About this Recording
8.660163-64 - ENESCU: Oedipe
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George Enescu (1881-1955)

Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky may rightly be regarded as the ancestors of modern music, since all schools and tendencies in music of the twentieth century lead back in some form to one or other of them. There were, however, also composers who remained outsiders and found their own distinctive musical language. Interestingly these outsiders appeared particularly in East Europe, possibly in conjunction with the national trends that these regions had undergone in the second half of the nineteenth century and as a consequence of which many composers discovered their own folkmusic as an important source of inspiration. Among these composers may be counted Bela Bartok in Hungary, Leos Janacek in Moravia, Karol Szymanowski in Poland and George Enescu in Romania.

George Enescu was one of the most fascinating personalities in music in the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in 1881, spent his childhood on his parents' estate in the country, where he soon showed his unusual musical gifts. At the age of seven he went to Vienna, where for six years at the Conservatory he studied piano, harmony and the violin, this last with Joseph Hellmesberger the younger, a famous violin teacher of the time. In Vienna Enescu came to know personally Johannes Brahms, whom the boy greatly admired, and in the Court Opera, which he often visited, he became an ardent admirer of Richard Wagner. Many years later, in 1921, he was to conduct the first Romanian performance of Lohengrin at the opening of the Bucharest State Opera.

In 1895 Enescu moved to Paris, where he studied composition with Ambroise Thomas, Jules Massenet, and above all Gabriel Faure, with whom he met Maurice Ravel, composer of Bolero. Already in 1898 Enescu for the first time caused a sensation with his two Romanian Rhapsodies, which remain today his most popular works. Yet in spite of this success he followed no direct course as a composer, appearing, with his wealth of musical gifts, as a conductor, pianist and chamber musician as well as an acclaimed violin virtuoso. He was, moreover, an important violin teacher, with Arthur Grumiaux, Ida Haendel, Christian Ferras and Yehudi Menuhin among his most famous pupils.

All these abilities prevented Enescu from composing, so that the list of his completed works is relatively short. With opus numbers amounting only to 33 compositions there are also some songs and occasional works. This versatility may be responsible for the limited list of Enescu's works and also, paradoxical as it may sound, his phenomenal musical memory. Enescu composed many works in his head, but never found the time to write them out, very much to the loss of posterity, since in his compositions hardly a single work of lesser significance can be found.

At the beginning of his career as a composer Enescu was influenced by various musical trends. There were works that tended towards neo-classicism, while in others neo-romantic or neo-baroque tendencies can be noted. As a 35-year-old, however, Enescu underwent a radical change. From then on he strove for an individual musical language and finally found it. Fundamentally he kept to classical tonality, but extended it through certain shifts of harmony and through the use of quarter tones, such as had been used for centuries in the folk-music of his native Romania, to be traced back possibly to antiquity. Yet Enescu's musical language was marked by a special quality: everything flows, is in constant motion, no theme is heard a second time in its original form, but is always varied and changed.

Among those works in which Enescu's musical language can be heard at its clearest may be counted the Third Symphony, the three Violin Sonatas and the opera Oedipe, the only stage work that he wrote. This opera is his magnum opus, the work dearest of all to him. The creative process stretched over almost a quarter of a century. Already in 1906 Enescu decided to write an opera, but it was only three years later that the underlying theme of the opera became clear to him. After a performance at the Comedie-francaise in Paris, where he saw the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, he decided to use this myth. Now it was necessary to look out for a librettist. This Enescu finally found in the French writer Edmond Fleg, who wrote the libretto in French. It is divided into four acts and spans, unlike the tragedy of Sophocles which offers the spectator the past in narrative, a great arch from the birth of Oedipus to his death. The first and fourth acts are rather quietly epic in character, while the two middle acts foment the drama.

The collaboration with his librettist Edmond Fleg was at first interrupted by the First World War. Enescu returned to Romania where, after the end of the war, he did much to build up the musical life of the country. In 1921 he and Fleg resumed work, with the composition largely finished in the same year. Nevertheless a further ten years were to pass before Enescu could complete the instrumentation.

In his score the composer daringly offers unusual sounds. The scene at the crossroads is imbued with a mysterious atmosphere. The sound of thunder is heard, against a background of which the shepherd sounds a plaintive song on his flute. There follows a monologue by Oedipus in which he curses the gods. Now the storm breaks out, a wind-machine is heard and at the climax, when the orchestra unleashes its whole strength, Oedipus kills King Laius. The following scene too, that with the Sphinx, is brilliantly effective. The wakening of the Sphinx is accompanied by music of true splendour and almost excessive refinement, her cry of death taken up and continued by a musical saw.

