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Elektra Triumphant

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Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung approached the human mind as a museum. They toured patients’ inner galleries, focusing on the permanent collections. What a show the princess Elektra would have offered, a display so disturbing that it gave birth to a psychoanalytical theory. Jung coined the term “Electra complex” in 1913, ten years after the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote his play Elektra, based on Sophocles’ classic drama, and four years after Richard Strauss transformed Hofmannsthal’s play into his most musically daring opera. For Hofmannsthal, the character of Elektra (to use the German spelling) must have exercised a powerful appeal, for she embodied the fevers and perfumes of fin-de-siècle art. As drawn to interiors as were Freud and Jung, Hofmannsthal saw opportunity in Elektra—the opportunity to depict a tortured mind, to open the doors to her inner museum. Strauss, more pragmatic than the sensitive aesthete who would become his favorite librettist, saw a good story.

In the myth, Elektra’s father (King Agamemnon) has sacrificed her sister (Iphigenia) to appease the goddess Artemis, who in return revives the stilled winds and allows Agamemnon’s ship to proceed to the battlefields of the Trojan War. During Agamemnon’s ten-year absence, Queen Klytemnestra has taken a lover. The queen, ill-disposed toward her husband to begin with, is outraged by their daughter’s death. Agamemnon returns home, to die at the hands of Klytemnestra and her paramour, Aegisth. In Greek antiquity, every party wronged must exact vengeance. Now, just as her mother avenged the young Iphigenia, Elektra seeks revenge for her father’s death. His killers must die. Sophocles captures all this in a story of corrosive sorrow. Hofmannsthal chose not to mention Iphigenia in his version of the legend, thus erasing sympathy for Klytemnestra. His queen is no grieving mother. She is a self-centered adulteress who wants her husband gone. His murder drives Elektra to the edge of insanity.

When Strauss saw Hofmannsthal’s Elektra in 1905, he knew it could become an opera, yet he balked at the subject, worried that it too closely resembled his last stage work, Salome. That story, drawn from the Bible and thus also set in antiquity, capitalized on flamboyance. The nymphet of the title teases her stepfather, King Herod, with a flood of adolescent sexuality and consummates her own degenerate fantasies as she fondles the severed head of John the Baptist. For this, Strauss invented a musical opulence that outdid even Berlioz and Wagner. The artistic distance between Salome and his first two operas, Guntram and Feuersnot, corresponds to the space Beethoven put between his Second Symphony and the Eroica. Salome, with its stunning color, acoustic volume, and dissonances—not to mention the lurid story—earned its composer a reputation as music’s current bad boy, modernism’s paragon.

Like most writers, Hofmannsthal cultivated a healthy opinion of his own talent and remained vigilant to whatever could advance its recognition. Unwilling to forfeit an opportunity to link his name with the world’s most celebrated living opera composer, he went to work on Strauss, emphasizing all that distinguished Elektra from Salome. He prevailed. Strauss, with his exquisite stage sense, tailored Hofmannsthal’s play, cutting it by a third. Hofmannsthal bore Strauss’ cuts with magnanimity. Only in subsequent projects would their work become a genuine collaboration, one that lasted two decades, until Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929. Their partnership, on a level with Mozart and Da Ponte’s, resulted in five more of Strauss’ most memorable works for the stage, including Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Arabella.

Some critics condemn Elektra’s creators for dismissing women as hysterics. But this is no tale told by a pair of misogynists. Elektra, a powerful woman, knows what she wants and does what she must. If at last she enlists a man to murder the queen and her lover, she remains the avenging force, for she has decreed the transgressors’ fate.

That said, Elektra spends less time penetrating psyches than aiming for its listener’s gut. While Hofmannsthal meant to bring Freud into the act, Strauss’ cuts pare the libretto to a straightforward tale of good-over-evil. Strauss removed any moral complication the writer may have retained from Sophocles. As Bryan Gilliam writes in his Elektra monograph, Strauss “sacrifice[ed] psychological depth and motivational complexity in order to achieve… musical goals.” What remains is painted in primary colors, a tight fusion of action, place, and time. Strauss’ job was to find the musical analogue for this drama.

Elektra’s orchestra is its Greek chorus, commenting on the action. Here, as in Salome, Strauss fit sound to subject. To those who ridiculed him for resorting to what his biographer Matthew Boyden has called “the most contrapuntally complex work of music ever written,” scored for 111 musicians playing 120 instruments that generate a teeth-shaking roar, Strauss had a ready response: “When a mother is slain on the stage, do they expect me to write a violin concerto?”

