Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex: The Handelian Ring

by Barry Drogin

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"I want to write music as curly as Jupiterís beard."

- IS, speaking to Cocteau

I first heard Oedipus Rex a few years ago, and made the mistake of following along in the translation, which was both distracting and confusing. As a theatre directing major, I was fascinated by the staging, which the program notes did not describe very well. Around the same time, or possibly earlier, I ran across Bernsteinís mention of Oedipus in his Norton lectures. Lenny found the score very amusing, and this stuck in my mind.

Upon my reacquaintance with the music for the purposes of this paper, I was immediately taken by what I considered the humor of the score, Oedipusís high tenor voice striking me as particularly funny in contrast with the serious Male Chorus. Tiresiasís aria sounded sincere, as did Oedipusís final moments, but I was given the impression that IS was mocking the soloists in the beginning, and mocking the chorus at the end, as if there were some sort of conflict between the voices of the regency, which eventually grew tragic and sympathetic, and the voices of the people, which progressively grew ridiculous. This interpretation was probably largely due to my love of the opening choral writing (over the 6/8 Bass figure).

"Whatís going on here, some kind of joke? Exactly, some kind of joke....There are all kinds of jokes: the humor continuum ranges all the way from slapstick burlesque through sardonic wit, through elegant satire, to black comedy and chilling dramatic irony. And itís all to be found in Stravinsky. In the most serious sense, humor, in one form or another, is the lifeblood of his neoclassicism."

- Bernstein, the Norton Lectures

"Much of the music is a Merzbild, put together from whatever came to hand. I mean, for example, such little games as the offbeats at No. 50 and the Alberti-bass horn solo accompanying the Messenger. I also mean the fusion of such widely divergent types of music as the Folies Bergeres tune at No. 40 ('The girls enter, kicking') and the Wagnerian 7th-chords at Nos. 58 and 74. I have made these bits and snatches my own, I think, and of them a unity. 'Soule is form,' Spenser says, 'and doth the bodie make.'"

- IS, Dialogues

"Oedipus Rex, from a musical point of view, is an important landmark in the evolution of Stravinsky. It is the first important composition in which he deliberately borrows from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the matter of both form and idiom. The music is square-cut and seems to move in blocks; and the rhythms are for the most part straight-forward and regular, the accents failing in accordance with the bar-lines, and not, as is usual with Stravinsky, in defiance of them. There are, for example, no rhythmic complexities such as are to be found in Les Noces or líHistoire du Soldat. Oedipus Rex is carved in the block, and moves to its appointed end with relentless regularity. The vocal line is sometimes in the manner of Bach, sometimes in the manner of Handel; compare, for instance, the florid arias in which Oedipus indulges, with their Handelian 'runs' and 'portamento' effects, and the long monodies sung by Creon and Tiresias which have something of the massive dignity of Bach. There are even reminiscences of Italian opera."

- Rollo Myers, Introduction to the Music of Stravinsky

It was obvious to me from the start that IS was indulging in musical games, and I set out to collect the confirmation of critics. They agreed, but many stood fast to poetic descriptions of the musicís monumental and statuesque qualities, taking metaphor to its extremes. I started to sense a serious side behind the music, and began to wonder why IS was using these tricks --- what was the desired dramatic effect? When I returned to the Bernstein, I focused in on the phrase "chilling dramatic irony." I had seen the BAM production of "Johnny On A Spot," where satirical humor is used to express the horror of political practice. Was IS treading the fine line between tragedy and comedy?

"I attempted to build a new music on eighteenth-century classicism."

- IS, Conversations with IS

"Stravinsky does not hesitate to weave [Creonís aria] round the simplest and most commonplace of chords, the tonal entity par excellence ---- the perfect triad of C major which is played on the trumpet arpeggiando as an accompaniment to Creon. Stravinsky uses the dominant on which the previous chorus ends to pave the way for it, without distorting it in the slightest or incorporating it in any polyharmonic complex, and manages in an almost magical way to give this most prosaic and hackneyed of all chords a dignity and a satisfying quality of which no one would have believed it capable any longer. I am not suggesting that this and other similar chords regain their pristine vitality; on the contrary --- in order to rescue these worn-out harmonic devices from utter banality, Stravinsky is forced to deprive them of their organic tonal function and to sever them from their organic relationships in the musical context. The characteristic chords of the classical tonal system are not so much used in a new sense as 'fossilized,' which gives them a dignity similar to that we seem to feel in the words of the dead language into which Cocteau and Stravinsky had their text translated."

