Richard Strauss: Salome

Well, that was something. 

A couple of years ago I read Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, a history of 20th century classical music. (I wrote about the book last year, in this post.) I recall being a bit surprised that the book opened not with that usual-for-this-subject anecdote about the 1913 premier of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but with a 1906 performance of Salome. I've never listened to much of Strauss's music and did not think of him as a modernist bomb-thrower. But Salome preceded The Rite by seven years. And, as I just discovered, it is explosive. 

I had thought, on finishing the Ross book, that I would try to work my way through at least some of the major works that he discusses and I had not heard, or not really heard. I'm just now getting around to following up on that. Conveniently, I had come into a recording of Salome not long before, in what I have been calling the Fr. Dorrell trove--several hundred classical LPs left behind when an elderly priest died a few years ago. It's an RCA Red Seal recording from the late '60s, with Montserrat Caballé as Salome and Erich Leinsdorf conducting, and it's one of those wonderful boxed sets of the great age of the LP, with a big handsome booklet containing the libretto and various other material. I put the first disk on and settled into a chair with the libretto.

Never mind the dates: Alex Ross was right to put this opera at the head of the "let's shake things up" line of early 20th century works. It is a far more sensational composition than the Rite, both musically and thematically. A hundred and twenty years later, it still has some power to shock (which I suppose means I am not as thoroughly jaded as I thought).

I had not gotten very far before I thought This libretto was written by a gay man. And sure enough: it's from a play by Oscar Wilde, written before his fall.

He takes quite a few liberties with the biblical text. In the New Testament story, the young and beautiful Salome is the stepdaughter of Herod and daughter of Herod's wife Herodias, and is used by the latter to get rid of John the Baptist. In his eyes the marriage is illicit and immoral, and, being John the Baptist, he says so much too forthrightly for Herodias's liking. Salome dances for Herod, reducing him, apparently, to a state of lustful helplessness such that he swears to give her anything she asks. I can't help figuring he had something more in mind, the dance being over at that point. Herodias prompts Salome to ask for the head of the Baptist, and Herod, trapped by his promise, has to give it to her. 

Not so as Wilde tells the story. In his version, it is Salome who is consumed with lust, and lust with an edge of perversion. She  first appears without the other two, demanding of the jailer that she be allowed to see the prophet, and, when the jailer reluctantly obeys her, begins to slaver over the Baptist in very lurid terms:  

I am amorous of thy body!
Thy body is white like the lilies of a field
that the mower hath never mowed.
Thy body is like the snows of Judea...
...[eight or ten more lines in this vein]...
Suffer me to touch thy body.

See what I mean? John of course rebuffs and denounces her vigorously, which only adds the spice of anger to her weird eroticism. She disparages his body and has a rhapsody over his hair. Eventually she settles, obsessively, on his mouth, determined to kiss him, and then, when he will have nothing to do with her (beyond telling her to repent), to take revenge on him .

As Wilde retells the story, Herod is Salome's tool, very deliberately led into a trap by her, and while Herodias approves of what her daughter is doing, she's really just a bystander. And in the end Salome gets her wish, after a fashion. Whatever one may think of Wilde's version, it is dramatically effective.

But this is an opera. What about the music? I'm afraid I was too busy following the libretto word for word to really get the music. The opera is in German, and the libretto in this package includes the German and a line-by-line English translation. I have just enough of a feel for German to pay attention to it, but not to understand much of it, and so was constantly switching back and forth between the two texts, trying to keep up with both. I only have a general impression of the music: vivid, discordant, colorful, wildly varied. A few passages did jump out at me: for instance, the moments when Herod has a sense of foreboding, imagining a great wind and "the beating of vast wings." I think I'll like it when I listen to it again. If "like" is the right word.


I think the recording is great, by the way. Sonically it's wonderful, and I see a lot of five-star reviews on Amazon.

Sigrid Undset: The Snake Pit

This is the second book in Sigrid Undset's tetralogy which, depending on the translation, is called either The Master of Hestviken or Olav Audunsson. The latter title is from the newer translation by Tiina Nunnally, and is in my opinion a handier title, if only because it creates a justifiable symmetry between Undset's two great works of medieval Norwegian historical fiction, and is convenient when discussing the two.

