Posts Tagged ‘Richard Strauss’

The Don Juan Myth

I am not so much intrigued by the Don Juan myth as I am by its having intrigued so many others. On the face of it, I can see nothing particularly remarkable about the myth: Don Juan, an insatiable satyromaniac whom no woman can resist, strikes me as little more than a frankly rather crude male sexual fantasy. And yet, this seemingly uninteresting myth has exercised minds as distinguished as those of Molière, Mozart (and his librettist da Ponte), Pushkin, Byron, Richard Strauss, and, in a modern twist in which the mythical Don Juan Tenorio becomes the contemporary John Tanner, Bernard Shaw.  I am intrigued by what they all saw in this myth.

The only work based on this myth that I think I can claim to know to a greater depth than that merely of a nodding acquaintance is Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and, as I indicated in a recent post, this opera, despite some forty or so years of listening, I find puzzling in many respects. For Don Giovanni himself, the central character around whom everyone else and everything else seems to revolve, seems, to me at any rate, a complete blank. Music which would strike us as deeply felt if sung by any other character becomes, when sung by the Don, insincere: we know that his ardent avowals to Donna Elvira of his repentance are false; in the serenade that follows, we know that the heart-achingly beautiful avowal of love he expresses is not deeply felt, nor even shallowly felt: it is not felt at all. This creates a peculiar tension: how can music so richly expressive not express anything? Through centuries of interpretations, all sorts of things have been written by commentators who refuse to accept that this can be possible: music of such emotional depth must, they assume, indicate emotional depth in the character who is singing it, and they have tried to see in the character of Don Giovanni all sorts of things that simply cannot be justified by the text. Many Romantics thought the Don Giovanni is searching for his ideal love: he isn’t. As Leporello’s “catalogue aria” makes clear, it is mere prosaic quantity rather than any poetic quality that counts for the Don. More recently, director Kaspar Holten, who directed the piece for Royal Opera, thought Don Giovanni was trying to escape his own mortality, but, once again, there is nothing whatever in the text to indicate this. Not an inkling.

So let us accept what Mozart and da Ponte gives us. Much of Don Giovanni’s music suggests that it should be deeply felt, but it isn’t, and the sense of unease this imparts to the listener is, I think, precisely the point. Mozart’s music endows Don Giovanni with a tremendous vitality, and an irresistible charisma, but there’s nothing behind all this vitality and charisma – no search for Ideal Womanhood, nor Fear of Death, nor any of the other things that the preoccupations of the interpreter’s own time may choose to saddle him with. This lack of substance where substance is to be expected makes this, I think, a very disturbing work – perhaps even more so than Mozart’s next opera, the deeply disquieting Cosi Fan Tutte.

But I remain uncertain. Mozart’s operas – especially the three he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – are endlessly complex works, and one should always be prepared to modify one’s views on them. But I am now intrigued by how others have interpreted this myth.

So I am planning a course of reading on the matter. Over the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I am planning to read Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville (which, I believe, is where the myth began), Molière’s Don Juan, Pushkin’s The Stone Guest, and Bernard Shaw’s variation of the myth, Man and Superman. (I suppose I should really add Byron’s poem to that list, but let us restrict ourselves to drama for the moment.) And I am planning to record here, for what they’re worth, my thoughts on these works. And maybe, at the end of it all, I’ll have some inkling of why this myth has exerted to firm a grasp on the imaginations of so many.

And even if I don’t, a project such as this sounds fun.

I now therefore declare the Don Juan season officially open.

Strauss on my mind

I’ve had Strauss on the mind lately. Richard Strauss, that is, not Johann the Waltz King – although, to judge from the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, Richard could have gone in that direction had he so wanted.

It all started a few weeks ago, when I found out that I would be working for a couple of weeks in offices in central London. So, naturally, I looked to see what was on in London in the evenings during those two weeks. And I found, to my delight, that the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under their Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly, was giving over a few days a series of three concerts of Strauss and Mozart. So I booked myself for all three of them. I mean, it would have been churlish not to.

