Tuesday, October 13, 2020

INTIMACY AND EPICNESS IN ELEKTRA

Even as his numerical and technical demands increased with each succeeding work, Strauss maintained a wide variety of expressive dynamic: from full, heaven storming orchestral forces to moments of quiet intimacy. One of the many reasons Elektra must have appealed to the composer was the opportunity for just such contrasts in scale.

A prime example is the middle of Elektra’s attempt to persuade her sister to be her accomplice in the murder of their mother and her lover. With the announcement of their brother’s alleged death, Elektra plunges straight away into pivoting to take on the long awaited revenge herself in a hushed yet feverish passage punctuated by occasional full force thunderbolts, and then to a full blown heroic section as she tries to convince Chrysothemis of her capability in sharing in the murders.

Instead, Chrysothemis begs her sister to flee, so Elektra shifts tactics, gently painting dreams of the rewards the murders will bring her: freedom, and most importantly the physical affection  Chrysothemis is so desperate for.

Here Strauss pulls back to a small group of solo strings, still reflecting Elektra’s seething thoughts by their rhythmic complexity. The occasional underpinning from the rest of the sections reminds us of the volcanic determination hidden behind this supposed sisterly warmth. This little “aria” builds in intensity - Strauss here uses almost verbatim a burgeoning number of string lines straight from the “Von der Hinterwelten” section of his Also Sprach Zarathustra - until Chrysothemis’ protest pulls the full orchestra back in to play. It’s a fascinating piece of psychology by orchestration, and one that works just as well (I think) with 21 strings as with 86.

Here it is:



Tuesday, September 29, 2020

CHOICE CUTS Part Four: To keep or not the abridgements typically made in Elektra

Continuing my thoughts from July on the cuts traditionally made to Elektra and why or why not I’m retaining them in this reduced orchestra edition.

In the descriptions below, the numerical designations indicate rehearsal number / measure number after the said rehearsal number.

59a/1 - 68a/1: The first section of a sustained scene in which Elektra attempts to persuade her sister to join her in committing the murders. Over the years I’ve come to consider this cut musically ill-advised: on an architectonic level, Strauss knows what he’s doing here. The musical build up and the dramatic impetus are well integrated, and the final arrival at Chrysothemis’ heroic, bucolic Eb major theme at 68a has so much more impact and makes much more sense with this section retained, whereas the traditional cut always strikes me as mangled and ill-sutured. So I’m retaining it in my edition.

As a reinforcement for this retention, here's another scrolling score teaser from my edition of this passage:


89a/1 - 102a/1 and 104a/1 - 108/a: Elektra continues to persuade her sister to aid her in the murders. In both cases, see point 2 above. Strauss has again built up a musical and dramatic tension that these extended sections counteract.

166a/7 - 171/a: Dramatically, this is a really interesting passages in which Elektra drops some hints about why for so many years she has obsessively clung to hatred and revenge and the memory of her father. I include the text of the entire section below, from the end of of Elektra’s recognition “aria” to the beginning of her “duet” with Orestes, with the passage traditionally cut in italics:


Nein, du sollst mich nicht umarmen!
Tritt weg, ich schäme mich vor dir.
Ich weiss nicht, wie du mich ansiehst.
Ich bin nur mehr der Leichnam deiner Schwester,
mein armes Kind.
Ich weiss, es schaudert dich vor mir.
Und war doch eines Königs Tochter!
Ich glaube, ich war schön:
wenn ich die Lampe ausblies vor meinem Spiegel,
fühlt ich es mit keuschem Schauer.
Ich fühlt' es, wie der dünne Strahl des Mondes
in meines Körpers weisser Nacktheit badete
so wie in einem Weiher,
und mein Haar war solches Haar,
vor dem die Männer zittern,
dies Haar, versträhnt, beschmutzt, erniedrigt,
verstehst du's, Bruder?
Ich habe alles, was ich war, hingeben müssen. Meine Scham hab' ich geopfert, die Scham,
die süsser als Alles ist, die Scham,
die wie der Silberdunst, der milchige des Monds, um jedes Weib herum ist
und das Grässliche von ihr und ihrer Seele weghält,
verstehst du's, Bruder!
Diese süssen Schauder
hab' ich dem Vater opfern müssen.
Meinst du, wenn ich an meinem Leib mich freute,
drangen seine Seufzer, drang nicht sein Stöhnen
an mein Bette?
Eifersüchtig sind die Toten:
und er schickte mir den Hass,
den hohläugigen Hass als Bräutigam.
So bin ich eine Prophetin immerfort gewesen
und habe nichts hervorgebracht
aus mir und meinem Leib als Flüche und Verzweiflung.
Was schaust du ängstlich um dich?
sprich zu mir! sprich doch!
Du zitterst ja am ganzen Leib!

