Heading Off…

So there I was, chatting to one of my favourite people about one of my favourite topics (the development of musical language in the twentieth century) — and it turned out that she’d never heard Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (1903-5). I wasn’t that surprised, to be honest: as a matter of personal orientation, she’s literary rather than musical, so while she knows about the scandalous play by Oscar Wilde (1891) that Strauss took for his libretto, it would be a bit of a stretch for her to have heard the German-language opera that came out of it .

It did cause a hiccup in my argument, however — as it meant that she didn’t know what I was talking about when I mentioned a notably strange chord that is heard in the orchestra not long before the opera ends. So I thought I’d write it all up on here so that she — and anyone else who happens to be interested — can find out about it.

First, let me make sure we’re all on the same page as far as Salome itself is concerned. The story is just an everyday tale of Old Testament folk. You know, that tried and tested formula…

Salome1Girl meets boy…

 

 

 

 

Salome2Girl demands beheading of boy…

 

 

 

 

Salome3Girl passionately kisses blood-soaked lips of boy’s severed head…

 

 

Yeah, I know: same old same old…

Anyway, you might think that such a ghastly display of twisted sexuality would be bound to draw a rich selection of unnerving and even horrific  effects from a composer like Strauss — and you’d be right: the score contains numerous innovations in orchestration and harmony — and, since it was Strauss, even mananged to be a terrific hit at the same time, with no fewer than 50 productions in its first two years.

As for the specific chord I’m talking about, this — see the ‘sfz‘ — is what it looks like on paper in a simplified piano reduction (I lifted this example from the opera’s Wikipedia entry — which explains why you see two wrong notes in the first bar, God help us):

Salome_chord

And this is what it sounds like in the orchestra — as it sets the seal on Salome’s ecstatic outburst of necrophiliac triumph (I’ve included a bit of the lead-in as context; as long as you know that ‘Jokanaan’ is the slaughtered John the Baptist, the subtitles supply all the information needed):

In case anyone is wondering what happens next, I’ve included another clip (from a famous studio recording) that runs all the way to the end:  the action is that King Herod, now angered and horrified beyond endurance, screams for his soldiers to kill Salome (‘Man töte dieses Weib!) — whereupon they batter her to death with their shields…

Now, the matter of this famous chord is one that I actually want to discuss a bit further — particularly with regard to what might (or might not!) be its relation to a few developments that took place in the concert music of the twentieth century. But since there’s no point talking about anything in music unless people have absorbed the sound first, I’ll pause at this point.

And, in any case, I know that no-one will pay attention to anything else I have to say right now because everyone expects me to finish by posting a clip of the opera’s Dance of the Seven Veils in the, uh, famous performance with Maria Ewing as Salome. Well, I’m not going to post it, so you can just forget it. Seriously: no. Look, I’m just not posting it, okay? I don’t care how much you want to see it: the answer’s ‘no’.  If you really want to know what happens in that part of the opera, you can have an orchestral recording and a piano-vocal score, and just imagine…

(Now, come on: tell me. Is that guy good — or is that guy *good*…?)

Coming soon: the next instalment…

MD

MOcoverforblogIf you enjoyed this posting, remember that I am a regular contributor and columnist for the UK magazine Musical Opinion. The magazine’s website can be found here; to see its Twitter feed, click here; to see its Facebook page, click here. To subscribe to Musical Opinion, click here.

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