Sunday, March 14, 2021

 For all its gargantuanism, Elektra is rife with delicate orchestration touches and complex inner details: some minute, some less so. On paper and to the inner ear, it's all genius and fascinating. But having sat through numerous live performances of  the opera in the US and Europe, in both opera houses and concert halls, as well as through two sets of full orchestra rehearsals, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that much of Strauss’ orchestration is lost on most ears. This is particularly true of Elektra, although a case could be made for Salome being an even greater culprit.

Examples abound. Just one:

During the second part of Klytemnestra’s confrontation scene with her daughter, on page 117 of the full score, one bar before rehearsal number 179 (Elektra: “Traumst du, Mutter?”), the first and second violins play a pp fingered tremolo in thirds against the muted trumpets, like a tiny shiver or whisper of cold air, disappearing in the next measure to an open fifth pp harmonic in the violas.

To date, my ear (you won’t be the first to question its reliability) has yet to discern this diaphanous touch. 

Much of this ideology stems from the increasing orchestral complexity of Strauss’s tone poems, a method he transferred verbatim into the opera house orchestra pit. But here these delicate touches are not only at an acoustic disadvantage but fall victim to the listener’s focus on the voices. Marie Wittich, the soprano tasked with creating the role of Salome in 1904, pointed out the seeming folly of this approach after the first sitzprobe: “One just doesn’t write like that, Herr Strauss; either one thing or the other.” (I’d love to have seen Annie Kroll’s expression when faced with the first Elektra sitzprobe, poor thing.)

Tellingly Strauss increasingly moved away from this sort of orchestral complexity in the ensuing operas. Even Die Frau ohne Schatten completed in 1916, with an almost comparably sized orchestra and nearly three times Elektra’s duration, displays a paring down of intense inner detail particularly in vocal passages.

With all that said, some of these passages in Elektra are marvels. Prime of these for me is the scene between Elektra and her mother’s lover, Aegisth. With the horrifying suspense of Klytamnestra’s murder followed by the knife edge hysteria of Chrysothemis and the maids just passed, and the titanic ending still to come, Strauss takes the opportunity for an airy scherzo-like atmosphere for this scene, no less sinister for it’s jovial facade. He depicts his heroine’s thirst for her hated stepfather’s imminent murder with a brilliant interweaving of motifs connected to the deed, interspersed with filigree touches of the glee she can barely suppress.

If the dramatic flow seems hiccuped here, the musical contrast more than compensates.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Wenn Alles still ist, an der Fuss' der Treppe

Salome was the second of Strauss‘s operas that I became acquainted with, after Rosenkavalier. One of the most musically brilliant passages in this revolutionary score is the scene of Salome awaiting the beheading of the object of affection. So when I learned that the opera had a very similar successor in Elektra, I was eager to see how Strauss would handle an almost identical situation.

Musically, this scene is one of my favorites in the opera. I'm fascinated at how Strauss so brilliantly differentiates the moods in the two operas. To depict Elektra's savage anticipation of the murder of her mother she’s so long awaited, Strauss transforms an instrumental motif associated with the act into an onomatopoeic reflection of her suspense, rushing around in the lower strings as she prowls before the door of the palace waiting for the act to be committed. It's a brilliant idea and invariably jolts the listener, as intended.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Family Reunions

It seems serendipitous that the timing of my next teaser, the reunion between Elektra and Orest, should fall on the U.S.'s Thanksgiving, a holiday traditionally marked by family gatherings. (In a rare but admirable bit of ironic humor, the Metropolitan Opera scheduled a showing of their 2016 video capture of the opera for Thanksgiving night, starring Nina Stemme and Waltraude Meier in top form.)

This teaser shows a prime example of Strauss's desire in his operas to retain all the minute, febrile orchestral detail of his tone poems at the risk of their being lost behind the listener's inevitable focus on the voices. A gossamer web of arpeggiated themes, gleamed by glockenspiel, twinkling harp and spiraling solo violins, form a tendriling harmonic background against which the vocal line can wander. This is one of several sections of the opera where I suspect the reduced forces will enhance the audibility of this orchestral detail.

Oh, I'm sorry: were you expecting the big recognition bang? Or perhaps Elektra's aria? 

You'll have to wait for live performance for that.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020


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


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: