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Elektra’and Richard Strauss

According to one authority on Strauss’s masterpiece, Hofmannsthal

drew largely from Sophocles…but deliberately chose details from the other two Greek tragedians whenever they strengthened his portrayal of the scenes or of the characterizations.1

This information is true2 but fails to mention that the librettist omitted the meaning of the play.

Hofmannsthal followed Sophocles’ story in broad outline and, knowing that to make a coherent amalgam of the different versions would be impossible, interpolated a few particulars from Aeschylus and Euripides. But what astonishes is that a writer of Hofmannsthal’s stature did not realize that the dramatic validity of any play about Elektra depends on the audience’s knowledge of the background, of Agamemnon’s sacrificial murder of his and Clytemnestra’s daughter Iphigenia. Certainly Hofmannsthal understood that “the past must always be present,” as is shown when his Elektra answers Chrysothemis’ plea to forget: “I cannot, I am no beast.” Yet crucial as is the Iphigenia episode to the Aeschylean and Sophoclean interpretations of the Agamemnon tragedy, no reference is made to her either in Hofmannsthal’s play or in the libretto adapted from it. As a result, the behavior of his Clytemnestra is without ethical basis or even legal defense. She becomes simply another psychopathic murderess, slaughtering her husband upon his return from war so that she can continue her adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, committing one sin in order to continue in another.

A still larger error on Hofmannsthal’s part is his evident assumption that Greek tragedy can be secularized. But in the theological drama of Aeschylus—in parts one and two of the trilogy, that is—to avenge, in kind, a crime against a blood relative is a religious obligation. Clytemnestra proclaims this mandate in the very act of killing Agamemnon, and her ethical position is stronger than that of her victim who, in addition, is held responsible for the loss of Greek lives in his war of conquest—this being the reason for the goddess Artemis’ demand that he sacrifice Iphigenia. Obviously Clytemnestra’s revenge is part rationalization, since she resents the concubine Cassandra and has no feelings for Elektra or Orestes. Nevertheless, when Clytemnestra confronts her husband, intending to kill him, she is no mere garden variety mariticidal spouse, but, in part, a self-proclaimed instrument of divine retribution and an ostensible link in a chain of cosmic events.

Similarly, when Clytemnestra speaks of the murder of Agamemnon in Sophocles’ Elektra, she says that “Justice slew him and not I alone.” Hence it follows that a strictly human perspective is not only incomplete but ignores the philosophical dimension, with its principles of dikê and anankê, of law and justice. These, being eternal and “universally” understood, are higher than the gods, whose ways, on the contrary, are sometimes incomprehensible to the logical and rational minds of mortals. An immutable law of this kind is set forth in Agamemnon: “One act of hubris begets another until the day of reckoning comes.”

The deities are less prominent in Sophocles’ Elektra than they are in Aeschylus, the focus of the author having shifted to character development and dramatic suspense. All the same, the gods oversee human lives, protecting and destroying them, and Elektra herself remarks that Orestes has come “with the favoring hand of Zeus.” Nor does Sophocles follow Aeschylus in his singleness of concentration on intellectual concepts, yet the essential theme of the Elektra is that the moral order—often, in Greek drama, the natural one as well—has been violently disrupted and must be restored even at the cost of further horror. Otherwise, without the justifying tenet of inexorable forces, Sophocles’ play seems excessively brutal, and may be misunderstood as a return to the “ethics” of the Homeric Age. Stripped of this theological basis, in fact, the action is reduced to senseless butchery of the kind seen on the 10 o’clock Channel 5 news.

To the objection that Hofmannsthal’s Orestes and Elektra do acknowledge these supernatural agencies—he says, “The gods will be there to help me”; she says, “We are with the gods”—it must be protested that these exclamations are purely perfunctory. This becomes apparent at the end of the opera when Chrysothemis cries, “The gods are good…. It is the infinite goodness of the gods that has brought it about.” But where did Hofmannsthal find this most inappropriate description of the treacherous, lecherous, jealous, vindictive, and selfish gang from Olympus?

Sophoclean scholars still debate whether Apollo sanctions Orestes’ act of vengeance, but it is clear that when Clytemnestra leaves her palace, frightened from a dream, she is on her way to offer prayers to the sun god; and clear that her prayers are blasphemous and offensive to him, since the plan, which can only be his, is immediately placed in motion: to announce the false news of Orestes’ death and thus gain entrance for him to accomplish the deed—which could also only be carried out under Apollo’s auspices. The impression given by the opera, however, is that human beings are acting independently of divine intervention, nor is Hofmannsthal’s Clytemnestra on her way to sacrifice to Apollo when Elektra interrupts her.

