Magazine article Gramophone

Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex

Magazine article Gramophone

Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex

Article excerpt

This paradoxical 'opera-oratorio' imbues the Oedipus myth with religious overtones. In his survey of the available recordings, Tim Ashley finds that new recordings can't compete with those from 40-plus years ago

Leonard Bernstein famously called Oedipus rex the 'most awesome' work of Stravinsky's neo-classical period. First performed at the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris on May 30, 1927, it is to some extent a thing of paradoxes that links extremes of stylisation and emotion. Stravinsky and his librettist Jean Cocteau called it 'an opera-oratorio', a term that brings ideas of the dramatic and the religious into close proximity. The dramaturgy, with its static, ritual presentation of a familiar narrative, is rooted in classical theatre. Sacred music and religious allusion inform both structure and text.


Its genesis was coloured by Stravinsky's experience of exile from Russia and his return to the Orthodox Church after a period of absence, and by Cocteau's gravitation towards Roman Catholicism following the sudden death, in 1923, of his lover, the writer Raymond Radiguet. By the mid-192 Os, Stravinsky was aware that a return to Stalin's Soviet Union would be impossible. 'The loss of Russia and its language, verbal and musical, affected every facet of my life,' he later claimed, 'which made it hard to return to a normal state. Only after 10 years of searching ... did I find my way to Oedipus rex and the Symphony of Psalms'

In a letter to Cocteau in October 1925, Stravinsky discussed the idea of 'an opera in Latin on the subject of a tragedy of the ancient world, with which everyone would be familiar'. Sophocles's Oedipus the King, the work's source, was--and still is--the best known of Greek tragedies, widely regarded, thanks to Aristotle's Poetics, as a model of formal dramatic perfection. Although Oedipus rex is essentially anti-Freudian, the psychoanalytic adoption of the myth as a paradigm for the human psyche was becoming unavoidably familiar in modernist circles at the time. There were other resonances, too. Oedipus is exiled at the work's close--but in a notable departure from Sophocles, whose protagonist demands permission to leave voluntarily, Stravinsky's hero is forcibly driven from a country where his voice is, quite literally, no longer heard.

The narration in the audience's own language, prefacing each scene with a summary of its contents, was Cocteau's idea, and one with which Stravinsky eventually professed himself dissatisfied. Some have found the spoken text oblique, though it introduces the important image of the trap prepared for Oedipus by 'those sleepless deities who are always watching us from a world beyond death'. Both the narration and the Latin text act as alienation effects--the Brechtian comparison is often drawn--that keep us at a distance as we watch the trap shut, though the music brutally exposes us to the emotions of those caught in it as it does.


Cocteau's libretto was translated into Latin by Jean Danielou, then a student at the Sorbonne, later in life a progressive Jesuit theologian and cardinal. Danielou's Latin is closer to the Vulgate Bible than the language of ancient Rome, and the religious overtones are deliberate. Oedipus's final statement, 'Lux facta est', derives from the Book of Genesis, where it describes the momentous separation of light from darkness ('And there was light') at the moment of Creation: we are tacitly reminded that, whereas Freud envisioned the act of self-blinding as emblematic of repression, classical writers, Sophocles included, perceived it as marking the start of a progress towards spiritual illumination.

In form, Oedipus rex is modelled on Handelian oratorio and Bach's Passions, highlighting both individual tragedy and mass response in a succession of arias and male-voice choruses. Stravinsky also cited Verdi as an influence: there are echoes of the Requiem in the choral writing and in Oedipus's 'Invidia fortunam odit', while Jocasta's aria can be analysed in terms of recitative, cavatina and cabaletta, the last eventually forming her duet with Oedipus, Mussorgsky, meanwhile, lurks behind the central 'Gloria' chorus, which also has oblique religious connotations, its threefold repetitions carrying Trinitarian overtones from the corresponding prayer in the Orthodox liturgy. …

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