Strauss has a bit of an odd reputation. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that it was Mahler, Strauss’ contemporary, who was the true genius, pouring out his tortured soul in works of emotional profundity and spiritual intensity, while Strauss was merely a showman, who cared more for effect rather than for substance, who often strayed into the crude and the vulgar – a sort of musical Barnum and Bailey. While I have no doubt at all about the stature of Mahler, I have never been at all happy with such an appraisal of Strauss. Yes, he was a showman, he could be crude and vulgar, and, yes, there are many works of his in which showmanship takes precedence over substance. But this is by no means the whole story. In the first place, showmanship need not preclude depth, or even artistic integrity; and in the second place, the composer of Elektra and of Metamorphosen deserves to be taken seriously – every bit as seriously, to my mind, as the unremittingly serious Mahler.

The three concerts included what Chailly has described as Strauss’ “core” tone poems, plus the late work Metamorphosen. Interestingly, Chailly does not include Don Quixote among this “core”, insisting that it was conceived as a set of orchestral variations rather than as a tone poem. And neither does he include the Alpine Symphony, a work which probably does lend credence to Strauss’ reputation of being a showman rather than a serious artist. Even some of the “core” works don’t quite, perhaps, dispel that notion – but the boundary between artistry and craftsmanship seems to me a very blurred one at best. And anyone who says something such as Ein Heldenleben is not a supremely beautiful and moving piece of music is a bounder and a cad, and can meet me afterwards in the car park outside.

Ein HeldenlebenA Hero’s Life – formed the second half of the first of the three concerts. In the first half, we had one of Strauss’ earliest masterpieces – the gloriously ardent and swaggering Don Juan. The orchestra played superbly: the sound was mellow, but deceptively so, as, at the dramatic climaxes, it packed a tremendous punch; but even at its most dramatic, the sound never lost its refinement, never became harsh. And no matter how thick the orchestral texture may be, the sound was never congested: there was always a sense of space around the various strands of the music.

Sibelius had once commented that Strauss provided his listeners with rich and exotic cocktails, whereas he gave the listener pure spring water. We need spring water as well, of course: going straight from one rich and exotic cocktail to another can become a bit too much. Here, the spring water was provided not by Sibelius, but by Mozart, a composer who was very close to Strauss’ heart. Between Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, the Gewandhaus Orchestra accompanied Maria João Pires in a performance of Mozart’s 27th piano concerto. It is a work often described as being a late Mozart work, and indeed it is – although we should keep in mind that Mozart was only 35 when he composed it, and that the works Strauss had composed at that age are regarded as his early works. It is a work of ethereal beauty: there seems something quite other-worldly about it. Gone is the exuberance and the drama of Mozart’s earlier piano concertos: where, previously, the second group of themes had contrasted dramatically with the first, here, they seem to complement each other. The music does indeed dance along gracefully, but the brilliance of Mozart’s dancing in his earlier works seems to have vanished, leaving behind a ghost of its former self. Huxley had once commented that Mozart’s music is saddest when it seems to be happy, but never has the happy surface been quite so transparent as it is here, revealing the depths below. It is a work that smiles, and yet breaks the heart, and I don’t think I could hope to hear it performed better than I did here. There is a passage in the first movement development section that is particularly close to my heart: the key changes come so frequently and so quickly, that it seems to give an impression of drifting between keys: I know of no other music quite like this.

