Strauss is a common-enough name in the German-speaking world. And it was particularly prevalent in the musical community at the turn of the last century. What with the Johann Strauss Junior and Senior axis, as well as Oscar Straus dominating the operetta scene, Richard Strauss would have found it hard to stake a singular claim on the moniker. But is this just a spurious play on words or is there something more lurking under the surface that intrinsically links Johann with Richard? While the former may have been the ‘Waltz King’, the latter regular employed this dance rhythm – the very picture of Mitteleuropean refinement – in a very different fashion. In Richard Strauss’s 1905 blockbuster Salome, the throbbing triple pulse of the waltz comes to the fore, but its uses are various and equivocal and the composer suggests something more dangerous than Johann Strauss’s trish-trash ball accompaniments. Like Salome’s dance, the Waltz unlocks the door to our desires, but ultimately those cravings are what kill the Princess of Judea and (in Strauss’s score) that lilting triple time dance becomes the very essence of fin-de-siècle decadence.

At first the waltz, or rather its predecessor the ländler (also in 3-4 time), had very little to do with Vienna. Before the waltz (and its occidental cousins the mazurka and polka) held sway in the 19th century, the ländler was the most widespread folkdance in Austria, southern Germany and German-speaking Switzerland. Its introduction into court, however, was as a representation of peasant life, though in time the dances became so chic that the peasant trappings dissolved and the ländler and its more sophisticated successor, the waltz, remained. Once the waltz was part of Imperial ball entertainments, composers rushed to write their own versions. At first a member of Joseph Lanner’s orchestra, Johann Strauss I later became the Kapellmeister of the first Bürger‐regiment and found himself responsible for music at the court dances. Following his father into the musical world, Johann Strauss II would later eclipse those achievements. This was confirmed with his 1863 appointment as k.k. Hofballmusik-Direktor – he had literally become the ‘Waltz King’. Throughout his career, blessed with a sophisticated harmonic language and an unparalleled gift for melody, Johann Strauss II never failed to write a waltz when any significant social, cultural, technological or political event occurred in Vienna, in the wider Habsburg Empire or, indeed, elsewhere in Europe. It was through this use as court entertainment that the dance came to prominence, particularly in Austria and the southern part of Germany from which Richard Strauss hailed. When he came to write Salome, which features an impressive stand-alone dance, it was a natural choice to turn to the Viennese waltz for inspiration.

Although Salome’s dance has been performed as a separate concert piece, it is an essential part of the synopsis and design of the opera. Like the orchestral tone poems for which he was initially so famed, the construction of Salome is sweeping and ostensibly seamless. Following in the tradition of Wagnerian ebb and flow, motifs grow through scenes and give a rigid sense of architecture. Although not as deft as the formation of Elektra, which was to follow, Strauss manages to blur the boundaries from one piece of action to the next. Occasionally, the composer creates deliberate moments of hiatus, not least when the Baptist calls out from the cistern or appears on stage. The stasis of the music that accompanies Jochanaan’s prophecy indicates something higher, nobler, than the regular brouhaha of the other people in the palace. But the main point of hiatus in the action is the moment when Salome says to her father ‘Ich bin bereit, Tetrarch’ and launches into her infamous Dance of the Seven Veils. While it may indicate a pause in the vocal action, it is, in fact, a veritable motivic logjam. Packed with all the melodies and motifs that act as the motor for the opera, Strauss betrays his entire musical resources. Although it would be impossible to diminish the musical and dramatic achievement of Salome’s final gruesome scene with the head of John the Baptist, we have in fact first heard the music behind Salome’s paean in her earlier dance. But Strauss was a composer of rank and renown when he came to write this orgiastic shocker, so why does he show the entire deck of cards in one go?

The first and most important reason is purely musico-dramatic. While the preceding action has been dominated by Herod’s oleaginous pleadings for Salome to dance for him, this set piece shows Salome in complete control, before her descent and murder at the close of the piece. Starting in 2-4 time, the opening of the dance is a insatiable riot of orientalist sound, with an off-beat tambourine and the tam tam played with the Triangle beater adding to the percussive effects. However, it soon settles into the first waltz figure, characterised by an odd solo viola figure and winding oboe line. Strauss begins to play with our expectations as we are thrown around different time signatures. A more redolent figure appears in the violins, packed with sexual yearning and this in turn is answered by a rising figure, which we have previously heard during Salome’s confrontation with John the Baptist. The motifs continue to be played in smaller segments before a rich fore-square tune appears in the strings (with violins, violas, cor anglais, heckelphone, clarinets and horn all playing in unison). As Salome grows in confidence, the music becomes more assured and she begins to toy with Herod. Washes of harp, flute and celesta accompany the next section as we enter another key centre (complete with typical Viennese waltz luftpausen). Clacks of castanets, tambourine and triangle sound as the music gains in pace and Strauss launches his final sonic assault. Decorated woodwind figures repeat again and again, with the xylophone picking out the Baptist’s ascending motif. Despite the time signature having returned to 2-4, the clarinets play an oscillating theme that recalls the waltz pulse. The whole dance breaks down into the manic rush that we encountered at the opening, before Salome launches into her final wild waltz.