No, you mustn’t embrace me!
Keep away, I’m ashamed in front of you.
I don’t know how you can stand to look at me.
I’m nothing more than the corpse of your sister,
my poor child.
I know… it horrifies you to look at me,
who was once the daughter of a king!
I think, I was pretty:
when I blew out the lamp at my mirror,
I felt it with chaste trembling.
I felt it like the thin gleam of the moon
bathing in my body’s white nakedness,
as if in a censor,
and my hair was such hair,
before which men tremble,
this hair, bedraggled, filthy, disgusting,
do you understand, brother?
I have had to sacrifice everything.
I’ve sacrificed my modesty, that modesty
sweeter than anything, that modesty
that surrounds every woman
like the silver radiance of the milky moon
and protects her and her soul from horror,
do you understand, brother?
That sweet modesty
had to be sacrificed to Father.
Don’t you think, when I delighted in my body,
his sighs, his moans didn’t
invade my bed?
Jealous are the dead,
and he bequeathed me Hate,
hollow-eyed Hate for a bridegroom.
Thus I am relegated to being a prophetess,
and my body has experienced nothing more
than curses and despair.
Why do you look around so nervously?
Speak to me!  Speak!
Your whole body is trembling!

The insinuation of a more than usually intimate father / daughter relationship is pretty clear, and does much to explain both Elektra’s traumatized mental state and in particular her unshakeable quest for vengeance on her father’s behalf.


The biggest problem with this section is its questionable placement in the play. One wonders why Hofmannsthal chose to hold this revelation - if that’s what it is - to so late in the drama. The murders are impending, the audience is fidgeting, in the case of the opera the heroine has just been allotted her first extended piece of lyricism which doesn’t necessarily benefit from greater extension… It’s a debatable choice of dramatic plotting. Still, the impact on Elektra’s character and the entire drama is significant enough - and the section itself short enough - that I’m retaining it in my edition.


Should the circumstances and time ever permit, I may go back and reinstate the sections that I’m planning to omit.


Friday, August 14, 2020

LICHTER!

As an interstice between my very bloviatory posts on the cuts usually made in Elektra, here's a little toe tapper: the final scherzo from the confrontation scene between Elektra and Klytamnestra. I'm offering a longer snippet than usual here because I think this is one of Strauss's most brilliant and imaginative pieces of both composition and orchestration, and I wanted to show it a little love, as the audience is typically too busy focussed on the understandably gripping stage action at this point to fully absorb the brilliance of it. I'm also particularly pleased at how, at least digitally, the reduction of this section has turned out.


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

CHOICE CUTS Part Three: To keep or not the abridgements typically made in Elektra

My next two posts will examine the cuts that are traditionally made in Elektra and which of those I’m planning to retain in my edition… for the time being.

With the cuts traditionally imposed on Elektra, one is faced with the conflicts of respecting Strauss’ architectonic design, the problems that imposes on the opera’s dramatic pacing, and the extraordinary demands on the performer of the title role.

In the descriptions below, the numerical designations indicate rehearsal number / measure number after the said rehearsal number.
  1. 225/1 - 228/1: A small section towards the end of Klytamnestra’s confrontation with Elektra, as the queen demands that her daughter identity of the sacrifice that will banish her nightmares. This cut of all of 16 measures has always perplexed me: its brevity hardly seems to make it worthwhile. Here and there you will read that it inhibits the pace building to the immediately following outburst from Elektra describing her mother’s death.
I feel the opposite. At the very least, there is a dramatic motivational reinforcement to this section that I am always sorry to see omitted.

Hoffmannsthal’s obfuscation from the original Greek plays of the argument for Klytamnestra’s murder of her husband, and Strauss’s elimination of much of what little Hoffmannsthal grants her, reduces Klytemnestra in the opera to a cartoonish caricature of unexplained evil that makes for a simplistic and unsophisticated experience. 

On the rare occasions that this passage is retained it enhances Klytamnestra’s complexity and impetus. Having vacillated between various emotional states to lure Elektra in to revealing the remedy to her nightmares, the queen now sheds any pretense of civility, making clear that she will stop at nothing to discover what must be sacrificed to banish the nightmares that plague her:

Sagst du's nicht im Freien,
wirst Du's an der Kette sagen. 

Sagst Du nicht satt,
so sagst Du's hungernd.

Say it freely,
or you’ll say it in chains.
Say it fed,
or you’ll say it starving.


This is less a disposable nicety than an important highlighting of the brutal state to which the Queen has devolved. Also the disjuncture of this largely 5/4 section provides a seething contrast to the otherwise steady waltz tempo, and increases its impact when it returns at 228. I find it telling that conductors are increasingly restoring this section, and am retaining it in my edition.
 
