The Dance of the Seven (Thousand) Articles

Given that my last paper topic was quite closely tied to Luther and Reformation theology, I wanted to venture further away for this next project.

Unlike most of the other music we’re studying this semester, Richard Strauss’ Salome is not a sacred work. However, many elements within the opera make it a worthy candidate for examination: the biblically-based story line; the layers of religious prophecy; the provocative conflation of the violent and the erotic with the sacred.

Beyond these broad thematic elements, Salome also stands as the product of a particular era in German (or even generally European) intellectual history. The opera, which depicts several Jewish characters from in and around the court of King Herod, arrived on the stage at a time when anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained in European society and was rising in virulence. This socio-religious context adds another layer of complexity to an analysis of religious elements in Salome.

The opera’s 1905 premiere shocked and scandalized audiences, but along with its infamy the opera quickly gained acclaim. It would be easy to cast the opera as a testament to the potential power of music not towards the pure and the religious, but instead towards the carnal and the blasphemous- and indeed many of its audience members reacted as such. Thus despite the fact that Salome is not a religious work, it inspired many of the same debates that theologians had been having about music for centuries.

Although there is certainly plenty of musicological scholarship about Strauss and Salome, there are also articles in disciplines like dance and gender studies that address some of the same questions that I have. It will be interesting to see which of their interpretations are shared by musicologists, and I will have to be careful to keep my thesis narrow in order to avoid getting lost in the subject’s complexity. I’m not yet sure where my argument will focus or which direction it will point towards, and I will have to think carefully about how to incorporate musical evidence and analysis, but it is clear that although¬†Salome is not a religious work, it has inspired many of the same debates about music that theologians have discussed for centuries.

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