Hofmannsthal’s reasons for omitting the Chorus may simply have been to avoid this archaic feature and, at the same time, to present the story largely through Elektra’s eyes. (Servants appear briefly at the beginning and end, and in attendance on Clytemnestra, but they are merely bit players and no substitute Greek Chorus.) The libretto is virtually a monodrama, in any case, and as such offers no access to Clytemnestra’s “true” thoughts, which a Chorus would have revealed. Hofmannsthal’s Orestes, too, is a long way from the integral character of the Greek tragedy, in which he appears at the beginning, moreover, and in which the Chorus foretells that he will be the one to fulfill Destiny. The Orestes of the libretto enters only in the latter part, a reduction of the role that makes the matricide, after a twentyyear interim, seem even more coldblooded.

In the opera, the deceased Agamemnon should almost be listed among the characters, if only because his name is omnipresent in the music; the anapestic motif associated with him (A-gamæm-non) is hammered in the orchestra at the beginning, countless times throughout, and at the very end—there in the major mode, inevitably but joltingly: not joy but mourning becomes Elektra.

Of the not-yet-deceased protagonists, Chrysothemis, who does not involve herself in the vengeance, provides little more than contrast, and perhaps too much of that. Her music, perfectly fitting her character, is both the most conventional in the opera and standard Bavarian Strauss. But near the end, when her sister joins in, using the same melodic style, Chrysothemis loses her individuality, especially in the upper range and even though her high Bs occur in the contexts of phrases—“Linear Bs,” it might be said, if the setting were anywhere but Mycenae. In this duet the composer seems to have discovered his weakness for sopranos singing in the same register; had he known Alessandro Scarlatti’s madrigal for five equally high voices, “Cor mio, deh non languire,” Strauss surely would have included an all-soprano quintet in one of his operas. But Chrysothemis’ most memorable moments are her first and last, in which, characteristically, she calls to her sister, then to her brother.

Elektra is Strauss’s Brünnhilde, not only in the sense that the voices should be much alike, but also because the rhythm and some of the melodic intervals of Elektra’s “Totentanz” are so blatantly reminiscent of Die Walküre. Not to notice this would be impossible, and, skillful parodist though Strauss was, he cannot, considering the dramatic situation, have intended any allusion. Furthermore, one of Orestes’ motifs is melodically identical, and instrumentally nearly so, to the one that marks Brünnhilde’s appearance before Siegmund. Elektra, in general less Wagnerian than Salomé, is more specifically so in places, and some of these echoes of the forebear are faintly disturbing.

Even in proportion to its greater length, Elektra’s music contains more variety than that of any other role, including Clytemnestra’s, and the solo flute that “expresses” Elektra’s morbid contemplation of her befouled hair, and that could have come from Schoenberg’s Pierrot, is a more novel effect than any in Clytemnestra’s “dream” music. So far from limiting Elektra to her obsession, Strauss endows the part with some of his greatest love music, which is expressed through her memories of childhood and through her feelings for her sister and brother. Her intentions toward Chrysothemis have been labeled “quasilesbian,” but if the libretto supports that view, the music does not. Both sisters are sex-starved, and when the masculine Elektra tempts the feminine Chrysothemis with hints of erotic nights together after the murder of their mother and her lover, Hofmannsthal certainly meant to exploit the “perversity.” But the seductive language could be interpreted as purely rhetorical, since Elektra scorns her sister after she refuses to be an accessory to the murder. Judged from the music alone, Elektra’s feelings for her brother would be considered incestuous, the amorousness of the Recognition Scene being as unmistakable as that of the second act of Tristan. But obviously no such thing was intended; Strauss was simply unable to write any other kind of love music.

Although the contrapuntal use of the “wailing” motif in the scene with Elektra is a high point of the score, the musical delineation of Orestes is less successful than that of Aegisthus. Female voices and character-part tenors are still Strauss’s forte, and both Orestes himself and his music too directly recall Wotan as The Wanderer. But Aegisthus, with the smallest part of all—he enters the opera only just in time to be murdered—is brilliantly portrayed through a motif that caricatures Agamemnon’s and through a neoclassic idiom, an unconscious irony in the case of the latter, in view of Strauss’s own development after Elektra.

Clytemnestra is one of Strauss’s most original creations, and it is in the evocation of her nightmares, bad dreams, and lies that he anticipated so much of modern music. Hoffmannsthal also seems to have been inspired by the character, and struck by the resemblance between her situation and that of Gertrude of Elsinore, for both queens are taunted by their respective children, Elektra and Hamlet, with hints about adulterous beds and murder, both are haunted by fears of punishment, and the same two children are also contemptuous of their faithless parents’ new partners and are mad or feigning to be.