2. 240/1 - 255/1: Elektra’s tirade to her mother describing the terrifying hunt Orestes will undertake on his return home, ending in the queen’s death.
 
Interestingly, this entire section occurs in Hofmannshtal’s play during Elektra’s first scene with Chrysothemis, with Elektra describing to her sister the terrifying hunt that will end with their mother’s murder at their brother’s hands. Dramatically it makes complete sense to relocate this speech and direct it in first person towards Klytamnestra.
 
Still, nine pages of full score and 94 bars of music comprise this cut. By the time of the savage C minor explosion that starts the scene, Strauss has worked the music up to a high level of tension that this textual extension can’t sustain. Here is a prime example of Strauss defeating his dramatic instincts for his musical ambitions. And across the broader scope of the title role, this extended passage places demands on the vocal part - and we’re not even at the halfway mark of the opera yet - that make this cut worth retaining.

For another appetite whetter, as well as fodder for my argument in point 1 above, here’s my reduction of the section in question:




Friday, June 19, 2020

DIESE TRÄUME MÜSSEN EIN ENDE HABEN

I'm just noticing that this post never posted on its originally scheduled date of Dr. Strauss' birthday, June 11. Better late than never. A teaser video of  Klytämnestra's nightmare scene seems ironically appropriate.


Monday, May 18, 2020

CHOICE CUTS Part Two: How Elektra achieved its operatic form


In order to discuss the structure of Elektra and the cuts typically applied to it, I’d like to first examine the material and aesthetics on which it was constructed.


Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Sophocles’ play maintains the basic plot flow of the original while considerably altering the structure and format. The chorus of antiquity is replaced by direct interactions between the characters or lengthy monologues for the principal characters. In addition to giving the poet broader opportunity to apply his own unique linguistic transformation to the original play's harshness, these monologues provide the title role, in particular, with opportunities to exploit that language in a panoply of thespian colors. 


These lengthy monologues were surely one of elements that attracted Strauss to the play. By the time he began Elektra’s composition in 1906, Strauss had achieved a highly hyperbolic musical language, writing in extremes of range and technical virtuosity. No matter the subject, it elicited from him the need to portray it in magnified terms, which he applied to ever longer architectonic structures undertaken by increasingly expanded orchestral forces. He was after all a partisan of the late 19th century ethos - particularly in Germany - that more is more. This affected the increasing length of his orchestral works, particularly the tone poems, and their sometimes uneven pacing. 


The result was an overall style of epic behemoth regardless of subject. A perfect example is the 1901 tone poem Sinfonia Domestica, in which Strauss devotes nearly an hour to an orchestral depiction of his own life with his wife and newborn son on a gargantuan scale, for a 102-piece orchestra that rivals Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in monumentality. The Ring’s original conductor, Hans Richter, is supposed to have quipped of the piece that “not all the cataclysms of the gods in Valhalla makes half as much noise as one Bavarian baby in the bath.”


So it’s not surprising that the extreme situations of this epic Greek tragedy, heightened by Hofmannsthal’s fin de siecle sensibility, would have inspired Strauss to view the adapted work as an opportunity for exploiting his architectonic and orchestrational grandiosity via the medium of his largest orchestra to date, as well as offering the opportunity to write what would clearly be an unprecedented tour-de-force role for dramatic soprano.


But as mentioned in earlier posts, Strauss's ambitions conflict with optimizing the opera’s dramaturgy. In an otherwise keenly paced, savagely tense plot, Strauss’s architectonic ambitions in the opera result in an imbalance of pacing, as well as superhuman demands on the principal singer. The sags lie in my opinion entirely in Elektra’s part: a razor-edged sense of tension and suspense, brought to lava pitch, is frequently hindered by Strauss’s extension of a passage to suit his symphonic ambitions.


In my next post I'll review the traditional cuts individually, and discuss why or not I’ve decided to retain them in my edition. In the meantime, here's another teaser video of the score: the first part of Klytamnestra's scene with Elektra.



For other teaser videos, check out my Youtube page.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

WIR VOLLBRINGENDEN!

It is with some amazement that I can announce the completion of the formatting of the full score of my reduction of Richard Strauss's Elektra, and therefore the availability of the performance materials.

It seems surreal that six years ago Chris Fecteau suggested this project in earnest. It's been so much work, undertaken on no particular schedule in my rare spare time from both my business and my other music pursuits, that subconsciously I'm not sure I really believed it would ever be done.


With the global pandemic still in full furor, not surprisingly the discussions towards its performance have gone dormant. But still, it's done.