The first performance of Oedipe took place on 13th March 1936 at the Paris Opera and was a great success. In spite of that, it could not at first be kept in the repertoire, since its performance made considerable demands. Only in 1955, directly after Enescu's death, was there a radio production in France and three years later it was played for the first time in Bucharest in a Romanian translation. There it immediately entered the repertoire as the most important opera of the country. Gradually Enescu's Oedipe won recognition outside Romania as one of the most fascinating operas of the twentieth century. The present coproduction between the Berlin Deutsche Oper and the Vienna State Opera had its premiere on 29th May 1997, offered here in a live recording.

Peter Blaha
Chief Dramaturg of the Vienna State Opera
English version by Keith Anderson

CD 1

Act I (Prologue)

[Track 1] The orchestral prelude includes themes that will appear in the opera, including the theme associated with Fate, parricide and the victory of man. The music is interrupted by cries of a woman in child-birth.

[Track 2] The scene is a room in the palace of Laius, its great columns garlanded with flowers, its walls of marble ornamented with archaic sculptures. At the back are double bronze doors and in the centre an altar with sacred torches, dedicated to the images of the ancestors. Laius is seated on a throne, by the side of the cradle of Oedipus, while his mother Jocasta lies on a bed, covered with animal skins The blind prophet Tiresias, motionless and unsmiling, is present in the otherwise joyful ceremony, like the ghost of Fate. Others present include Theban warriors with Creon, the brother of Jocasta, the women of Thebes and shepherds, around the altar, where the High Priest presides, with priestesses. The women express their joy at the waking of the child. The High Priest calls on them to crown the waters of Dirce with olive. The men call for a paean from the seven towers of Thebes and the High Priest bids them plunge the torches into the sacred water. The men summon the nymph Echo to announce the birth of a son and the High Priest commands them to pour water on the head of the child. He prays to the gods and offerings are made, and the Theban warriors and Creon offer arrows and a bow of gold. The High Priest bids the King present his child to the ancestors, the others echoing his prayers to Agenor, Cadmus, and then to Amphion and Zethus, Polydorus and Labdacus.

[Track 3] Laius sets the child down in his cradle and the High Priest declares the approval of the ancestors. He asks the King what name he proposes for the child. Jocasta wonders if her child will, like Orpheus, tame the beasts of the forest, and Laius suggests that he may, like Heracles, be fearless. Tiresias, however, interrupts, recalling that Apollo had told Laius in a dream that he should die childless; he has defied the god, in begetting a son, and the child will be his father's murderer and marry his mother, to be the father of his own brothers. He tells the company to disperse and cleanse themselves from impurity in the sunlight. Laius and Jocasta are left alone. The King calls to a shepherd and, taking the child and bidding him expose the baby in the gorge of Mount Cithaeron, signals to him that the child must die the following day. The shepherd goes slowly out, bearing the child, and Laius and Jocasta are left to weep over their loss.

Act II

Scene 1
[Track 4] The scene is a room in the palace of Polybus at Corinth. It is evening and Oedipus muses sadly. He is summoned to join his supposed parents, Polybus and Merope, by Phorbas, urging him to join his companions in celebrating the feast of Aphrodite, to whom the image of Adonis is being carried, in her temple on the Acropolis. Oedipus refuses, as Phorbas goes. Alone he suggests that Phoebus has other loves prepared for him. Women are heard singing in honour of Aphrodite. Merope enters, unnoticed at first by Oedipus.

[Track 5] Merope is anxious that, since his return from Delphi, Oedipus has withdrawn into himself. A man in his cups had called him a foundling, a charge Merope rejects, swearing that he is her son. At Delphi, though, when he made his sacrifice after victory in the games, the laurel-wreath on the altar had trembled and the water of Castalia ceased to flow; a voice had demanded why he brought impurity to the temple, one who would be the murderer of his father and marry his mother, to be the father of murderous offspring. He is determined to go, far away from his country, to conquer Fate.