After the interval, we were in a different world entirely: Ein HeldelbenA Hero’s Life. In many respects, it’s a work of utter megalomania: in the section labelled “The Hero’s Works of Peace”, Strauss gives us a collage of themes from his own earlier pieces, leaving us in no doubt as to who the hero of the title is. But I think that to criticise the work on this ground is to miss the humour: whenever I hear this piece, I seem to see a twinkle in Strauss’ eye, a wink and a nudge. Similarly in the second section of the work, which depicts the hero’s enemies: it’s a glorious cacophony of winds, suggesting to absolute perfection a band of snivelling idiots. One may ask what is so very heroic about defeating such a miserable bunch, but once again, this is to miss the humour of the thing. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but break into a broad grin when I hear this.
And then, there is the love scene. The hero’s companion is depicted by a solo violin, and the hero, in the form of the orchestra, woos her ardently; but she is no doormat merely to do the hero’s bidding. Time after time, the violin solo seems to be responding to the hero’s amorous overtures, merely to go off into intricate cadenzas and arabesques: this is a companion who is very much her own person, and with her own mind, who will respond to the hero as and when she wants to, in her own time, and in her own way. And when she finally does, we have a love scene like no other in music: Strauss gives us sounds so gorgeous, and so opulent and sensual, that it’s almost indecent.

Then comes the battle scene, in which the hero defeats his enemies. This is a section that could come over as overblown – but in this performance, it was genuinely thrilling. The orchestra of about a hundred or so players, including five percussionists (yes, five – I counted ‘em!) went at it hammer and tongs, and yet, somehow, they never compromised the beauty of tone. It was magnificent. And afterwards, the enemies vanquished, we move into the hero’s works of peace – a glorious collage of themes of Strauss’ earlier works. In Don Juan, there had been a thrilling moment when a swaggering horn fanfare had sounded over the massed orchestra: we had heard this only earlier that evening; well, since that moment was so wonderful, Strauss thought he would repeat it again in Ein Heldenleben: and no, it doesn’t suffer from the repetition – it remained just as thrilling.

How does one finish a work such as this? Strauss decided not to pile Pelion on Ossa (or is that the other way round?) – after all the thrills and spills, he opts for a quiet ending, as the hero, having achieved all that could be achieved, renounces worldly things. The music is extraordinarily moving and beautiful. Showmanship? Perhaps. Who cares?

The second concert was not really in the class of the first: this was nothing to do with the playing or the conducting, but because the programme wasn’t as good. It started with Strauss’ early tone poem Macbeth, and interesting though it was to hear this played live, it isn’t a patch on Don Juan, the opening piece in the first concert. The Mozart piece was the 3rd violin concerto, and, lovely though it is, and beautifully played as it was by Christian Tetzlaff, it is not in the same league as Mozart’s last piano concerto. After the interval, we had Also Sprach Zarathustra, and again, I couldn’t help wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this: isn’t the very idea of setting Nietzsche’s philosophy to music a bit of a joke? Once again, I couldn’t help seeing a twinkle in Strauss’ eye. And similarly with the section in which the Übermensch dances: what sort of music would an Übermensch dance to? Strauss makes him dance to a Viennese waltz, and, although the rest of the audience didn’t seem to find this particularly funny, I thought it was hilarious. The piece also has the very famous opening, of course; and the ending too is very beautiful. But for all this, it seems to me somewhat incoherent: despite all the lovely moments and beautiful passages, there is much that seemed to me a bit dull and uninspired. It was all great fun, I suppose, but whereas Ein Heldenleben had been more than just fun, this, I don’t think, was. Once again, this is not a comment on the performance, but on the music itself: there is no doubt in my mind that Strauss was a very great composer … but it’s fair to say, I think, that he was not always great.

For the third and last concert, there can be no doubt at all: it was, from beginning to end, utterly magnificent. It started with the magnificent Tod und VerklärungDeath and Transfiguration; the final section of this work, representing the transfiguration of the soul after death (or some such), is a gloriously opulent passage even by Strauss’ standards; my expectations were high, and the orchestra did not disappoint. After that came another of Mozart’s late masterpieces – the clarinet concerto. I must admit that, immediately after the ending of Tod und Verklärung, my ears took a bit of time to adjust to Mozart’s very different sound world, but once they did, it was utterly irresistible. The soloist, Martin Fröst, shaped and coloured each phrase exquisitely, and as we moved into the interval we were left wondering how anything could possibly come after this and not seem an anti-climax.

