Richard Strauss' third opera, Salome, burst like a meteor onto the early twentieth century musical scene and ushered in an era of musical modernism. When Salome premiered at Dresden in 1905, it was at once condemned by conservative critics for its moral decadence, and lauded by more adventuresome listeners, who heard in it signs of the avant-garde. Richard Wagner's son Siegfried emphasized Salome's "perversity" and categorized it among Strauss' "dangerous works." In 1948, however, archmodernist Arnold Schoenberg singled out passages from Salome as examples of extended tonality. Although near the end of the nineteenth century, Strauss' tone poems had earned him accolades as Zukunftsmusiker, neither their philosophical programs, nor their lushly chromatic late Romantic musical languages were any match for Salome's psychologically charged libretto and surprisingly dissonant score.
Strauss based his libretto for Salome on Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of Oscar Wilde's play, Salomé, of 1891. Wilde's play, written in French in and the evocative style of the symbolists, appeared in the later years of a long tradition of literary treatments of the New Testament story of Salome and John the Baptist. Mario Praz claims that Heinrich Heine's Atta Troll (1841) was the first literary work to portray Salome as a blatantly sexual being, an interpretation that was taken up repeatedly in later versions of the story. Indeed, the interpretation of Salome as a pathologically sexual female must have been particularly intriguing to fin de siècle writers and artists, given the contemporary fascination with the degenerate female and -- influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud -- with psychopathology in general. Wilde was also influenced by J.C. Heywood's dramatic poem "Salome," Mallarmé's poem "Hérodiade," and by Joris-Karl Huysmans' À Rebours, which portrayed Salome as the epitome of female sexual depravity.
Strauss uses orchestration, motives, key areas, and distinctions among musical languages to convey meaning in Salome. Strauss expands the palette of the orchestra, already fertile with timbral possibilities, giving extended solo passages to unusual instruments, and joining groups of instruments in novel and evocative combinations. The lengthy contrabassoon solo at the end of the second orchestral interlude is perhaps a singular occurrence in Western art music, and the combination of two harps playing harmonics, celesta, cymbals, and hushed woodwinds that accompany the aroused Herod after Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils paint an eerie picture of his demented world. Strauss continually weaves the clarinet's opening ascending motive (associated with the title character) into the opera's orchestral tapestry and features it as the principal musical material of Salome's frenzied, pseudo-oriental dance.
Each of the principal personages sings in a musical style that reveals aspects of his or her character: the young princess Salome sings with a flirtatious declamation style supported by delicate orchestration favoring high-pitched instruments such as flutes, violins, and celesta; later, the orchestra accompanies her final monologue with its full registral, dynamic, and timbral capabilities. Jochanaan's (John the Baptist's) music is devoutly tonal, generally favoring flat key areas -- including A flat major, the key in Strauss' "system" of tonal symbolism that represents religion, and through which Strauss illustrates Jochanaan's steadfast piety. Herod's musical language is inflected with whole-tone scales; lacking a solidly tonal perfect fifth, but having instead the disorienting and dissonant tritone at its structural core, these passages conveys a sense of instability appropriate for the perverse Galilean tetrarch.