The Clytemnestra scene contains the most “daring” music that Strauss ever wrote, above all in the parallel movement of minor triads from different keys, a device resembling one of Schoenberg’s in the “Obbligato Recitative” (composed nine months later), except that Strauss anchors his densest progressions with pedal points or sustaining block harmonies, such as the dozen-measure brass chord played against the chromatic ascent of the remainder of the orchestra as Chrysothemis flees into the palace. But the most extended passage in the score that could be mistaken for Schoenberg himself at the time of Erwartung (composed a year later) is the music immediately after the pure triad with which Elektra begins.

When Clytemnestra tells Elektra that Orestes is “weak in the head,” the bassoon plays a disjunct, staccato passage that might have come from late Stravinsky. Elektra’s “Dein Auge” looks forward to Oedipus Rex, and the ostinato in the interlude before Clytemnestra’s entrance to Le Sacre du printemps, while Elektra’s dance to death anticipates the Danse Sacrale, at least dramatically. Scraps of Debussy are also conspicuous in Elektra—in the introduction to the Recognition Scene aria, for instance—but whether with the help of that composer’s example cannot be ascertained.

Elektra, with its almost mathematical form, its well-calculated changes of pace and hairspring timing, is Strauss’s most perfectly made opera. And in spite of the criticisms of the work’s dramatic decadence, Strauss’s musical architecture enabled him to parallel the most subtle contrivances of the Greek playwrights. Aeschylus, for example, achieved powerful effects of irony by metrical means, prolonging his anacreontics—usually associated with revelry and love-making—into verses that are antithetical in mood; thus his Chorus chants joyfully of the ship bearing Helen (“blown by the breath of Zephyr”), then, with no change of rhythm, of the armies dispatched to hunt for her. Correspondingly, Strauss introduces the false announcement of Orestes’ death, at the opera’s midpoint intersection, with a tragic motif in three-four meter; then, when Elektra speaks with intentional irony to Aegisthus just before Orestes kills him, the composer recalls the same motif in the same rhythm but transformed into a quietly happy waltz that betrays her true feelings.

Anyone seeking to understand Elektra should not look to the recent studies any more than to the standard ones. The amount of light generated by Alan Jefferson’s new batch of Strauss books,3 for example, scarcely adds up to one candlepower, and Mr. Jefferson’s comments on Elektra exemplify the unclear thinking that the reader soon comes to expect from him:

Hofmannsthal has “modernised” the old story so that it is utterly acceptable and identifiable by every member of the present day audience.4

But surely matricide is a less “acceptable” form of revenge for an audience today than it was for one in an amphitheater in fifth-century Athens. And what does “identifiable” mean? That modern listeners will recognize the story, or find it familiar because of skeletons in their own closets?

Even less illuminating are such comments on the music as

When one examines the score and listens attentively to Elektra, it is only too clear that Strauss worked out every fierce chordal clash with the most dexterous weaving together of his predetermined motifs.5

Is this surprising? Did Mr. Jefferson expect to find a notation “Chords to be improvised,” and does he usually listen inattentively? Surely, too, the motifs were not predetermined,” but, like those in any other opera, designed to suit characters and situations. Another statement, that “the opera is to all intents and purposes atonal,” is still more misleading since it seems to imply that the music as a whole resembles the so-called atonal species, or that Strauss intended to compose “atonal” music and failed.

The same author’s survey of Strauss’s lieder6 is on a comparable level as well as incomplete. Fischer-Dieskau’s new album7 of 131 songs, a barometer of the Strauss boom, warrants a guidebook analyzing at least this selection. Yet the recordings are a misapplication of the singer’s talents on a vast scale, since most of the songs were conceived for, and should be sung by, a soprano. Only a few, though among them the beautiful “Im Spätboot,” are suitable for his baritone, since the ranges are uncomfortable and many of the downward transpositions muddy the harmony and even reverse the sentiment. Strangely, he chose to include the Opus 66 cycle (1913-1918), though it consists of piano pieces, in the main, with little to be sung, and its jokes—the chromatic fugue that switches to a polka, the quotations from Beethoven’s Fifth and from Strauss’s own works—are embarrassing. What still needs to be emphasized about Strauss’s lieder is that many of the orchestral ones contain good, virtually unknown orchestral music, fewer than a dozen having been recorded, while only the last four are regularly performed.

