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Listen Cloze, Now: "Ah! ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan!" by Strauss, von Karajan and Behrens

"HEROD: Do you really want to give everything that I desire from you, Tetrarch?
HEROD: You swear it, Tetrarch?
HEROD: My riches are yours. What is it you want to have, Salome?
SALOME: (rising, smiling)

"Ah!" is the final scene in Richard Strauss' world-fucking opera of Wilde's world-fucking play Salome. Herein, after stripping for her stepfather Herod, Salome scares the shit into him by making out with a severed head. (Worse: the head of the prophet Jochanaan.) The supernatural world in which the action takes place is understandably upset; the moon disappears. A terrified Herod orders her killed.

She's quite a creation; a strong, sexual manipulator. Jochanaan resists her when alive, so she has him killed.

We only know this kind of harmony from horror films; it sounds like malign ghosts look. (Sure enough, it was actually used in the opening of the recent remake of the Omen.)

Strauss' composition is a scarily complex system of leitmotifs and recurring plot-chords. The important one for us is this fucker, which opens the track:

"Salome's Allure", C#, E, G, G#, Bb. These five notes have been used as her background throughout, and now they leer out at us as a chord, her desire coming together (with its object). There's an endless trill in the flutes, a leering oboe part, all punctuated by growling brass and percussion.

After a whispered, ethereal beginning, we hit sudden tonal resolution at 1:35 - as if saying "love is love, even with the taste of blood around". After dropping back down into menace and question, the resolution comes again, stronger, unstoppable; french horns announce the sunrise. The sudden Romanticism of it is so powerful because of the discord you've endured. The triumph bursts at 2:45 as she finally kisses it, and Salome goes into raptures, cresting a top B at 3:12 . Thunder and mountaintops. The orchestra has a moral moment at 3:35, overlaying a clash - disgust and anagnorisis - but not cancelling the beauty of it.

and then her begging the dead Jochanaan:
The end needs little explanation. Punishment, ending on an unprecedented noise.

SALOME: You spoke evil words against me, against me, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judea. I'm still alive, but you are dead, and your head, your head is mine! I can do with it what I want... You have seen thy God, Jochanaan, but me, I've never seen you. If you had seen me, you would have loved me! ...And the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death!
HEROD: (softly) She did right. I'd like to stay here now.

Dignified, heroic necrophilia. So: classical music is weird.


As indicated in the title, this track is very much by three people. And each additional "cover version" (configuration of conductor/orchestra/soloists) strengthens the others. And actually, it's not a very technical exercise to pick between them:

  • Our pick, Herbert von Karajan & Behrens (1977) lends the piece a comic-vicious energy, and Salome emerges not as a demonic pervert, but a passionate, heroic lass. Behrens barely enunciates - but hearing what people are saying isn't the point of opera. The oboe's inverted mordent (the lead melody at the start) is spiky and convincing here, unlike...

  • The one with George Solti & Birgit Nilsson (1990) which is slower, and consists in a much more basic track-long crescendo. Nilsson's Salome is disappointingly inhuman, too; you don't get the same cognitive dissonance as with hearing Behrens' inspiring, sincere evil. Solti also soft-pedals the clashes.

  • Highly acclaimed too is Edward Downes & Maria Ewing's shot at it, though possibly more because of the stage direction. The sounds are nice too:

(c) Lucas Cranach (1530)

HEROD: (turning) Kill that woman!

The soldiers rush to Salome and bury her beneath shields.
The curtain falls quickly.