Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #41 Strauss Salomé
Richard Strauss comes in at number 41 on my list with his salacious opera, Salomé, premiered in 1905, causing lots of controversy for its apparent sacrilege. It’s also notable for how Strauss straddled the tonal/atonal line with some awesome harmonic structures. The music is teeming with raw passion that expresses well Salomé’s sexual desires.
The tale is simple. Salomé desires a kiss from Jochanaan, who is John the Baptist, preaching against the sins of Herodes’s household. When Jochanaan refuses to kiss Salomé, she dances for her father, with very creepy incestuous vibes, to the point where he says he will give her anything. Everyone knows this part of the tale. She says she wants the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herodes tries to get out of this deal, but, as is so often the case, men are at their weakest when they think with the lower parts of their bodies. And so she has Jochanaan beheaded and in the final scene, she kisses him.
The music is astounding, particularly in that final scene as Salomé thinks she achieves her climax with kissing Jochanaan’s lips, but because he’s dead, his eyes are closed and will never see her. She realizes the futility of it all, and the music rises to this climactic ending with a fantastic mix of what sounds like a resolved major chord, but mixed in with tritones and half steps to indicate the depravity of what Salomé did.
Richard Strauss is a fascinating composer who straddled the handover of tonal music to the utter messy descent into atonal madness of the early 20th century. He flirted with atonality but generally stuck with tonal music throughout. He is most famous for the Also Sprach Zarathustra tone poem, though most people won’t know it by the name. The opening fanfare that plays on the overtones of the C major scale everyone knows and is used in countless films, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Strauss has a huge diversity of compositions, however, and he is worth the time to search and listen. As a German, he also had to walk a very fine line through two world wars and the rise of Nazism.
As for an example, be ready for blood, because here is the final scene, performed by the National Opera of the Netherlands, with Malin Byström as Salomé. Her interpretation is astoundingly good.