- Roman Vlad, Stravinsky

As I delved into ISís personal life, as I listened to the music more and more, my perception changed. I remembered the first chord of the Symphony of Psalms and realized that Oedipus had similar intentions, and was its predecessor. I fell in love with the music, humming snatches from day to day, even catching a few notes trying to sneak their way into a piece I was composing at the time. What struck me most often was that each time I listened to the piece I noticed different things, and at times had different reactions to the same passage. I became more aware of repeating motifs and form.

Most importantly, I became aware of some of the philosophical intentions behind the piece and its staging. The games: IS was saying, Why canít I use old devices? Why not?

"A change in direction does not mean that the out-of-influence is worthless, however. In science, where each new scientific truth corrects some prior truth, it does sometimes mean that. But in music advance is only in the sense of developing the instrument of the language --- we are able to do new things in rhythm, in sound, in structure. We claim greater concentration in certain ways and therefore contend that we have evolved, in that one sense, progressively. But a step in this evolution does not cancel the one before. Mondrianís series of trees can be seen as a study of progress from the more 'resemblant' to the more abstract; but no one would be so silly as to call any of the trees more or less beautiful than any other for the reason that it is more or less abstract. If my music from Apollo and Oedipus to The Rakeís Progress did not continue to explore in the direction that interests the younger generation today, these pieces will nonetheless continue to exist."

- IS, Conversations with IS

"A real heroic opera --- and this applies too to Handelís oratorios, which are heroic operas on biblical subjects --- was simultaneously a ritual of humanism (a masque or State ceremonial) and a drama dealing with the perversity of menĎs passions, which makes paradise-on-earth a difficult ideal. Stravinsky preserves the Ďheroicí closed aria form and also the atmosphere of ritual ceremony."

- Wilfred Mellers, Stravinskyís Oedipus As 20th-Century Hero

"The first of the two Aria movements [of the Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra] that follow is unmistakably the orchestral counterpart of the arias of Oedipus Rex, composed four years earlier, with their strange combination of hinted parody, irrelevant tunefulness and, at the same time, genuine dramatic emotion."

- Neil Tierney, The Unknown Country: A life of Igor Stravinsky

Listening to Oedipus today, I am again struck by new insights. IS does not give the voices much room to breathe: the melodies are very long and flowing continuously. Nothing is amusing! My mind drifts a little, of course, but the Epilogue is still very stirring, especially the sixteenth-note runs. The mortuary tarantella --- is Lenny taking it too fast? I am sick of hearing the same recording, and dying to see Oedipus and experience it live. Also, ideas crop up: if it was ever filmed, perhaps Fellini would be appropriate. But would he be able to cope with the 50 minutes of staticity? I am more tolerant of the narration, because it does help in the pacing, but how could it be replaced? I manage to notice little orchestral details I have picked up lately, like an accompaniment for four solo 'cellos, and the addition of the brass on the fourth chord of the Beethoven rhythm. Oedipus Rex is still withstanding the test of time; it is a masterpiece.

"The music? I love it, all of it, even the Messengerís fanfares, which remind me of the now badly tarnished trumpets of early 20th-Century Fox. Neoclassicism? A husk of style? Cultured pearls? Well, which of us today is not a highly conditioned oyster? I know that the Oedipus music is valued at about zero by present progressive-evolutionary standards, but I think it may last awhile in spite of that. I know, too, that I relate only from an angle to the German stem (Bach-Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven-Schubert-Brahms-Wagner-Mahler-Schoenberg), which evaluates largely in terms of where a thing comes from and where it is going. But an angle may be an advantage."

- IS, Dialogues

FOOTNOTE: "Gloria"

In the previous chapter, some questions were raised about the "Gloria" chorus and its division of the opera into two parts. It seems more appropriate to discuss this here. The following is also from Dialogues:

"I repeat the 'Gloria' Chorus after the narratorís speech both because I like the chorus and because I prefer to go directly, without narration, from tutti G major to solo flute and harp G minor. And in stage performances I like to acknowledge the audienceís realization that the Queen Mother must have a lot to say by giving them a pause before she says it."

I donít perceive Oedipus as a murder mystery where an important character enters just before the curtain to heighten the suspense. Jocasta is not an off-stage presence whose entrance is dramatic. And why is the chorus so enthusiastic, and her reply so soothing and seductive? Has she been sleeping around?

The narration gets in the way, as is illustrated by this example. IS could have gone straight through if it wasn't for the interruption which, to be consistent, must be made. A similar annoyance is the disjunction of the relationship between the hailing of Creon and his aria by the pause for narration. The narration must go --- but what will replace it? Must it be replaced? Did Alexander Pope include footnotes in his poetry to explain a Greek reference? Must IS clutter his work with this annoying bow to the populace? Perhaps a modern production of Oedipus can provide an answer.

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