What came afterwards was Metamorphosen, one of my personal favourite works by any composer. It is a piece for 23 strings, an unbroken span of some half hour or so; it was composed by Strauss in his eighties in the years after the end of the Second World War, and it is a lament for the depths into which the culture had sunk in which Strauss had been steeped. Now, Strauss’ relationship with Nazism remains controversial: from what I can work out, he was, personally, a very decent and generous man, without any hint at all of racism or of anti-Semitism; but the unfortunate fact remains that, in his admittedly old age, Strauss did allow himself to be wheeled on by the Nazis as the great representative of the German Musical Culture. It was naïveté on Strauss’ part rather than anything else, and while such naïveté cannot be anything other than reprehensible, to label Strauss a Nazi, as some have done, does seem grossly unfair. But, be that as it may, Metamoprphosen is a great masterpiece. I went through a phase in my early twenties – not, for various reasons, the most cheerful years of my life – when I used to listen almost obsessively to Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, and to this: its deep gloom and desolation, rising to uninhibited passion before subsiding once again, has long resonated with me, and listening to it live, and played and shaped so beautifully, was for me a particularly fulfilling experience.

The concert could have ended here, but they obviously wanted to end with a bang: so, to finish off, we had the hugely witty and exuberant Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’ musical depiction of the prankster from Germanic folklore. It is a tremendous orchestral scherzo, and it was played with great verve and gusto: it brought the house down.

So, after all that … was Strauss a great musical genius, or just a showman? I incline towards the first option – how could the composer of Metamorphosen be anything but a genius? – but frankly, I don’t know that I care much. Genius or showman, this is music that I love, and I wouldn’t be without it. And that’s all that really matters.

Starting again on “Don Quixote”

There was a time when virtually everything I read, I read for the first time. Those were the years of heady discovery, when I would survey all that I had yet to read, and determine that I would conquer, if not all, at least as much as I possibly could. It could be said, with some justice, that I was not so much a reader as a train-spotter, delighting myself by ticking off newly spotted trains on my list.

I was, of course, young then, but even in my youth, I soon became drawn to re-reading certain books – partly because I wanted to enter again those fictional worlds that had so enchanted me, and more importantly because I realised that so much of what I had already read I had not adequately taken in. Sometimes, this realisation would strike me even as I was reading the work: I could quite often sense, though not quite grasp, powerful undercurrents in what I was reading, and I’d know that I needed time for the work to sink into my consciousness; I’d know I needed to revisit. And now, with more years of reading behind me than I could possibly look forward to ahead, I find myself at a stage when the majority of what I read I have read before. I have always known, of course, that in my pursuit of literary excellence, I would never, as Alexander had done, run out of new worlds to conquer; but that realisation no longer spurs me, as it once had done, to conquer as many worlds as I possibly could: I find myself less enchanted now with the idea of conquest. What I want now is to understand as much as I can.

So now, Don Quixote. It is my fourth reading, but in some ways, it is my first: this fourth reading is my first with the mindset I now have. All books need the reader’s response to complete them, and, inevitably, my response now will be different from what it had been before.

And the translation I am reading is different also: it is John Rutherford’s version, published by Penguin Classics, and is one of a triumvirate of recent translations (the other two being by Edith Grossman and by Tom Lathrop) that have all garnered praise both for their accuracy, and for their liveliness and wit.

The first time I read Don Quixote, I was fourteen. I read the older Penguin Classics version, translated by J. M. Cohen. I found out later that this version had a reputation for being very scholarly and accurate, but a bit dull and lifeless. Certainly, “dull and lifeless” would have been at the time my own appraisal of the book, but whether this was due to the translation, or my being, as I suspect, too young to take in such a book, I don’t think I am in a position to say. My second reading came in my late 20s, when, having read a glowing recommendation of it in The Observer by the late Anthony Burgess, I excitedly purchased a re-issue of a translation made in the eighteenth century by Tobias Smollett (who, of course, was a fine novelist in his own right). Smollett’s version was everything Cohen’s wasn’t: it was colourful, lively, and very, very funny. Perhaps inevitably, Smollett had cast it in the mould of his own times: in his hands, it became an eighteenth century picaresque novel, of the kind Smollett himself used to write. It was raucous and energetic, but, many opined, it lacked the qualities of inwardness and of nobility, and the melancholy of unfulfilled and unfulfillable aspiration that had led Dostoyevsky to describe this as the “saddest of all novels”. Further, standards of translation were looser then than they are now: Smollett’s version was not always, so I’m told, the most accurate.