Scene 2
[Track 6] The plaintive sound of the shepherd's pipe is heard. The scene is a crossroads, with a statue of Hecate. The shepherd is sitting on a rock, with some mountain goats grazing nearby. The atmosphere is oppressive, stormy, with yellow clouds, mist and the sound of distant thunder. He seems to hear a chariot approaching, shudders when he sees the statue of Hecate, hiding his eyes and praying to the goddess to avert her eyes from his pasture and flocks. He starts playing again, climbing slowly with his flock over the rocks, to disappear in the mist. Oedipus enters slowly, wondering which turning to take at this junction of three roads. He has travelled far to escape his destiny, but sees only the hatred of the gods, lamenting the injustice that he seems to suffer, pursued by the Erinyes with their serpents and whips. He regrets Corinth, his home, deciding, for the moment, to return, but perhaps this is a trap set by the gods; he wonders why he was not killed at birth or cast out to the wild animals, cursing his fate. The shepherd is briefly heard, when the chariot of Laius appears, with its driver and a Theban warrior. The driver raises his whip to clear Oedipus from the King's path, and Laius tries to strike him with his sceptre, to be killed by a blow from Oedipus. He kills the guard and charioteer and the horses take flight, while Oedipus resumes his way. The shepherd, descending from the rocks, sees the King dead, with his two followers.

Scene 3
[Track 7] The ramparts of Thebes can be seen with a tower and the city gate, closed. In the rocky landscape a road leads to the city. Partly hidden by a rock the Sphinx sleeps. It is a starry night. The watchman from the tower tells how he watches from dawn to dawn. The Thebans and the Sphinx, who brings death, sleep. The voice of Oedipus is heard, telling of the happiness of one who dies on the day of his birth and still more one who dies before he is born. The watchman thinks his words will waken the Sphinx, as Oedipus approaches. He tells him of the danger that lurks, of the monster that preys on the Thebans, whose parched bones lie around her; she poses unanswerable riddles to travellers, who are then killed; whoever answers the riddle will receive the crown of Thebes and the hand of Queen Jocasta. Oedipus calls on the Sphinx, Echidna, to awake. She slowly wakens, her wings start to tremble and then rise in the air. The Sphinx declares that in her eternal dream she has waited for Oedipus, who demands a riddle. She is the daughter of Fate, to which everything is subject, the lyre of Phoebus, the arrows of Artemis, the caduceus of Hermes, the lance of Athena, Uranus and Chronos, and soon Zeus too. She asks if he can name anything greater than Destiny. His answer is ‘Man'. She asks, as she dies, whether she laughs at her death or her victory.

[Track 8] Dawn breaks and the watchman calls the Thebans to awake, climb on the ramparts and sound the trumpet, for the city is saved. The crowd gathers, singing out in joy at the deliverance of Thebes, and welcoming their saviour Oedipus, now united with Jocasta.

CD 2


[Track 01] The curtain rises on a public square in Thebes. On one side is a temple and on the other the palace of Oedipus. A crowd of men, women and children prostrate themselves on the steps of the palace, while funeral processions pass by. They lament their fate, pleading for help from Oedipus. The High Priest, their spokesman, tells of the plague that brings death to the city. Oedipus tells them that he has sent Creon to Delphi to learn Apollo's command. Creon enters, with his followers, declaring that he has found the answer to their troubles; their houses are defiled by a murderer, the murderer of Laius, who is in the city; the body has been discovered by a shepherd, but Creon has also summoned Tiresias. Oedipus calls on the murderer to reveal himself, otherwise he will be cursed, to die of the plague, his body, unburied, to be devoured by crows. Tiresias appears, led in by a boy.

[Track 2] Oedipus calls on Tiresias to reveal the truth. The old man declares it hard to see, when seeing is useless. Oedipus accuses him of refusing to speak, but Tiresias tells him that that day he will see himself born and dead. Oedipus, in anger, declares that Tiresias is the murderer, but he reveals that it is Oedipus himself who is the murderer of Laius. Oedipus suggests that Creon is behind this, but Tiresias that Oedipus is his own enemy. Oedipus accuses the old man of remaining silent about the riddle of the Sphinx, but he tells the King that truth remains, urging him not to mock the blind, since he himself will be blind that very day. The murderer was born in Thebes and will leave it a pauper, blind and weeping: Oedipus, who killed his own father; he warns him that before the day is out he will himself find the murderer. Tiresias is led away, and Oedipus accuses Creon of plotting against him.