Herod is thrilled, and why would he not be thrilled, Salome and Strauss have given everything they have got in their metaphorical armoury. The brilliance of Salome, like a good horror film, is that we are both disgusted and enthralled by the proceedings. Der Tanz der sieben Schleier meets both the best and the worst of those expectations; Strauss plays to the gallery perfectly. As Robin Holloway has written, Strauss is ‘deftly aligning the audience at once with Herod’s desires and Salome’s knowledge that she possesses the means of steering them towards the realisation of her own’. Some critics (including Proust and Fauré) have berated the music as ‘vulgar’ and ‘cheap’, but this moment can be easily demonstrated as Strauss toying with his audience, using music that they would ‘understand’ rather than going for the violent complexity of, say, Elektra. However ‘cheap’, Strauss is ingenious in his structure; the clue is the title, there are seven veils. While he gave no indication in the score where Salome might remove those veils, the various sections lead us from one mood to another (as in Johann Strauss’s compound waltzes, like the Kaiser-Waltz or An der schönen blauen Donau). Furthermore, he both hints at the drama before (Salome’s motivation is signified by the use of the Baptist’s tune) and prepares the way for Salome’s final blood-drenched communion with the Baptist’s head. That redolent figure in the waltz becomes the backbone to her final scene. At its most thrilling the tune underpins the moment when the light of the moon bathes Salome as she kisses the Baptist’s disengaged head. She and her waltzing titillation have triumphed. However, that victory is staggeringly brief. Herod turns as he walks back into the palace and screams ‘Man tote dieses Weib!’ [Destroy that woman]. He might well have ordered ‘Man tote diesen Wein, Weib und Gesang!’, but that might have been pushing the comparisons between Herod’s palace and the Hofburg too far.

It would be foolish to see Salome purely as a mirror to the time in which it was written, but Strauss either naively or willingly became a political composer over the course of his career. The German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm, certainly saw in Salome something of the agitator composer when he said ‘I really like this fellow Strauss, but Salome will do him a lot of damage’. More infamously, however, Strauss became linked with the Nazi Party in Germany and his name has been besmirched ever since, though his involvement was perhaps more changeable and self-centred than his most damning critics would allow us to believe. That is not to excuse the behaviour, but merely to place it in the context of Strauss’s own sense of self-preservation. Despite that instinct, Strauss was nothing if not an enfant terrible at the height of his career. So while recent attempts to place Salome in a decadent 20th century world – David McVicar’s recent London production of the opera was set in a representation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma – are perhaps too obvious, it would be naïve to consider the opera as a mere representation of the original biblical story. Seen through the cankerous lense of Oscar Wilde’s empurpled prose, the opera already reeks of fin de siècle decadence before a note has sounded. As Alex Ross describes the Austrian premiere of the opera at the beginning of his polemic The Rest is Noise,

Strauss had created something beyond the pale – an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.

While many of the glitterati of European culture came to hear this ‘beyond the pale’ work, it is perhaps most interesting to note that the ‘Waltz King’ himself was represented at that Graz performance in 1906 by the presence of his widow, Adele. She must have been alarmed when she heard her late husband’s beloved dance form eroticised and exoticised within an inch of its life. Cascades of notes titillated the audience as the innocence of Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald rotted away and Salome herself seizes the dance form in the same exultant manner with which she later claims the Baptist’s severed head.

But Frau Johann Strauss II would go on to hear that dance resounding again and again through the increasingly overwrought and decadent scores of the period. Richard Strauss uses the dance rhythm throughout his career. Similarly in Elektra it appears both during Elektra’s triumphant dance of death and when Chrysothemis sings her numinous ‘Ich Kann Nicht Sitzen und Ins Dunkel Starren’. Her innocent longing for a family marks a rare moment where the violence of that opera is suffused in a warm waltz – the lilt of which would reappear in his subsequent opera Der Rosenkavalier. Here, recalling the Vienna of the 18th century, Strauss anachronistically chooses a 19th century idiom. But like the innocence of Chrysothemis’s paean, the waltzes of Rosenkavalier represent a nostalgic longing. That the critics have lambasted Strauss for enticing us with the potency of his apparently ‘cheap music’ is to miss its ironic message. In order to speak to his own generation in early 20th century Germany and Austria, Strauss had to invoke an idealised memory of 18th century Vienna, heard through the obsolete prism of late 19th century waltzes. It was the same trick that Frenchman Maurice Ravel would use when he came to compose his symphonic poem Wien that later became La Valse. Like Salome’s dance, Ravel’s dance spectacle teeters between the traditional waltz and something more dangerous, toying with nostalgia, but ultimately moving towards a nightmare. Ravel described the piece himself perfectly when he said that La Valse was ‘a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which is mingled in my mind the idea of the fantastic whirl of destiny’.

No more so than during Salome’s last frenetic movements and gyrations for her incestuous stepfather can the audience hear Ravel’s ‘whirl of destiny’. Although Richard Strauss started out intending to write a box-office hit, replete with horror film action and suitably hateful characters, he ultimately created a much bleaker piece. E.M. Forster once described James Joyce’s gargantuan novel Ulysses as ‘a dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud, an inverted Victorianism, an attempt to make crossness and dirt succeed where sweetness and light failed’. That description could (perhaps with the benefit of hindsight) be fitting for Strauss’s dark early operas, particularly when that unmistakable dancing pulse begins. In Richard Strauss’s hands (rather than in Johann Strauss II’s warm court dances), the waltz doesn’t feel so much like the heartbeat of Central Europe, but the heart attack of a world about to implode.

© Gavin Plumley, 2009
Gavin has written and broadcast widely on Richard Strauss and his contemporaries.

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