Thomas Beecham had intended that his first Covent Garden season should open in February 1910 with what was bound to be a sure-fire sensation, the British premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome. There was a problem, however. The Lord Chamberlain's office, responsible for stage censorship in Britain since 1737, refused to grant it a performing license. Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, on which Strauss's libretto was based, had been similarly banned twenty-eight years earlier, on the grounds that it portrayed on stage the New Testament figure of St John the Baptist, and the current Lord Chamberlain (Earl Spencer, great-grandfather of Princess Diana) was not prepared to change his mind on the matter. Beecham opened his season with Elektra instead, but continued to do battle over Salome with the Lord Chamberlain who, nine months later, at last gave in, but at a price.
The Baptist was to be allowed back into the opera, though he was to be called, not Jokanaan or John, but ‘a Prophet’, while in the final scene the executioner was to hand Salome a blood-stained sword, rather than the saint’s head on a silver charger. Salome’s hymn to the head was to be bowdlerised and all Biblical allusions in the text eliminated. The action was to be moved from Judea to Greece and the Five Jews were to become Five Learned Men. For the sake of getting Salome produced in London at last, Strauss accepted the changes.
The opera was licensed on 1 December, one week before the opening. Tickets for its opening night sold out within eighty-five minutes of the box-office opening, and before long touts were offering seats at more than double their face value. During the final dress rehearsal Salome, the lissom Finnish soprano Aïno Ackté, found that the ‘blood’ dripping from the sword was staining her fingers and, using ‘some very drastic words in French’, wiped it off on the cloak of the nearest supernumerary. It was not a problem she had encountered in Germany, where she had held the charger bearing the head.
Beecham stopped the rehearsal and in the hope of finding a solution ordered one of his staff to make an urgent telephone call to the Lord Chamberlain's office. After a long wait the shirt-sleeved stage manager rushed to the front of the stage and knelt before Beecham, who was waiting in the orchestra pit. ‘We can use a tray instead of a sword’, he shouted, ‘so long as there is no head on it.’ The news was greeted with cheers. Comedy had finally turned into farce.
Beecham was tireless. The dress rehearsal took place in the afternoon. In the morning he had taken a three-hour rehearsal for his first concert for the Philharmonic Society, which he conducted that same evening at Queen’s Hall. The concert came at an awkward moment, but he had postponed it once already, and for the sake of future relations with the society he could hardly delay it again. It was not the only concert he conducted during the final week of Salome rehearsals.
Three nights earlier he had conducted a programme of Wagner excerpts with his orchestra at the Opera House; and on the evening before that had given a concert of eighteenth-century operatic music at the Aeolian Hall in Bond Street, at which Maggie Teyte sang arias by Méhul, Grétry, Paisiello, Isouard, Monsigny and Dalayrac. Teyte claimed to friends that she had an affair with Beecham, but, if true, it seems it was a brief one.
Not surprisingly, given the enormous amount of pre-publicity it had received, the first night of Salome on 8 December was a succès fou, though several reviewers found the opera less musically satisfying than Elektra (Ernest Newman took the opposite view.) The Lord Chamberlain’s office came in for a good deal of criticism. ‘Truly the ways of the Censorship are past finding out’, wrote the Times critic, who wondered how anybody in the audience could possibly have been expected to miss ‘the very striking coincidences’ between the fate of the Prophet and that of John the Baptist. ‘Of what avail was it’, asked the Sunday Times, ‘that Salome had to say “Ich will dir folgen” [“I want to follow you”] instead of “Ich will deinen Mund küssen” [“I want to kiss your mouth”], when she expressed by every fibre of her being the very abandon of amorous desire?’
In the heat of the performance some of the textual alterations were forgotten by the singers, though if these were noticed by the members of the Lord Chamberlain’s staff who were present, none of them mentioned it. Either they did not speak German or they chose to adopt a diplomatic silence.
By all accounts Ackté’s performance in the title-role was remarkable. She expressed emotion ‘not only by glance and gesture, but by sensuous curve of bodily movement’, said one critic, who added that although the music was ‘rather exacting’ for her (recordings suggest that the top of her voice was not her strongest point), she sang ‘skilfully’ and with ‘rare expressiveness’. It was noted with approval that, contrary to the practice in Germany, she performed the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ herself, rather than handing over the task to a double. Less appreciated was the silver tray, which, though it lacked a head, was filled with ‘gore’. Ackté found it ‘inartistic and rather revolting’ and, after the sixth of the ten performances, asked if it could not be covered with a cloth, so that ‘people may imagine what they want’. Company manager Archibald Archdeacon passed on Ackté’s request to the Lord Chamberlain's Comptroller, who replied that ‘Lord Spencer says “yes”, the tray can be covered with a cloth, only care must be taken not to build up a great heap in it which would look suggestive.’
So great was the ridicule poured on the Lord Chamberlain’s office for its part in the Salome affair that many imagined it could not be long before it was relieved of its licensing duties, but another fifty-eight years and two world wars were to pass before stage censorship in Britain, along with the Lord Chamberlain’s role in it, was finally abolished in 1968.
This post is adapted from Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music, the acclaimed biography of Britain’s greatest conductor by John Lucas. It has been reissued in paperback to coincide with the 50th anniversary in March 2011 of Beecham’s death. ‘This is the best biography of a musician I have read for a very long time,’ said the International Record Review of the hardcover, while Classical Music claimed that this ‘thorough, exhaustive and often highly amusing biography will...re-establish Beecham as one of the foremost musical personalities of the last hundred years.’ The book is available now in paperback from all good booksellers.