Hyperion Records

Oedipus Rex
composer
1927; revised in 1948
author of text
author of text

Recordings
'Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex & Apollon musagète' (LSO0751)
Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex & Apollon musagète
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Details
Act 1 No 1: Spectateurs, vous allez entendre … (Le Speaker/Chœur/Oedipe)
Act 1 No 2: Voici Créon, beau-frère d'Oedipe … (Le Speaker/Créon/Oedipe/Chœur)
Act 1 No 3: Oedipe interroge la fontaine de vérité … (Le Speaker/Chœur/Tirésias/Oedipe)
Act 2 No 1: Gloria, gloria, gloria! (Chœur/Le Speaker/Jocaste/Oedipe)
Act 2 No 2: Le témoin du meurtre sort de l'ombre … (Le Speaker/Chœur/Le Messager/Le Berger/Oedipe)
Act 2 No 3: Et maintenant, vous allez entendre … (Le Speaker/Le Messager/Chœur)

Oedipus Rex
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The idea for ‘an opera in Latin on the subject of a tragedy of the ancient world, with which everyone would be familiar’, was essentially Stravinsky’s own, as is proved by a letter to Jean Cocteau of October 1925, setting out the terms of their collaboration. Hitherto all his sung theatre works except Pulcinella—where the Italian text was part of the received material—had been in Russian, which may seem natural enough until we remember that Stravinsky always knew perfectly well that the audience for these works would be French. The Latin text was apparently a distancing device, perhaps also with a sacred dimension, as with the Latin of the Mass, or the Old Slavonic of the Russian Orthodox liturgy in which Stravinsky had been brought up.

The eventual form of Oedipus Rex suggests Baroque oratorio as a model, with its alternation of recitative, aria and chorus. But his whole attitude to the classical material has to be understood in the light of his own recent music. Since Mavra (1922), he had composed only instrumental music, entirely for piano or wind. Nearly every work was accompanied by some kind of manifesto (not always penned by Stravinsky but reflecting his ideas), urging the virtues of form as an expressive category, denouncing such conventional Romantic concepts as interpretation and a phrased espressivo. On the contrary, cold, rational forms were seen as a virtue of classical thought. Oedipus Rex, with its statue-like, masked dramatis personae and two-dimensional setting, was simply this kind of neoclassicism put on to the stage. Only, Stravinsky’s musical models are much more varied than before: shades of Verdi (in the opening chorus), Bellini (in Jocasta’s aria), perhaps Berlioz (in the bucolic music of the Shepherd and the Messenger), and even Puccini’s Turandot (in the final scene). Stravinsky himself called the work a ‘Merzbild’—the Dada term for a picture made out of junk—and was defensive about some of its stylistic excesses.

The music is linked by a Speaker, who pretends to explain the plot in the language of the audience, though in fact Cocteau’s text obscures nearly as much as it clarifies. Stravinsky came to loathe these speeches for their obscurity and implied snobbishness, but they are a crucial aspect of the work’s dramatic effect. Some additional explanation may be helpful.

The Oracle warned King Laius of Thebes that he would be killed by his own son; so, when a son was born, Laius and his wife, Jocasta, exposed him on a mountainside, piercing his feet with leather thongs. There he was found and brought up by a shepherd of the Corinthian King Polybus. Polybus, being childless, adopted the boy and named him; later, Oedipus was taunted about his parentage, and, when he consulted the Oracle, was told that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid these crimes, and naturally taking them to refer to Polybus and his wife, he left Corinth for Thebes, and on the way killed an old man he met at a crossroads, not recognising him as King Laius. At Thebes he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, who was laying waste the city, winning thereby the throne and the hand of the now-widowed Queen Jocasta. It is crucial that, even when he begins to suspect that he is the murderer of King Laius and thus the cause of the plague in Thebes, Oedipus still does not realise he is Laius’ son. He simply believes his crime to be usurping the marital bed of a man he has killed. Finally, the listener needs to know that when, after the scene with Jocasta, ‘the witness to the murder emerges from the shadow’, this is not the Messenger but the Shepherd, who had been the one member of Laius’ retinue to escape. On returning to Thebes and finding Oedipus installed as King, he had requested transfer to remote pastures, but has now returned at Oedipus’ summons for the inquest into Laius’ death.

Oedipus Rex was first performed at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris in May 1927 as part of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes season, but as a concert performance. Stravinsky himself conducted. The first staging was in Vienna on 23 February 1928, followed two nights later by the famous Kroll Opera production in Berlin, conducted by Klemperer.

from notes by Stephen Walsh © 2013

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