But so taken was I with the qualities this version possessed, I was not so concerned with those that it didn’t. So when I tackled the book again in my early 40s, it was Smollett’s version again that I went for. But now, with the new translations so widely acclaimed and so easily available, there seems no reason to put off a fourth reading. It has been about fourteen years since I last read this book: I seem to encounter it every fourteen or so years, so now is as good a time as any. Especially as so much of my reading these days is of literature written in the times of Shakespeare.

So, how should I approach this book now? It is not possible to discard all the baggage that comes with a work such as this: it is not possible, however much one tries, to put out of one’s mind what one has already heard and read. That Don Quixote is at the same time insane, in that he mistakes windmills for giants and sheep for armies, and also sane, for he can perceive in life a rare beauty that others cannot; that Sancho Panza is the ideal complement to Don Quixote because he is down-to-earth and can see the windmills and the sheep for what they are; that the novel is thus both sad and funny at one and the same time; and so on and so forth – all truisms that anyone could spout about the book without even having read a single page. Is it possible, I wonder, to put this out of my mind when reading, so I can approach it fresh? No, I don’t think it is. Inevitably, my view of Don Quixote – or of The Iliad, or of Hamlet, or of Faust, or of Anna Karenina, or of any of those books that have so exercised our collective consciousness over the centuries – is a view seen through the lens of past readers and commentators.

Well, I have started it now. And soon, I shall be posting here, no doubt, comments on it, which, since it is unlikely that I can think of anything to say about this book that has not already been said, are likely to be mere re-creations of comments that had been made before. At least in this way I can out-Borges Borges, for Borges’ Pierre Menard had merely re-written Don Quixote, whereas I, if I go about this correctly, have the opportunity of re-writing its critical commentary.

So now, in my armchair at weekends, in bed at night, on commuter trains while commuting, I find myself transported into the world of the great Don Quixote and his loving squire Sancho Panza – for, amongst other things, Don Quixote is also a great love story: rarely have two characters loved each other to the extent that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza love each other.

And sometimes, when I am not reading, I find myself listening to recordings of Richard Strauss’ magnificent tone poem Don Quixote. And when I do, I cannot help thinking that, with all due respect to John Rutherford, to Edith Grossman, and to Tom Lathrop, and, indeed, to all others who have attempted this monumental task of translating Cervantes’ novel, it is Rchard Strauss’ translation of Cervantes’ novel into a musical form may well be the greatest translation of them all.

The myth of Elektra

I was at the BBC Proms concert performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra a couple of weeks ago. I am not qualified to comment on the musical quality of the performance, although reviews by those who are tend to confirm my layman’s impression that it was utterly magnificent. I came out afterwards in a sort of daze, my head spinning, my mind too unsettled even to try to think of the immense drama that had been played out before me.

However, from near where I was sitting, a number of people – five by my count – walked out during the performance, the expression on their faces speaking more eloquently than words could ever have done not only of their boredom, but also of their utter contempt of that which was boring them so.

I tried to imagine myself as I was back in those heady days nearly 40 years ago, when I was trying to discover what this classical music lark was all about. How would my younger self have reacted to this harsh, uncompromising, jagged and tuneless piece of modernism? Yes, I think the music would have gone over my head completely; yes, I would have found the sounds produced unattractive; and yes, I think I too might have been bored by it all. But no, I don’t think I would, for all that, have walked out. For one thing, I like to think I would have had some degree of respect, or at least consideration, for other members of the audience who had paid to be there, and who may well have been concentrating hard on this demanding music: expecting them to interrupt their concentration to make room for my egress would, I think, have struck me, at the very least, as impolite. And secondly, I think I might have had the humility to put down my lack of appreciation to an insufficiently developed understanding; for even then, I think I was aware at some level that culture requires cultivation – that it is not reasonable to go to something as forbidding as Elektra with one’s ears untuned to its musical idiom and one’s mind unschooled to its aesthetic, and expect to be able to take it in. I might even have seen the concert as an opportunity to take a first tentative step towards an understanding. At least, I hope I would have reacted in such a manner: it is hard to look back over the years and judge accurately what one had been.