At Elektra’s premiere, in Dresden on January 25, 1909, some listeners believed Strauss had gone too far. He himself wrote that he had “penetrated to the uttermost limits of harmony… and of the receptivity of modern ears.” But, as Boyden warns, to concentrate on “the ugly and the shocking” is to misread Elektra, although he overstates the case in calling the opera “a work of almost conventional lyricism,… probably Strauss’s most fluid score, as singable and melodious as anything by Mozart.” His point is that Elektra is not a modernist manifesto, nor was Strauss’s next opera, Der Rosenkavalier, a retreat into orthodoxy. In Rosenkavalier, music would match the elegantly upbeat story. Here it matches a tale of obsession and revenge. In both operas, Boyden continues, Strauss was true to the tradition that formed him. And in Elektra, he “confirmed both the conventions of his past and the conservatism of his future.” Strauss scholar Michael Kennedy is blunter:“The theory that after Elektra Strauss shied away from ‘modernity’ and retreated into a cosy world free from atonality is rubbish.”

The opera unfolds in seven sections. In (1), the servants prepare us for Elektra’s entrance. In (2), Elektra raises a plea to Agamemnon. In (3), we meet Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, a stable presence dropped into a dysfunctional family and thus a destabilizing figure in this somersaulting world. (4) In this central episode, we understand what Elektra faces in Klytemnestra, a mother who makes Joan Crawford look like Carol Brady. (5) Believing her brother dead, Elektra determines to murder Klytemnestra and Aegisth herself. She tries to enlist Chrysothemis into her plan. (6) A messenger arrives to confirm Orest’s death, then reveals the death as a ruse. He, the herald, is Orest. (7) Orest kills the queen and Aegisth. Elektra dies. Strauss builds this two-hour span from many pieces—tender love songs, waltzes, tearing dissonance. And every piece fits.

I cannot verify Boyden’s claim that Strauss has threaded 63 leitmotifs through his score, each stemming from the figure D-A-F-D, but the contention itself attests to the work’s simultaneous simplicity and complexity. The orchestra announces the first three notes of the D-A-F-D figure in the opening bars. Minutes later the figure recurs in full, and we understand what it means. To the four tones, Elektra utters the four syllables of her dead father’s name: Agamemnon.  

Throughout, Strauss varies his four-note cell, creating signatures for his actors and triggers for their actions, all while weaving a dense web of musical markers that engulf us, overtly and subliminally. The Agamemnon theme recurs in its primary form at crucial points, and besides opening Elektra, it ends the opera. Among its many variants: the despondent, descending figure associated with Orest’s supposed death; the murmuring low brass that stalks Klytemnestra (murmuring Agamemnon’s name, or hers?) as she laments her tortured dreams; and, at the opera’s climax, the shift into the major mode as Chrysothemis exults with a cry of Es ist Orest! The music says even more than her words. It says Mission accomplished!

More breathtaking still is what the orchestra offers in the Recognition Scene. As the messenger announcing Orest’s death changes his story and tells Elektra her brother is indeed alive, she begins to grasp this herald’s identity. “Who are you, then?” she asks. Hofmannsthal envisioned a few moments of silent action after this question. According to his stage direction: “The solemn old servant, followed by three other servants, enters quietly from the courtyard, throws himself before Orest and kisses his feet. The others kiss Orest’s hands and the hem of his garment.” Emerging as if from nowhere comes the opera’s most transparent music, a lilting pianissimo tune generated by the Agamemnon motif, rising and falling, a song in itself (which is how Strauss asks the orchestra to play it), mirroring the rebirth of Elektra’s world as she recognizes her brother. The music alone can support the scene and does so even if the stage direction is not followed (often it is not). But to witness a production in which the servants appear while the orchestra sings is to understand how Strauss wed his art to Hofmannsthal’s, creating stage magic.  

Strauss does not limit himself to working with the Agamemnon theme. He also unifies and comments on the action by repeating themes literally. In her opening monologue, to five repeated notes—one long and three short staccato, followed by a final rising note—Elektra asserts that Agamemnon will return (so kommst du wieder). We hear this figure again as Klytemnestra explains the power residing in the jewels—Steine, literally stones—that hang from her neck. When the “herald” reveals that Orest is alive, a ray of light emerges in the form of a muted fanfare, which reappears in the celebration after Orest dispenses his mother and her lover. Even Elektra’s final dance is prefigured early, before 60 bars have passed.

Of the score’s many beauties, Chrysothemis owns two that stand above the music’s contours, proclamations that detach themselves from their context and head for the sky: Kinder will ich haben! (her hymn to motherhood) and Es ist Orest! Chrysothemis wants to leave the past behind, but nothing about her suggests weakness. She is what she seems, a foil to her sister, and a tough one. She stands her ground against Elektra. No stranger to violence, she applauds the murders. And while Elektra appears to dismiss her sister’s yearning for children, she also sees Chrysothemis’s point. Children continue the bloodline. They fulfill the wishes even of the dead: Glücklich ist, wer Kinder hat, Elektra sings—“happy are they who have children.” And so she treats her brother with a mother’s sympathies. “Child,” she calls him, having traded her own hope of love for the revenge that fills her and inches toward birth.

Elektra has set this nightmare world right, but that act can have no encore. Her death is no ritual punishment devised for a strong woman. As the final C major chord confirms, it is an apotheosis. This museum’s closing time has come.

Larry Rothe is author of Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music.

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