Oedipus rex

The Antiquity of the Roaring Twenties

Igor Strawinsky (left) with set designer Ewald Dülberg and conductor Otto Klemperer (right) in 1926
(Photo: Bilderdienst Scherl)

A story set in ancient Greece, composed by Igor Stravinsky in 1927 in neoclassical style – another fascinating facet of the “Roaring Twenties”.

In autumn 1925, Igor Stravinsky had come across a biography of St Francis of Assisi at a bookstall in Genoa. He began reading it that night and was surprised to discover a clarification and confirmation of a long-contemplated but vague idea: “It is common knowledge that the familiar speech of the saint was Italian, but that on solemn occasions, such as prayer, he used French (Provençal? – his mother came from Provence). I have always considered that a special language, and not that of current converse, was required for subjects touching on the sublime.” The “language problem” had by his own admission bothered the Russian emigrant since he had become “déraciné” (rootless). It inhibited and troubled him when he thought about new vocal works: “Russian, the exiled language of my heart, had become musically impracticable, and French, German, and Italian were temperamentally alien.” The not yet fully developed plan for an opera-oratorio based on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King was filled with life and inspiration when Stravinsky – as a result of his “illumination in Genoa” – found the only truly sublime language that would be appropriate for his monumental composition: Latin. “What a joy it is,” Stravinsky declared in his memoirs, “to compose music to a language of convention, almost of ritual, the very nature of which imposes a lofty dignity! One no longer feels dominated by the phrase, the literal meaning of the words. Cast in an immutable mould which adequately expresses their value, they do not require any further commentary. The text thus becomes purely phonetic material for the composer. He can dissect it at will and concentrate all his attention on its primary constituent element – that is to say, on the syllable. Was not this method of treating the text that of the old masters of austere style? This, too, has for centuries been the Church’s attitude toward music, and has prevented it from falling into sentimentalism, and consequently into individualism.”

The tragedy of Oedipus

Oedipus rex, which he began composing in January 1926, should thus not simply be an “operatic opera”, Stravinsky emphasized, since “no one ‘acts’, and the only individual who moves at all is the narrator, and he merely in order to show his detachment from the other stage figures.” As subject matter Stravinsky chose the ancient tragedy of Oedipus, the King of Thebes, who wants to escape the oracle’s terrible prophecy – that he will kill his father and marry his own mother – and for precisely that reason cannot avoid his fate. He finds what he is fleeing from, he commits the crime he wants to prevent and rushes headlong into disaster. Stravinsky chose this universal and well-known tale for one reason in particular – so that he could begin the story without further ado and, without onerous dramaturgical obligations, concentrate on the most important thing: the music. “I wished to leave the play, as play, behind,” Stravinsky acknowledged, “thinking by this to distil the dramatic essence and to free myself for a greater degree of focus on a purely musical dramatization.”

For the nevertheless essential vocal text of the male chorus and soloists he engaged the French writer Jean Cocteau, a literary and artistic multitalent whose libretto, a condensed version of Sophocles’ tragedy, was translated into Latin by the Jesuit priest and later Cardinal Jean Daniélou – with the exception of the role of the narrator, who is to inform the audience about the ritualized events on the stage in the language of the country of performance, for example, at the very beginning, with the words: “Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to hear a Latin version of King Oedipus. In order to spare you all effort of ear and memory and as the opera-oratorio preserves only a certain monumental aspect of the play, I shall recall Sophocles’ drama as we go along.”

An “opera-oratorio”

Stravinsky did not want to write a conventional opera, but a stage work nevertheless. His “opera-oratorio”, as he called it, was not staged at all to begin with but was premiered at a concert performance in Paris on 30 May 1927. Not until the following year did productions follow in the theatre, in Vienna and at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin with Otto Klemperer, who conducted Oedipus rex and also directed it, strictly as the composer intended it: “Chorus and individual performers should be nothing but ancient statues come to life. The carriers of the story and the chorus remain on the stage in the same position during the entire sequence of scenes. Only head and arms are moved,” Klemperer explained during an interview with the Berlin Schallkiste, an illustrated music magazine. “The only dramatic movement is the entrance and exit of the messenger and other figures. The internal movement shall result purely from the music.”

Wolfgang Stähr

Translation: Phyllis Anderson