Of course, I shouldn’t make too much of this: indeed, I shouldn’t make anything at all out of this – only five dissidents from an audience literally of many thousands is a fairly nugatory matter, and I raise the matter only because it annoyed me at the time, and annoys me still. However, it is sometimes worth questioning one’s most firmly held assumptions. Culture may indeed need to be cultivated, but is there really any pressing reason to do so? It may be that it requires great effort and years of immersion into this mode of music to be able to appreciate something such as Strauss’ Elektra, but what precisely does one get in return? The story is horrific; the emotions depicted in the work, and projected to the listener, are rebarbative; there is no hint at any point of human redemption, or of that feature that Orwell had claimed must belong to tragedy – a sense that humanity is nobler than the forces that destroy it. One’s nerves are jangled by it, sure, but is that jangling of nerves in itself an end worth pursuing?

The myth of Elektra is not one that offers any comfort or solace, let alone entertainment by any reasonable definition of that word. And yet, the myth refuses to go away. In its outline, the story is simple: the princess Electra’s father, Agamemnon, had been murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra; and now, years later, Elektra awaits the return of her exiled brother Orestes; and when finally he does come, she helps him assassinate her mother Klytemnestra, and her mother’s lover Aigisthos. A simple and rather repulsive story. And yet, this story continues in its various forms to haunt the imagination. Amongst other things, it is the only story on which there survive plays by all three great Athenian tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – and comparing their various treatments of this story is fascinating.

Aeschylus’ play, The Cheophoroe (The Libation Bearers), is the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, and demands to be seen as such: although the protagonists are characterised up to a point, they are part of a wider pattern stretching back to the first part of the trilogy, Agamemnon, and forward to the last, The Eumenides. Here, the theme is justice – both human justice, and divine justice – and the endless cycles of violence and bloodshed engendered in pursuit of justice. Here, Orestes kills for the sake of justice: his father had been murdered, and it is but justice that his father’s death is avenged, and that he, his father’s son, should, with his father’s daughter, mete out what is right and just. But the threads stretch out far into the past and far into the future.  For Klytemnestra, too, had killed for the sake of justice: Agamemnon, leading his troops to Troy in order to carry out the Justice of Zeus, had sacrificed Iphigenia, at the altar of Artemis; he had, with his own hand, slit the throat of his own daughter, and Klytemnestra’s.

Artemis had insisted on this sacrifice. Agamemnon may have been pursuing justice in leading the Greek troops to Troy to avenge Paris’ abduction of Helen, but in order to achieve this justice, he must shed much innocent blood; and this shedding of innocent blood also calls out for justice. If Agamemnon is to shed innocent blood, Artemis had insisted, he must shed first the innocent blood of his own family, of his own daughter. For this, too, is justice.

And since that terrible day, which the chorus in Agamemnon cannot even bear to think on, Klytemnestra has been waiting for her husband to return. She has taken in the meantime a lover, Aigisthos, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, who has his own reasons, stretching back into generations, for wishing Agamemnon’s death: for generations, atrocities had been committed, the latest of these when Aigisthos had been a boy: his father, Thyestes, had been invited by his uncle Atreos, father of Agamemon, to what he believed was a feast of reconciliation; but in that feast, Atreos had fed Thyestes with the flesh of his own sons. Aigisthos’ father had unwittingly eaten of the flesh of Aigisthos’ brothers.

