About this Recording
8.557499 - STRAVINSKY, I.: Oedipus Rex / Les Noces (Craft) (Stravinsky, Vol. 1)
English  German 

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Oedipus Rex • Les Noces

Stravinsky conducted the first performance of Oedipus Rex (1925-1927) in the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, Paris, on 30th May, 1927, in a double bill with Firebird, in which George Balanchine danced the rôle of Kastchei. Composers—Ravel, Poulenc, and Roger Sessions among them—were the first to recognize it as Stravinsky’s most powerful dramatic work and one of his greatest creations. After hearing Ernest Ansermet conduct it in London, February 12, 1936, the young Benjamin Britten noted in his diary:

‘One of the peaks of Stravinsky’s output, this work shows his wonderful sense of style and power of drawing inspiration from every age of music, and leaving the whole a perfect shape, satisfying every aesthetic demand … the established idea of originality dies so hard.’

Leonard Bernstein may have been the first to identify the principal influence on the music:

‘I remembered where those four opening notes of Oedipus come from… And the whole metaphor of pity and power became clear; the pitiful Thebans supplicating before their powerful king, imploring deliverance from the plague … an Ethiopian slave girl at the feet of her mistress, Princess of Egypt … Amneris has just wormed out of Aida her dread secret … Verdi, who was so unfashionable at the time Oedipus was written, someone for musical intellectuals of the mid-’20s to sneer at; and Aida, of all things, that cheap, low, sentimental melodrama. [At the climax of Oedipus’ “Invidia” aria] the orchestra plays a diminished-seventh chord … that favorite ambiguous tool [i.e., tool for suggesting ambiguity] of surprise and despair in every romantic opera … Aida! … Was Stravinsky having a secret romance with Verdi’s music in those super-sophisticated mid-’20s? It seems he was.’ [Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1973]

Bernstein might also have mentioned the debt to Verdi in Jocasta’s aria and her duet with Oedipus. A photograph of Verdi occupied a prominent position on the wall of Stravinsky’s Paris studio in the 1920s, and on his concert tours he would go out of his way to hear Verdi operas, to the extent of changing the dates of his own concerts, as he did in Hanover in December 1931 for a performance of Macbeth. In the early 1930s he wrote to one of his biographers: “If I had been in Nietzsche’s place, I would have said Verdi instead of Bizet and held up The Masked Ball against Wagner”. In Buenos Aires, in 1936, Stravinsky shocked a journalist by saying: “Never in my life would I be capable of composing anything to equal the delicious waltz in La Traviata”.

Other influences besides Verdi’s are apparent. The “Gloria” chorus at the end of Act One, the Messenger’s music, and the a cappella choral music in the Messenger scene are distinctly Russian, but the genius of the piece is in the unity that Stravinsky achieves with his seemingly disparate materials.

Les Noces (Svadebka) ranks high in the by no means crowded company of indisputable twentiethcentury masterpieces. That it does not immediately come to mind as such may be attributable to cultural and linguistic barriers, and to the ineptitude, partly from the same causes, of most performances, for the piece can only be sung in Russian, both because the sounds of the words are part of the music, and because their rhythms are inseparable from the musical design. A translation that satisfied the quantitative and accentual formulas of the original could retain no approximation of its literal sense. For this reason Stravinsky, never rigidly averse to sacrificing the clarity of sense for sound’s sake, abandoned an English version on which he had laboured in the fall of 1959 and again in December 1965. It is also the reason, bizarre as it may seem, that his own first recording of Noces was made in English (1934). No Russian chorus was available in Paris at the time, but in any case he abominated the French version by C. F. Ramuz, which requires numerous changes and adjustments in the musical rhythms.

Performances are infrequent as well as inadequate. The four pianos and seventeen percussion instruments that comprise the ensemble are not included in the standard instrumentation of symphony orchestras. Then, too, the piece by itself is long enough for only a short half-programme, while the few possible companion works, using many of the same instruments—Varèse’s Ionisation, Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Antheil’s Ballet mécanique (an arrant plagiarism)—derive from it too obviously as instrumental example.

As a result of the obstacles of language and culture, audiences do not share in the full meaning of the work, hearing it as a piece of “pure” music; which, of course, and as Stravinsky would say, is its ultimate meaning. But Stravinsky notwithstanding, Svadebka is a dramatic work, composed for the stage, and informed with more meanings on the way to that ultimate one than any other opus by the composer. The drama is his own, moreover, and he is responsible for the choice of the subject, the form of the stage spectacle, the ordonnance of the texts. Svadebka is in fact the only theatrical work by him, apart from the much slighter Renard, that combines music with a text in his mother tongue, the only work in which ritual, symbol, meaning on every level are part of his direct cultural heredity.

It is also the one Stravinsky work that underwent extensive metamorphoses. Svadebka occupied his imagination throughout a decade and, in aggregate, took more of his time than any other work of the same length. The sketches, in consequence, offer a unique study of his processes of growth and refinement. The reasons for the long gestation are, first, that Stravinsky several times suspended work to compose other music, which, in each case, left his creative mind with altered perspectives. Second, he was creating something so new, both musically, in its heterophonic vocalinstrumental style, and in theatrical combination and genre, an amalgam of ballet and dramatic cantata, that he was himself unable to describe it. “Russian Choreographic Scenes,” his subtitle on the final score, neglects to mention that the subject is a village wedding and that the four scenes depict the ritual braiding of the Bride’s tresses, the ritual curling of the Groom’s locks, the departure of the Bride for the church, and the wedding feast.

Robert Craft

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