Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex: The Handelian Ring

by Barry Drogin

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All quotes in this chapter, unless otherwise noted, are from Stravinsky: An Autobiography, by Igor Stravinsky, written in 1956.

"I have had to survive two crises as a composer, though as I continued to move from work to work I was not aware of either of them as such, or, indeed, of any momentous change. The first --- the loss of Russia and its language of words as well as music --- affected every circumstance of my personal no less than my artistic life, which made recovery more difficult. Only after a decade of samplings, experiments, amalgamations did I find, the path to Oedipus Rex and the Symphony of Psalms."

- IS, Themes and Episodes

It is quite easy to see the composition of Oedipus as a pivotal accomplishment for Stravinsky, occurring at a crucial point of his life. Hansen, though he gives more attention to the Symphony of Psalms as one of the worldís masterpieces, places Oedipus as the first work in ISís "Period 3." The quote above implies that Oedipus was ISís first sign of "recovery" from his loss of Russia; i.e., that it marked his ability to emotionally accept the fact that France, not Russia, would thereafter be his "motherland." Chapter II will follow ISís life from the end of WWI through the composition of the Symphony of Psalms.

WWI, occurring simultaneously with the Russian Revolution, brought a great change to ISís life. Before its outbreak, Stravinsky had just finished Le Sacre, which promised to bring him fame and fortune. But the war instead made him flee to Switzerland for safety, his artistic presence overshadowed by news events and stifled by othersí nationalistic feelings, and Diaghilevís budget down to pigeon feed. The overthrow of the Tzar also brought the total disappearance of all the manuscripts IS had left in Russia. "My profound emotion in reading the news of war, which roused patriotic feelings and a sense of sadness at being so distant from my country, found some alleviation in the delight with which I steeped myself in Russian folk poems."

When the war ended, IS left Switzerland and made the painful decision to settle in France. He continued to be preoccupied with Russia, though; the divertissement, Les Noces (1923), came directly from the folk poems, and the opera, Mavra (1922), was a tribute to the great Russian poet Pushkin, and based on one of his stories. Mavra was premiered in 1922 along with the 1916 Renard suite, a ballet also taken from the folk poems, that had remained unperformed until then. Both were trounced upon by the critics, who expected another Le Sacre.

Les Noces, the last major work before Oedipus, is largely known for its Oriental sound and strange orchestration for singers and percussion ensemble. Theatrically, Les Noces was intended to be similar to LíHistoire díun Soldat in that the musicians, in evening dress, were to be visible next to the costumed singers and dancers, but Diaghilev disobeyed ISís wishes, constructed a grand feast for the eyes, and the critics loved it. It is significant that Les Noces is the last piece IS composed that dealt directly with Russian culture, and that he considered its ritualistic character more important than its Russian character. Also, IS "syllabifyed" the text, as explained later, a rather alienated way to treat language.

By this time, after numerous stops in Brittany (NW France), IS had settled in Biarritz (SW France).

Four smaller pieces bridge the gap between Les Noces and Oedipus Rex. Octour pour Instruments a Vent (Octet for woodwinds) can be considered as another step in ISís fascination with the special woodwind sound, first used in Symphonies a la Memoire de Debussy.* The Concerto followed, for piano, winds again, and double basses and timbals. The Concerto marks the start of ISís piano soloist career, and it should be noted here that much of ISís time before Oedipus was spent conducting and traveling, not composing. His next two works, the Sonate pour piano and SŤrenade en LA pour Piano, are obviously works of an even smaller scale than the two previously mentioned.

*Hansen says, ďThe Octet was one of the first neoclassic compositions by Stravinsky.Ē

The Sonate is not strictly a sonata, but in his autobiography IS relates that he developed a "strong desire" to reexamine the sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and primarily Beethoven. This revelation is significant for two reasons. First, it pinpoints ISís first "desire" to come to a fuller appreciation of "the classical masters." Secondly, the passage also contains one of the few indictments of modern Russia in the book. IS relates how Beethovenís works and life story had been forced upon him in his youth and that this had alienated. him from Beethovenís music, and how at this later date he came to a fuller appreciation of Beethovenís music contrary to the "intellectual and sentimental attitude" expressed by "thinkers, moralists and even sociologists who have suddenly become musicographers." To this extent he quotes "one of the most famous of the musical critics in the USSR" and then tears him apart: "I should like to know in what this mentality differs from the platitudes and commonplace utterances of the publicity-mongers of liberalism in all the bourgeois democracies long before the social revolution in Russia." This indictment of his mother countryís culture and politics, no matter how justified, is extremely emotional.

With this "rediscovery" of eighteenth century music, ISís music changes. He comes to a different view of orchestration, condemns "the orchestral opulence of today," and proclaims, "We have had enough of...these thick sonorities." Later he "pleads guilty" to misusing the strings in the past, but we can see in ISís statement a reaction against Le Sacre, indicating a desire to go beyond it. "All these ideas were germinating in me while I was composing my sonate," says IS.

After the Sonate is finished, IS and his family move to Nice, at the SE corner of France and only a few miles from Italy, because "Atlantic gales got on my nerves." There he composes the Serenade. "The four movements constituting the piece are united under the title Serenade, an imitation of the Nachmusik of the eighteenth century, which was usually commissioned by patron princes for various festive occasions, and included, as did the suites, an indeterminate number of pieces." In his autobiography, IS goes on to paint a picture of his four movements as "solemn entry," "ceremonial homage paid by the artist to the guests," "dance music" and "an ornate signature with numerous carefully inscribed flourishes." It certainly appears that ISís reexamination of the classical masters has turned to obsession!

