Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex: The Handelian Ring

by Barry Drogin

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INTRODUCTION: What is Neoclassicism?

"Neoclassicism" is a word many use without recourse to a specific definition. It can therefore mean different things depending upon who is saying it. Since Oedipus Rex is widely considered a neoclassic work, it is appropriate to try and define just what that means.

First of all, "neoclassicism" is a label, and is used to describe music after it is written, not to aid in its conception. IS did not set out to compose a neoclassic piece, true to certain standards. IS, as he was wont to do, concocted a set of rules for himself and the result of his labors has been interpreted as "neoclassic."

One definition of neoclassicism stems from a literal translation of the word itself: "newly classical." Classical here refers to out-dated traditions, or perhaps to the pre-Romantic period (note the more specific "neoBaroque," which is a more exacting word, but does not mean the same thing). Hence, any music that is constructed according to principles that have since been abandoned, or that reminds the listener in some way of, say, eighteenth-century music, can be labeled "neoclassic." Nowadays, it has become popular to tack the prefix "neo-" to any art style that is a continuation of any previous trend or tradition, so we get such absurdities as "neo-Post-Modernist."

Some people use "neoclassicism" as a derogatory term, using it to curse a composer who "steals" from the past. These people believe that new music should be totally new and different to be important, and that neoclassicists are belaboring a point. If they were right, concert programs would consist entirely of pieces composed that year; an impossible dream, to say the least. Such people do not appreciate the subtle changes inherent in every measure of neoclassic pieces, and the intrinsic qualities of good music that makes it good.

Neoclassicism can therefore represent a philosophy opposite to the one expressed by those who put it down. This philosophy can go beyond a desire to learn, preserve and recycle the past. Oedipus Rex bears stylistic similarities to more than just eighteenth-century music. There are Verdi, Chopin and Wagner parallels, as well as passages that embarrass us because they sound derived from popular idioms of the time.

"Borrowing" new musical devices from sources that existed beyond the European classical music world had been going on for some time: Dvorak’s "New World" Symphony, Debussy’s use of pentatonic scales, Milhaud’s "Le Creation du Monde" and "Le Boeuf sur le Toit." These are never considered "neoclassic." IS’s motives also seem to push him away from the label. He wanted to believe that music had no extra-musical connotations --- that we impose images and emotions onto music. One way to prove this is to use music supposedly expressive of one emotion and place it in a context wherein it is expressing another. This is done frequently in Oedipus.

It is a moot point, for music is perceived, and our perception is subjective. There isn’t a critic around, including myself, who doesn’t enjoy reveling in his interpretations and reactions. It is very difficult to try and analyze Oedipus from an entirely objective point of view --- the music too often betrays itself. No matter how hard he tries, Honegger can not convince us that Pacific 231 does not sound like a train, and IS can not revoke his forest analogy for the opening of Le Sacre. Occasionally, however, we should listen to a passage and divert our attention away from the popular interpretation. In Oedipus, the "mortuary tarantella" must be approached from this angle. It is not joyous, it is not joyous...

Also, we can note that the Beethoven fate rhythm, used in Jocasta’s aria, expresses Jocasta’a belief that oracles are liars and not to be trusted; I don’t believe in fate, she is saying.

Is Oedipus Rex, then, a neoclassic piece? It is best to answer that question with this entry, dated Nov. 7, 1956, from Robert Craft’s personal diary:

Oedipus Rex and the Psalms will he released from French quarantine only when some extremely daring antiquarian of the Seventies discovers that whether or not these masterpieces are neo-classic is beside the point.

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