Revisiting: Good Night, Salome

Yesterday, the posting “The two Salome Zwickys of Zürich”, about the musical and medical careers of Salome Zwicky. I didn’t touch on the complex resonances associated with the name Salome there — so now some onomastic (and musical) musings.

The name. From Wikipedia:

Greek: Σαλώμη, translit. Salōmē; Hebrew: שלומית‎, translit. Shlomiẗ‎ [cf. the name Shulamith], deriving from Hebrew: שָׁלוֹם‎, translit. shalom, lit. ‘peace’‎

From ‘peace’ in Hebrew to a Greek name to Salome in a variety of European languages, quite common as a female given name in a few languages (another Wikipedia article points especially to Georgia and Columbia, and also mentions France, while noting that the name is rare in the United States). Meanwhile, Greek ‘peace’ has also become a common female given name in European languages: Irene. The background, from Wikipedia:

Eirene (lit. “Peace”), more commonly known in English as Peace, was one of the Horae, the personification of peace. She was depicted in art as a beautiful young woman carrying a cornucopia, sceptre, and a torch or rhyton. She is said sometimes to be the daughter of Zeus and Themis and sister of Dike and Eunomia. Her Roman equivalent was Pax

[Digression on “Good Night, Irene”. The title of this posting exploits the parallel between the names Salome and Irene. From Wikipedia:

“Goodnight, Irene” or “Irene, Goodnight,” is a 20th-century American folk standard, written in 3/4 time, first recorded by American blues musician Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter in 1933.

The lyrics tell of the singer’s troubled past with his love, Irene, and express his sadness and frustration. Several verses refer explicitly to suicidal fantasies, most famously in the line “sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown”

The song became a mainstay of the American folk revival, especially through performances by the Weavers. Two performaces by them, one from the early 1950s, which you can watch here. And one from their reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in 1980 (essentially their last concert), which you can watch here.]

Salome as a cultural figure. In the great cultural stock of historical, literary, mythological, artistic, folkloric, and biblical figures there is a Salome, whose characterization has led the figure far from the irenic or pacific image etymologically associated with the name Salome. From Wikipedia:

(#1) “The Peacock Skirt”, illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, 1896

(#2) “Richard Strauss-Woche”: poster by Ludwig Hohlwein for a week-long festival of music by Richard Strauss, showing a woman (perhaps Salome) holding a tall staff

Salome (… c. AD 14 – between 62 and 71) was the daughter of Herod II and Herodias. According to the New Testament, the daughter of Herodias demanded and received the head of John the Baptist. According to Josephus, Salome was first married to Philip the Tetrarch of Ituraea and Trakonitis. After Philip’s death in 34 AD she married Aristobulus of Chalcis and became queen of Chalcis and Armenia Minor. Salome has become a symbol of dangerous female seductiveness.

As Salome is not named in the gospel, she is sometimes referred to as “the daughter of Herodias”, for example in the titles of paintings showing her.

… The story of her dance before Herod with the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter led medieval Christian artists to depict her as the personification of the lascivious woman, a temptress who lures men away from salvation. Christian traditions depict her as an icon of dangerous female seductiveness, notably in regard to the dance mentioned in the New Testament, which is thought to have had an erotic element to it, and in some later transformations it has further been iconized as the Dance of the Seven Veils. Other elements of Christian tradition concentrate on her lighthearted and cold foolishness that, according to the gospels, led to John the Baptist’s death. A similar motif was struck by Oscar Wilde in his Salome, in which she plays the role of femme fatale. This parallel representation of the Christian iconography, made even more memorable by Richard Strauss’ opera based on Wilde’s work, is as consistent with Josephus’ account as the traditional Christian depiction; however, according to the Romanized Jewish historian, Salome lived long enough to marry twice and raise several children. Few literary accounts elaborate the biographical data given by Josephus.

Despite Josephus’ account, she was not consistently called Salome until the nineteenth century when Gustave Flaubert (following Josephus) referred to her as “Salome” in his short story “Herodias”.

This biblical story has long been a favorite of painters. Painters who have done notable representations of Salome include Masolino da Panicale, Filippo Lippi, Benozzo Gozzoli, Leonardo da Vinci followers Andrea Solario and Bernardino Luini, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Titian, Caravaggio, Guido Reni, Fabritius, Henri Regnault, Georges Rochegrosse, Gustave Moreau, Lovis Corinth and Federico Beltran-Masses.

(The figure of Salome with the head of John the Baptist is often conflated or confused with the figure of Judith with the head of Holofernes. Beheading is indeed a trope in mythology and literature, but almost always in the context of battle, so women are rarely involved. As a result, Salome and Judith stand out together.)

As for the Strauss opera, from Wikipedia:

Salome, Op. 54, is an opera in one act by Richard Strauss [first performed in 1905] to a German libretto by the composer, based on Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of the French play Salomé by Oscar Wilde. Strauss dedicated the opera to his friend Sir Edgar Speyer.

The opera is famous (at the time of its premiere, infamous) for its “Dance of the Seven Veils”. The final scene is frequently heard as a concert-piece for dramatic sopranos.

… The combination of the Christian biblical theme, the erotic and the murderous, which so attracted Wilde to the tale, shocked opera audiences from its first appearance. Some of the original performers were very reluctant to handle the material as written and the Salome, Marie Wittich, “refused to perform the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils'”, thus creating a situation where a dancer stood in for her. This precedent has been largely followed

There is a video of the entire opera as performed at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1997, which you can watch here. (Principals: Salome – Catherine Malfitano, Jochanaan – Bryn Terfel, Herodes – Kenneth Riegel, Herodias – Anja Silja, Narraboth – Robert Gambill; orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi)

Then there’s the startling 2008 Covent Garden production, set in Germany between the two World Wars, with Nazi storm troopers, Jews in prayer shawls and kippahs, and stage business that would have been utterly unacceptable in the early 20th century.  One scene from a 2010 performance:

(#3) The executioner Naaman, Salome, and the head of John the Baptist

The image of Salome as murderous temptress no doubt has diminished the phonological and etymological attractions of the name.

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