It is with this renewed enthusiasm, this return of his sense of humor, that IS decides to undertake "something big." This is Oedipus Rex. Here one must relate the famous story of ISís St. Francis discovery. After deciding to start work on "an opera or an oratorio on some universally familiar subject," IS had to leave for Venice to fulfill yet another concert obligation:

I took advantage of this opportunity to make a little tour of Italy before returning to Nice. My last stopping-place was Genoa, and there I happened to find in a booksellerís a volume by Joergensen on St. Francis of Assisi of which I had already heard. In reading it I was struck by a passage which confirmed one of my most deep-rooted convictions. It is common knowledge that the familiar speech of the saint was Provencal, but that on solemn occasions, such as prayer, he used French. I have always considered that a special language, and not that of current converse, was required for subjects touching on the sublime. That is why I was trying to discover what language would be most appropriate for my projected work, and why I finally selected Latin. The choice had the great advantage of giving me a medium not dead, but turned to stone and so monumentalized as to have become immune from all risk of vulgarization.

This story is significant from different points of view and for different reasons.

Superficially, one may ask why IS chose to tell a story (Oedipus) in a language no one spoke. Such a question, though, has no meaning, since IS did not wish to "tell" a story: he assumed that the audience already knew the myth and only later agreed to Cocteauís suggestion to include narration (a decision he regretted later in life).

Musically, IS wanted to write a music of syllables, not words, as he had done with Les Noces, and he was sufficiently unfamiliar and familiar with Latin to be able to mercilessly tear apart the words and yet know what was being said at the same time. IS used this technique because "the text thus becomes purely phonetic material for the composer...Was not this method of treating the text that of the old masters of austere style? This, too, has for centuries been the churchís attitude towards music." (IS first set French in 1933 in his Persephone. He again "syllabifyed the music," but this time the critics reacted negatively to the strange inflections this method produces. It should be noted that no Latin or Russian critics heard Oedipus or Les Noces (Russia stayed particularly ignorant of her sonís development)).

Spiritually, the quote indicates a particular concern for the sublime and for prayer, which will be seen as significant when we consider the pieces that IS wrote after Oedipus.

In terms of our discussion thus far, we see in the quote an identification on Stravinskyís part with St. Francis and a chance for IS to resolve his language problem and in doing so thus recover from his emotional break with Russia. ISís native tongue was Russian, and his previous works were deeply Russian, as has been shown. But IS was, in thought and deed, breaking away from Russia and began unconsciously seeking a new culture and a new language. What some declare to be ISís "Greek Period," of which Oedipus is the first piece, is ISís assimilation of a new culture. IS obviously found the St. Francis story to be an affirmation of his desire to use a "special language" for Oedipus, and in our discussion we are assuming the double negative to be true: he had (unconsciously) found a good reason not to use Russian. Personally, I would tend to think that the St. Francis discovery was not the origin of ISís desire but a clarification of the idea that already existed in ISís head.

It is ironical that Provencal, St. Francisí native tongue, is the language of Provence, which includes Nice, where IS had moved to and composed Oedipus. Also, St. Francisí "special language" was French, the language IS had been speaking since he left Russia.

This interpretation of the St. Francis story is a theory, but one that is implied by many critics. I have tried to show that ISís own words tend to support the theory (the reader may wish to go back to the quote that opens this chapter).

A brief history of the composition and first performance of Oedipus Rex will follow in the next chapter. Let us conclude here by considering a few of the compositions that followed Oedipus.

A series of major compositions were written between Oedipusís completion in 1922 and the Symphony of Psalms in 1930. Apollo Musagetes (1928) was a ballet composed entirely for strings, quite diatonic, and intended for the "classical school of dancing." A young George Balanchine choreographed this so-called "white ballet" --- again, IS was drawing on a tradition that many of his time considered extinct.

Le Baiser de la Fee (1928) is based entirely on melodies of Tchaikovsky. Five years after Les Noces, IS obviously felt secure enough to show his love for Russian artistry again, but now he was dealing with a composer not known for his Russian character. IS, in fact, draws a parallel between Tchaikovsky and the Danish Hans Christian Anderson, "with whom...Tchaikovsky had so much in common." A nationalist would never dare make such a statement. ISís treatment of the melodies is even freer than his Pergolesi scoring in Pulcinella (1919), indicating a confidence and desire to write in a Tchackovskian-sty1e rather than merely re-orchestrate.

ISís Piano Concerto was so successful that he wrote another in 1929, which he ca1led Capriccio, "that name seeming to indicate best the character of the music. I had in mind the definition of a capriccio given by Praetorius, the celebrated musical authority of the eighteenth century." The music has similarities to that of Carl Maria von Weber, another composer who, like Tchaikovsky, was not getting much good publicity in the "sophisticated" circles of the time.

It is amusing that a critic picked on IS for turning Jewish when he composed the Symphony of Psalms (1950). It is a silly observation, for the three psalms IS set are not specifically Jewish in character, and the music bears no relation to Jewish culture at all. Instead, there are Gregorian-like slow chants, a terrifically-complex Bach double fugue, and various moments of beautiful four-part writing sweetened with major sevenths and ninths, among other devices. The piece successfully fulfills an attempt of neoclassic writing: to bring new life to old supposedly-clichťd material. Harmonically, the piece starts on a plain old E minor chord --- but it is orchestrated in such a way as to sound entirely new. Many of the neo-classic ideas present in the Symphony of Psalms were first developed in Oedipus, as will be described in Chapter IV. The Symphony of Psalms is also a deeply religious piece, indicative of a nature that would reappear in the Mass (1948), as well as in many chorale settings of Christian prayers (like 0edipus, in Latin), and directly related to Russian Orthodox Church style.

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First Posted: October 4, 2004/Last Updated: August 4, 2007