the middle of the drawing-room, the respectable 40pounds a year householder would feel the earth rocking beneath his feet. But women are not going to do these spicy things simply because they saw Salome on the stage do something like them, any more than men are going to walk over the bodies of little children because they read that Mr. Hyde did so, or murder their brothers because Ham-let’s uncle murdered his.”

Now that, of course, is iresistible. But Mr. Newman’s gift of vivacious and telling statement, and his natural impatience with the cant of those who hold briefs for a facile morality, have here led him, as it seems to me, astray. To deny that an intimate and vital relationship exists between the subject chosen by an artist and its probable effect upon the public is to yield the whole case to those who hold that this relationship, in the case of the theatre (and, of course, the opera house), is merely casual and inconsequential: it is to yield it to the upholder of the stage as an agent of ” relaxation,” an agent either of mere entertainment or mere sensation. It is not unlikely that Mr. Newman would be the first to admit that, if the prime function of art can be postulated at all, it might be conceived to be that ‘of enlarging the sense of life: as an agency for liberating and mellowing the spirit: as an instrument primarily quickening and emancipative. The sadness of life is the joy of art,” said Mr. George Moore. The sadness of life, yes; and the evil and tragedy, the terror and violence, of life: for the contemplation of these may, through the evoking of pity, nourish and enlarge the spirit of the beholder. But are we very greatly nourished by the contemplation of that which must inevitably arouse disgust rather than compassion? I do not speak of morality” or ” immorality,” since there is nothing stable in the use or understanding of these terms. But those aspects of life which sicken the sense, which are loathsome rather than terrible—are they fit matter for the artist?

It is a much mauled and much tortured point, and I, for one, am not unwilling to leave the matter in the condition in which Dr. John-son left the subject of a future state, concerning which a certain lady was interrogating him. “She seemed,” recounts the admirable Boswell, “desirous of knowing more, but he left the matter in obscurity.”

To return, in conclusion, to Strauss the musician: Where, one ends by wondering, is the earlier, the greater, Strauss? — the unparalleled maker of music, the indisputable genius who gave us a sheaf of masterpieces: who gave us ” Don Quixote,” “Ein Heldenleben,” ” Zarathustra,” Tod and Verklarung.” Has he passed into that desolate region ‘occupied in his day by Hector Berlioz, for whom a sense of the tragic futility of talent without genius did not exist —the futility of application, of ingenuity, of constructive resource, without that ultimate and unpredictable flame? Is not Strauss, in such a work as “Salome,” but another Berlioz (though a Berlioz with a gleaming past)? Is he not here as one disdainfully indifferent to the ministrations of that ” Eternal Spirit ” which, in Milton’s wonderful phrase, sends out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases “?