In the Gospel according to Mark 6, 21-29, the death of John the Baptist is told: Herod Antipas was married to Herodia, who was first married to Herod Antipas’ half-brother Herod II (in the gospel named Philippus), with whom she had a daughter Salome (unnamed in the gospel, but known from Flavius Josephus). For reasons unknown to us, she divorced from Herod II and married Herod Antipas. This action was according to the gospel condemned by John the Baptist and so he rose the anger of Herodias. On her demand John is taken prison by Herod, but he does not dare to behead him, as he fears the holiness of John the Baptist and the wrath of God. But then there is an opportunity for Herodias at the party of her husbands’ birthday:
21 Et cum dies opportunus accidisset, Herodes natalis sui coenam fecit principibus, et tribunis, et primis Galilææ: 22 cumque introisset filia ipsius Herodiadis, et saltasset, et placuisset Herodi, simulque recumbentibus, rex ait puellæ: Pete a me quod vis, et dabo tibi: 23 et iuravit illi: Quia quidquid petieris dabo tibi, licet dimidium regni mei. 24 Quæ cum exisset, dixit matri suæ: Quid petam? At illa dixit: Caput Ioannis Baptistæ. 25 Cumque introisset statim cum festinatione ad regem, petivit dicens: Volo ut protinus des mihi in disco caput Ioannis Baptistæ. 26 Et contristatus est rex: propter iusiurandum, et propter simul discumbentes, noluit eam contristare: 27 sed misso speculatore paecepit afferri caput eius in disco. Et decollavit eum in carcere, 28 et attulit caput eius in disco: et dedit illud puellæ, et puella dedit matri suæ. 29 Quo audito, discipuli eius venerunt, et tulerunt corpus eius: et posuerunt illud in monumento.
(When translating the Greek passage into Latin, Hieronymus (Jerome) must certainly have been strengthened in his misogynistic feelings…)
coena = cena: meal, dinner
salto: to jump, dance
recumbentibus: remember that people did not sit at a table when dining, but were lying down (recumbo)
quia: this word has no corresponding word in the Greek original. May be to be taken as `for this reason (that you have danced)’ or just redundant.
licet dimidium: even the half
festatio –onis (f): haste
protinus: right away
discus: saucer, plate
contristo: to afflict, make sad (The Greek text uses two different words for contristatus and contristare.)
misso speculatore praecepit afferri: having send for a servant, he ordered to be brought
decollo: to behead
discipuli eius: the disciples of John the Baptist
For this action Salome received the eternal scorn of the Church fathers, who saw in her and her mother the embodiment of female wickedness. But is it deserved? No, it is not: the whole story is made up from several Old Testament and Oriental motives.
Such a story is too good not to be treated by artists: painters, writers and composers alike have used this theme in their art. The most well-known is the opera Salome (1905) by Richard Strauss, based on a play in a single act by Oscar Wilde. Wilde follows the narrative, but he adds two extra elements: Salome had her own reason for too for demanding the head of John the Baptists as he had rejected her love. In the final scene Salome kisses the head of John the Baptist – in the opera a scene of almost 15 minutes – and finally Herod, disgusted by her behaviour, orders her to be killed…
Music critics, as for instance Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Edwin Elgar, immediately recognized the genius of this opera, but it also caused a scandal: the sensual music of the Dance of the Seven Veils and the long aria at the end during which the soprano has to sing to the head of John the Baptist, was too much for parts of the public and some opera house directors and at various occasions the production was forbidden. Even the first soprano asked to perform this role refused to do the dancing part: `Ich bin eine anständige Frau (I am a decent woman)’, she declared and a stand in dancer had to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils. Nevertheless the opera became an instant success and has remained so up till this day.
The role of Salome is one of the most demanding soprano roles, not only for its musical demands but also for its physical demands in the Dance of the Seven Veils. Some stage directors have drawn the logical conclusion that at the end of this dance Salome must be naked, which I think Strauss must have had in mind too. Fortunately there are sopranos who have been willing to do that, amongst them American sopranos Catharine Malfitano and Maria Ewing, both having the voice, the dancing capabilities and the physical appearance to do that without making this dance an ridiculous striptease act.
Catharine Malfitano dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils in the 1990 Berlin production under Sinopoli:
Maria Ewing in the Final scene part 1: