The familiar scholarly view of Richard Strauss's modernist opera Salome is that it overturns the original aesthetics of its libretto source, Oscar Wilde's 1891 symbolist-decadent drama. A close reconsideration of the presumed opposition between the two works, however, shows that despite seemingly divergent styles, they share major formal and thematic characteristics. Responding in tandem to the metaphysical crisis of modernity, both aim systematically to replace metaphysical purpose and sublime religious experience with physical sensation and secular ecstasy, to corporealize affect, and to glorify amoral modern individualism as embodied by the perverse Salome. Some important yet little-analyzed contemporary reviews of the play and the opera in Germany and Austria from 1905 to 1907 already noted such correspondences. They interpreted Strauss's choices as direct aesthetic corollaries to Wilde's, illustrating that contemporary audiences understood Wilde's and Strauss's projects as compatible and complementary rather than divergent, as later scholars have argued. At a time when the relationship between the symbolist-decadent and modernist aesthetics was very much in flux, Wilde's and Strauss's goal in Salome turned out to be the same: to manufacture secular sublimity by modern aesthetic means.
“The Brutal Music and the Delicate Text”? The Aesthetic Relationship between Wilde's and Strauss's Salome Reconsidered
Petra Dierkes-Thrun; “The Brutal Music and the Delicate Text”? The Aesthetic Relationship between Wilde's and Strauss's Salome Reconsidered. Modern Language Quarterly 1 September 2008; 69 (3): 367–389. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-2008-003
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