The Treasure Hunt: Richard Strauss, Salome, final scene.
©1983 Mark B. Anstendig
The opera Salome presents a problem. The work builds towards the final outburst of Salome after she kisses the head of the prophet Jochanaan, and an understanding of the opera hinges upon that passage being interpreted in a very special way by both the orchestra and the singer. The problem: none of the complete recordings achieve the right stylistic character in this passage.
The music of Salome parallels the ornate art of the time, such as that of Klimt and Beardsley, with more than a touch of the latter's sensual decadence. The musical lines of the counterpoint are extravagantly ornate and decorative, and the music of the final outburst epitomizes this style. There is essentially no harmony in the sense of chords accompanying a melody. It is all counterpoint. The voice is only one of many independent, separate, melodic lines that intertwine around each other in a controlled, ornate manner that is a musical equivalent of the decorative art that was popular at the beginning of the century.
Unfortunately, few conductors seem to understand that the orchestra lines are as important as, and should be in perfect balance with, the voice and, if they are aware of it, the right effect is extremely difficult to achieve. Salome's phrase is not an exultant, triumphant outburst as it is usually sung. From the moment she kisses the head, she is overwhelmed by an inward sexual experience which this phrase is the expression of. It is the plush, sensual wallowing in an inward ecstacy of a woman who has given herself up to a sensual experience. The sound has to be warmly luxurious, unstrained, full, ecstatic and must remain receptively womanly. The singer has to have such an enormous voice that it envelops and overwhelms the listener without the slightest bit of strain. The melodic lines of the counterpoint in the orchestra, though loud, have to be played with a lean, extremely well-focused quality that intertwines around and blends in perfect balance with the voice. This passage, when done correctly, is an extraordinary aesthetic experience of a mature, artistically elevated nature. It also becomes clear that Salome was really possessed of an overwhelming sexual passion for Jochanaan that demanded fulfillment, even if she were only able to kiss the head, and not that she had him murdered simply to get back at him because he refused her. She is concerned with fulfillment, not revenge.
The recording of the final scene by Fritz Reiner, with Ljuba Welitsche as Salome is the only performance I have found that achieves the necessary effect, and does so magnificently. There is even a perfect touch of luxurious sexual languidness in the way Welitsch sings the ending. But beware! The listener must contain his own emotional reactions to the ending if he is to experience the real effect of the music in this performance. If one is already familiar with the opera, the tendency is to anticipate the music as one knows it and miss the subtlety with which it is really being played.
The sound of this particular record is harsh and needs to be carefully equalized to sound natural. Also, the original mono sound has been electronically rechanneled for stereo, a big mistake.1 You can begin with typical equalization (cuts at 2000-4000 Hz, 640-1000 Hz, and 125-160 Hz) , but this record will probably need more reduction in the higher frequencies (2500-6000 Hz) and in the middle range (315-800 Hz, centering on 500 Hz in our sound system).
1See our paper "Stereo, A Misunderstanding".
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit research and educational institute that studies the vibrational influences in our environment, particularly those of sight and sound, and how they affect sensory perception. Its papers on sound reproduction, problems of focusing in photography, psychology of hearing and seeing, and erratic vibrational influences that affect our lives are widely distributed throughout the world. All are available free of charge.