This is my second reading of the tetralogy. I began this traversal with Nunnally's first volume, Vows (The Axe in the old Chater translation). However, for reasons which I've previously discussed, I've returned to the Chater translation for the remaining three books: I find it, in a word, richer, whatever the arguments about fidelity to the original may be.

The translators also disagree about the naming of the individual books, neither's names tracking the original Norwegian edition as far as I can tell, which was published in two volumes. Nunnally's Providence strikes me as less apt than The Snake Pit. The first book tells the story of Olav Audunsson's efforts to marry Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, the woman to whom he believes himself to be betrothed (a dispute about that is at the heart of the story), in spite of major obstacles put in their way by various kin and by consequences of their own actions. In The Snake Pit they are married and able at last to return to Olav's ancestral manor, Hestviken. It is of course not going to be happily ever after, not even very often happy at all. Ingunn is sickly and not generally very capable as the mistress of a substantial estate. Olav often refers to her, tenderly and pityingly, as being almost useless, and soon ill health makes her even less capable. Both she and Olav are tormented in various ways, both practical and emotional, by the mistakes and sins of their earlier years. In the early pages of the book Olav, arriving at Hestviken, which he has not seen since he was a child, encounters a thing he had forgotten:

Olav Audunsson knew it again the moment he stepped into his own house, which he had not seen since he was a child of seven years. Never had he thought of this carving or known that he remembered it--but the moment his eye fell upon it, recognition came like a gust of wind that passes over the surface of a lake and darkens it: 'twas the doorpost of his childhood. The image of a man was carven upon it surrounded by snakes; they filled the whole surface with their windings and twistings, coiling about the man's limbs and body, while one bit him to the heart. A harp lay trampled under his feet--it was surely Gunnar Gjukesson in the snake pit.

A footnote explains:

This is Gunnar of the Volsunga Saga, the husband of Brynhild. Gunnar was thrown into the snake pit by Atle (Attila); his sister Gudrun, Sigurd's widow and Atle's wife, secretly sent him a harp, and by his playing he charmed all the snakes save one, which bit him to the heart.

That's pretty much Olav's situation. He is a solid and honorable man, and has charmed all the snakes save one, and it has bitten him almost fatally: the guilt he bears for a murder committed in the first book. . He knows that he must confess it, but if he does so he will be required to do public penance, and that will involve Ingunn and all their kin, more or less ruining his life, and Ingunn's.

Toward the end of the book Ingunn lies dying after long suffering, her always-frail body broken in some unspecified way by childbirth. (I suppose the people of the time had no way of knowing exactly what was wrong.) Olav is away from home, and when he gets the news that Ingunn is near death he is helped on his way by a young couple, Lavrans Bjorgulfsson and his wife Rangfrid. Those who have read Kristin will recognize these as Kristin's parents, still young, strong, and cheerful; it is a poignant moment.

In a profound and powerful scene, Olav's night journey through bitter cold brings him to a sort of epiphany in which he sees his situation and resolves to clear his conscience and live with whatever follows. But this resolution falters when he gets home, as he believes Ingunn to be begging him inarticulately not to expose them.

And so we are halfway through the story, and Olav has been married, then widowed, and still the serpent is biting at his heart. As I write this I'm well into the next book, and though I recall the end of the tetralogy I didn't retain many specific events from the third volume, except for one, which if my memory had not become so unreliable I would say is now permanently sealed there. More about that in a few weeks, maybe.

There are works of art that make me feel, among other emotions, a strong sense of gratitude for their existence, and toward their creators. This is one. Sigrid Undset was in her early forties when she wrote this, and already had the wisdom of a long life., no doubt born of some bitter experiences. Moreover, she was still new to the Church, but she understood the faith deeply, and the wisdom she puts into the mouths and minds of some of her characters is deep and mature. Here is Olav talking to his friend Arnvid about the murder, committed while he travelled alone with the man he would kill:

"And then it all came about as easily as if it had been laid out for me--he begged me to take him on that journey; no man was aware that we set out together. But had God or my patron or Mary Virgin directed our way to some man's house that evening and not to those deserted saeters under Luraas--you know it would have fallen out otherwise."

