On the occasion of Richard Strauss' Salome, Siegfried Wagner, the son of the composer Richard Wagner, made the following statement: »Since when has art been identical with dirt? [...] the demimonde should keep to itself, and one dare not bring dishes to a decent table that are teeming with bacteria, poison of the worst kind.« He was not alone: Gustav Mahler, who recognised the genius of the score, failed in his attempt to stage the work at the Vienna Court Opera, which he directed, following the Dresden premiere in 1905: »The depiction of events that belong to the field of sexual pathology is not suitable for our court stage,« was the censor's final finding. The sensational Austrian premiere took place under the composer's musical direction in 1906 at the Graz Opera House, the Viennese premiere took place in 1907 as part of a guest performance from Breslau at what is now the Volkstheater, and the Court Opera did not follow suit until 1918.
The opposition to the opera in some ways repeated the ostracism that had been bestowed on its literary model. The drama Salomé is today considered one of the most important plays of the Anglo-French décadence. It was written and published in French by Oscar Wilde in 1891, followed three years later by an English version. The drama was staged for the first time in Paris in 1896 with Sarah Bernhardt in the title role, after the original intention of the author and the actress to present the work at the Royal Opera House in London fell through after a paragraph was brought into play that prohibited the portrayal of biblical characters on British theatre stages; the play was not released for public performance in England until 1931. By the time Sarah Bernhardt was on stage in Paris as the Judean princess, Oscar Wilde, who had been sentenced to two years hard labour for »homosexual fornication«, was already serving the prison sentence that was to ruin him socially and in terms of his health.
The story, which links the dance of a teenage princess with the death of John the Baptist, is based on the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as well as on the Jewish Antiquities of the historiographer Flavius Josephus, whereby all the sources were written at a distance from the alleged events and show contradictions among themselves, which inspired the numerous adaptors of the material - at first mainly in painting, then also in theatre and literature, and finally also in music - to ever new solutions and expansions; Oscar Wilde himself, for example, also drew on Gustave Flaubert's story Hérodiade (1877). Four of the characters appearing in his play are historically verifiable: Jochanaan is the Hebrew name of John the Baptist, who preached between 27 and 29 AD and was executed by Herod Antipas, the tetrarch (»quarter prince«) who ruled over a quarter of the kingdom of Judea. Allegedly, this happened at the instigation of his wife Herodias, whose marriage to Herod had been denounced by Jochanaan as incestuous. Herodias had a daughter from her first marriage named Salome, who was just of marriageable age, i.e. about twelve years old in the understanding of the time, or even still a child. When she was asked by Herod to dance before him in honour of his birthday, in return for which he promised her the fulfilment of every wish, the princess, at her mother's instigation, demanded the head of Jochanaan - and Herod had to fulfil his promise. It is at this point that Oscar Wilde contradicted tradition by having the child-wife Salome say: »I heed not my mother's voice; for my own pleasure I will have Jochanaan's head in a silver bowl.«
Wilde wrote his drama in a metrically unbound, yet at the same time highly stylised and musicalised language, which, for all its archaic attitude, anticipates the sparkling punchline art of his later social comedies. At the same time, he made a subversive use of biblical verses that left it open as to who understood the gospel of love more correctly, the misogynous prophet or the princess he beguiled.
With his Salome, which he set to music in the original wording of Wilde with a German translation and some abridgements, the 40-year-old Richard Strauss achieved his breakthrough as an opera composer. The score of the one-act opera incorporated all the flamboyant instrumentation and compositional art of his orchestral tone poems, with which he had caused a sensation since 1886 at the latest; the experience gained in Munich, Bayreuth and Weimar during his career as an opera conductor flowed into the effective treatment of the singing voices. The opera is a musical-dramaturgical masterpiece of perfect timing and suspense, with the most differentiated musical fanning out of the external and above all also internal psychological events. While the harmonic, tonal and compositional audacities of the music were branded by the conservative establishment as form-dissolving and »neo-tonal«, today the work is a fixed star of every opera repertoire, sparkling and glistening as sensually and thought-provokingly as on the first day.