Mr. Jefferson’s picture album8 gives as many views of opera houses, landscapes, singers, conductors, Nazis, as it does of the composer. But this is justifiable, Strauss himself being such an uninteresting photographic subject. Blank of countenance, without animation, eyes inscrutable even on the rare occasions when he is looking toward the camera, Strauss’s image nevertheless provides a clue to his personality, his appearance and what is known of his behavior being so disparate. Perhaps vaguely aware that the expressionlessness of this visage requires comment, Mr. Jefferson supplies explanatory captions: “care-worn and oppressed,” “ill-at-ease,” “looking very bored.” This last refers to a snapshot showing the composer four seats away from Hitler, and, unlike many others in the room, intently watching the speaker, Joseph Goebbels (to whom Strauss dedicated a song). A remark in the chapter “Strauss and Politics,” incidentally, is the most puzzling in the book:

Strauss’s grandsons were halfJewish…. Strauss did save them and at no time were they actually threatened with deportation. Martin Bormann was furious at Strauss’s capitulation and wanted to make an example of him.

Does this mean that even Bormann thought that Strauss should have had enough principle to leave the country rather than accommodate to the regime? If Herr Bormann should be found in Paraguay, or elsewhere, it is to be hoped that he can explain Mr. Jefferson’s statement.

Michael Kennedy’s monograph,9 an apologia for both the music and the life, goes so far as to extol the Alpine Symphony; but rehabilitating former warhorses is a part of his purpose as much as boosting neglected works. Strauss is seen as emerging from the shadows where he had been obliged to tarry during the modernist interregnum, the implication being that a balance has now been restored. The statement “the greatest operas of the 1920s were being written by Janácek” is therefore less a criticism of Strauss than of a narrow avant-garde. Strauss in the Twenties and Thirties is pictured as an isolated figure, not only oblivious of new music but also incurious about it.

A court composer in an age of statism, he is cast as an unwittingly compliant servitor of the New Order. But the correspondence with Stefan Zweig reveals that Strauss’s reactions were more complex than that, as well as duplicitous. When one of his letters to Zweig was intercepted by the Nazis and its contents became a possibly serious threat to Strauss, he wrote a groveling letter to Hitler. Mr. Kennedy forgives this as “the act of a frightened old man,” yet other old men, no less frightened, have behaved more courageously. Though it is regrettable that Strauss did not stand up, just this once, it must be remembered that he had never in his life stood up for anything not to his own advantage.

This absence of moral character may be connected with such facts of Strauss’s life as the choice of a dominating wife and of a librettist who, so far as subject matter was concerned, led him by the nose; thus he sought external direction to compensate for the lack of internal. Moreover, the meek, impassive-looking figure fantasized himself in music as a conquering hero, Don Juan, proud paterfamilias. For his operas, too, he took some of the most bloodthirsty tales available and, in those with edifying themes, removed the edification.

Still another indication of his personality may be found in the Opus 66 Lieder cycle, in which the “split” emotions might be symptomatic of an actual breakdown. Finally, lacking an integrated philosophy, he placed so much importance on money that he authorized a film, which even he knew to be a mistake, of his most popular opera. Nor was he above composing to please the public—or to shock it, which comes to the same thing. Otto Klemperer was close to the truth when he explained that Strauss cooperated with the Nazis because “Germany had fifty opera houses, America two.”

Richard Strauss could live “Ein Heldenleben” only in his music and in his day dreams. But not many dreamers are so hard-working, or possess gifts of such magnitude. The combination enabled him to create three of the few enduring operas of this century.

(This is the last of three articles on Richard Strauss.)

  1. 1

    From Richard Strauss, A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works, by Norman Del Mar (Chilton, 1962-1973), Vol. I. Readers should be warned of the author’s apparent distaste for the opera. “The jangling theme is now transformed into a horrible waltz,” he writes, and, “Although naturally vicious, this theme…”; “the concentration of women’s voices shrieking in almost unrelieved hysteria accentuates to an appalling degree…”; “The maidservants revile Elektra with appalling vulgarity…”; “There is a ghastly interruption when Elektra realizes…”; “Elektra actually performs her awful dance.” And so forth. But many of Del Mar’s other pronouncements are hardly less peculiar: “Clytemnestra’s…strength of character was probably unequalled in the whole ancient world.” How could anyone know that?

  2. 2

    Except that a characterization cannot be portrayed.

  3. 3

    Especially to be avoided is Mr. Jefferson’s A Life of Richard Strauss (Newton Abbot, 1973).

  4. 4

    From his album notes of the SoltiBirgit Nilsson performance on London Records.

  5. 5

    Ibid.

  6. 6

    The Lieder of Richard Strauss, by Alan Jefferson (Praeger, 1971).

  7. 7

    Richard Strauss: Das Liedschaffen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore (piano), Odeon.

  8. 8

    Richard Strauss, by Alan Jefferson (Macmillan, London, 1975).

  9. 9

    Richard Strauss, by Michael Kennedy (J. M. Dent & Sons, The Master Musician Series, London, 1976).

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