"I scarce think you had prayed God and the saints to watch over your journey, ere you set out?"

"I am not so sure that I did not--nay, prayed I had not truly. But all that Easter I had done nothing but pray--and I was so loath to kill him, all the time. But it was as though all things favoured me, so that I was driven to do it--and tempted to conceal it afterwards. And God, who knows all, He knew how this must turn out, better than I--why could not He have checked me nevertheless, without my prayers--?"

"So say we all, Olav, when we have accomplished our purpose and then seen that it would have been better if we had not."

Fortunate, or blessed, are those who have no similar accomplishments. Elsewhere, in a sentence which I can't locate at the moment and so will quote as best I remember, Olav recalls the wisdom of a priest:

He who follows only his own will discovers in time that he has done that which he did not will.

Among the relatively small group of people who have read both Kristin and Olav, there seems to be a preference for the former. If that's indeed the general view, I dissent. I won't necessarily say that Olav is better, but it's every bit as good. In any case I'm more certain than ever that Undset is among the truly great novelists.


This seems to be the cover of the original English translation (source: It's the cover of my copy, which somehow came to me from a parish library in Falls Church, Virginia.

The Fatal Bent

I was discussing C.S. Lewis's Perelandra the other day with someone who considers it the weakest of Lewis's science fiction trilogy, in fact pretty much forgettable. I disagree, and find it eminently memorable. And one thing I always recall vividly is the opening, in which the narrator takes a twilight walk from a railway station to Ransom's cottage three miles away. I've always thought that scene, and the narrator's steadily increasing sense of dread, one of the most effective openings of a novel I've ever read. 

Thinking of it, I picked up the book and read that opening scene again. It really is quite good, as good as I remembered. But one thing jumped out at me, not necessarily part of that incident proper but a bit of explication by the narrator as he thinks about Ransom's revelation that our world is ruled by evil angels who

...are the real explanation of that fatal bent which is the main lesson of history.

That does seem to be the general drift of history, and I'm afraid we're seeing that fatal bent in operation again. Those who've been reading this blog for a while know that I've been concerned for many years about whether the United States can survive the cold civil war that's been in progress since the '60s, if not longer. We call it "cold" in the sense that the Cold War was cold--that it did not involve physical violence. But the emotions involved are very hot and getting hotter. I hope I'm wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine our ever being truly one nation again. Each side of the culture war now believes that compromise is a lost cause, and that its survival or at least its well-being can only be achieved by the decisive defeat of the other.

Few nations can match the combination of material prosperity, personal freedom, and stable, reasonably democratic government that we have achieved. Setting aside all the valid criticisms of the thinking and practices that brought about these things, and of the injustices and other defects that were and are part of it, the achievement remains astonishing in the broad context of human history. And few serious people seriously want to give up all its benefits.

Yet here we are: rich, angry, ungrateful, stupid, ignorant, as impassioned as we are irrational, indifferent if not hostile to the foundations on which the achievement rests. The most egregious and fundamental of these is the attack on the constitution, which amounts to a rejection of the rule of law, of the whole concept of a government of laws and not of men, upon which rests the structure of representative government.

Most often the attack is implicit, but sometimes it's explicit. I'd be willing to bet that no more than one out of ten of the people currently protesting the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade understand the constitutional question, or even in general the way the whole system works, with its complex balancing of power. And, worse, I'd bet that zero out of ten care. And, to be fair, there's a similar indifference in some quarters of the right.

What went wrong? Well, I could go on at length about that, and have done. And I certainly have strong ideas about which side is more at fault. But beneath those details I see the fatal bent in action, the universal tendency which is independent of places and times. There's still room for hope that it won't accomplish the ruin toward which it tends, but that probably requires a level of awareness of what's happening that doesn't seem to be very widespread at all.