[Track 3] Jocasta seeks to learn the cause of the anger of her husband, bidding him pardon Creon. She comes between them, and Creon leaves. Oedipus tells her that Creon had used Tiresias to accuse him of murdering Laius. She tells him that Laius was killed by robbers at a place where three roads meet. The shepherd comes timidly before them, as he questions her about Laius, his age, his appearance, his companions. The shepherd interrupts, telling them that there were three people, all killed. Phorbas, now an old man, comes in, seeking the King, whom he greets, calling on Phoebus to protect him, the Queen and the whole house; his master Polybus and Merope have sent him to seek the return of Oedipus to Corinth. Oedipus refuses, revealing the words of the oracle, but Phorbas tells him that they are not his real parents. His parents had ordered their child to be exposed on the mountain, from where Phorbas had taken him, given him by a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron to be the foundling son of the King of Corinth, replacing the dead son of the King. The shepherd is there before them, but Jocasta urges Oedipus not to question him. Under threats of punishment, however, the shepherd reveals the fact that the baby was given him by Laius, after a prophecy that the child would live to kill his father and marry his mother. Cries of horror are heard from within, and one of the women runs in to announce the suicide of Jocasta. Oedipus rushes into the palace.

[Track 4] From within Oedipus calls for the doors to be opened. He appears, his eyes put out, their sockets bleeding. As he attempts to come down, the people recoil from him. Now, the father of his brothers, the husband of his mother, the killer of his father, the slayer of the Sphinx, saviour of the city, one day in glory and then in misfortune; he laments the fate that is his, now in eternal night. Antigone and her sister appear, and Oedipus laments their future, to live alone. Creon tells Oedipus he must go and take with him the plague, a sentiment echoed by the Thebans. Antigone promises to go with him, and they leave together, as the people lament the fate of the house of Laius.

Act IV (Epilogue)

[Track 5] It is Attica, by a sacred grove. To the left is a rock, by a spring, to the right a marble altar, and at the entrance to the grove a bronze plaque sunk in the ground. The day is calm and a group of old Athenians has come to pray at the sacred place. Some carry torches, others honey-cakes, which they place on the altar and burn, while others carry branches wound about with wool, which they set round the altar. Theseus prays to the gods, at one time the Erinyes, but now the kindly Eumenides, replacing homicidal vengeance with justice and peace in the city. They leave in slow procession. Oedipus, now an old man, is led in by Antigone, who tells him that they are near Athens, by a wood where the nightingale sings with the sound of the fountains, and the laurel and wild vine grow, saffron and olive-tree. Oedipus asks if there are branches and garlands there around an altar. He tells her that they have reached their goal and bids her lead him to the fountain, dip her fingers in the water, and place her hands on his face; here at last he can find rest.

[Track 6] Antigone sees Creon, come to invite Oedipus to return to his own country, to rule again. Oedipus accuses Creon of hypocrisy, seeking someone to save the kingdom of Thebes from enemies. The Thebans who have accompanied Creon join their pleas to Creon's; the oracle has given victory to the soil that his body, sanctified by suffering, touches, but Oedipus will not follow Creon, who orders Antigone to be seized. With difficulty Oedipus rises and addresses a silent prayer to the gods, but Antigone is saved by the arrival of Theseus and the old Athenians. She kneels before Theseus, who offers her his hand, while Creon tells Theseus that he should have nothing to do with an old man, a vagabond, guilty of incest and parricide. Oedipus interrupts to claim he is guilty of nothing: his crimes were decreed by Fate before he was born and he has fought against the gods, leaving Corinth for love of his supposed parents, defending himself at the crossroads and saving Thebes by defeating the Sphinx, a victory rewarded by an incestuous marriage; Creon, in advertising the evils that Oedipus has undergone, sullies the memory of Jocasta, while the Thebans who banished him, the saviour and father of the country, were the true parricides; he was innocent, never willingly committing these crimes, and now has conquered Fate. The voices of the Eumenides are heard, calling him; they have marked out a secret place here for his final rest, and this Theseus alone will know, while the one who has conquered Fate brings victory again. The Eumenides are heard, as he bids farewell to Antigone, the only one to be faithful to him. He tells Theseus to follow him into the grove, whence he will take his eternal journey, dying in the light. He goes, followed by Theseus, to whom he shows the way, passing through the trees, as the old Athenians pray, calling for blessing on those that are pure in heart. There is a sound of thunder and Oedipus disappears near a cave from which suddenly a dazzling light shines out. Theseus falls on his knees, covering his face. Gradually the light fades and the voices of the Eumenides are heard, blessing those that are pure in heart. The leaves of the trees are gently stirred, lit by the glowing beams of the setting sun.

Keith Anderson

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