And so, Agamemnon, returning triumphant from Troy, the victorious soldier, is murdered by his own wife, Klytemnestra. Justice is served. But each act of justice is but a new crime calling for further retribution. And humans are caught in this infernal machine, each duty-bound to render justice, and each committing in the process a crime that but perpetuates the horror.

It is in this context that Aeschylus places the story of Elektra. The Gods demand justice; Man is the instrument of this Divine justice; and yet, Man has to take moral responsibility for the crimes committed in its pursuit. There is no end to this terrible logic, no respite. By the end of The Choephoroe, Orestes, having carried out Divine will, having justly murdered his mother who had also justly murdered her husband, can already see the Furies in pursuit: whatever the claims of justice, he has committed matricide, and must therefore be punished.

The third and last part of this trilogy appears to offer a way out. The goddess Athena institutes the concept of a “trial”: no more blind retribution, but a jury of twelve honest men and true to determine through civilised discourse the nature of the crime, the issue of guilt, and the appropriate nature of the punishment. The trilogy ends with the acquittal of Orestes, and a triumphant torchlit procession through the streets of Athens. However, while clearly this is among the many masterpieces that depict a journey from darkness into light, the light does not seem to me entirely without its dark shadows. For one thing, in this instance, the human institution of trial by jury doesn’t resolve the issue: the jury is hung, six votes each, and it takes the casting vote of Athena – in other words, divine intervention – to achieve what humans cannot, and bring to an end this cycle of violence. And neither are the Furies exiled: they cannot be. Athena incorporates them into the new legal system she has devised for humans, and this incorporation seems to me an acknowledgement that justice cannot be administered without, at some level, the presence of terror. The joy at the end of the trilogy seems to me very deeply qualified. And the more I read these plays, the more fatal these qualifications seem.

It is not difficult to see in these Aeschylean cycles of violence, in the repeated calls for justice and in the repeated bloodshed and atrocities, an image not only of our own times, but of all times since these plays were written. What human institutions we have to control these savage urges of ours seem precarious at best, and often compromised; and sometimes, indeed, the very reason for yet another cycle of bloodshed and retribution. The Furies cannot after all be banished.

If Aeschylus’ main interest was in the themes of justice and of cycles of violence, Sophocles was more interested in what this violence does to the human psyche. The past is still important, but the rights and wrongs stretch back neither so far, nor so deeply, as in Aeschylus’ plays. In this version of the story, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter because he had inadvertently offended Artemis by hunting on her sacred land. This terrible human sacrifice is not, here, a connecting link in the endless chain of historic rights and wrongs, but, rather, the humour of a cruel and heartless divinity. And Sophocles’ Elektra, unlike the Elektra of Aeschylus, has grown up a fierce and feral creature. Treated even worse than the slaves, starved and beaten, barely even recognisable as human, she has one thought and one thought only – the murder of her mother. This savage desire has invaded her entire being, and deformed everything about her. She undergoes through the course of the drama a vast range of emotions, but even those emotions that are, or should be, beautiful and sacred, are here deformed. She grieves when she hears of the death of her brother Orestes, but that grief is not merely an expression of the loss of one she has loved: it expresses also her rage that her mother can no longer be murdered. Conversely, her joy in finding her brother alive is not easily separated from her joy in realising that soon, very soon, her mother’s skull will be split open by an axe. And when the axe does fall, and we hear Klytemnestra’s screams offstage, what we see on stage is perhaps the greatest horror of all:

ELEKTRA: Stab her again –
if you have the strength!
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

By the end of the play, Elektra is utterly triumphant. But in her very victory is her defeat. The one thing she has desired, had desired above all else, has now been achieved, but the cost has been horrendous: it is hard to see her even as a human being.

I had seen this play over 20 years ago now – I cannot, I’m afraid, remember the translation used – in a nerve-jangling production directed by Deborah Warner, and with Fiona Shaw striking terror into the heart with a performance of the utmost savagery. Of course, Sophocles’ play itself is a work of the utmost savagery, and it was on this version of the Elektra story that Hugo von Hofmannstahl based his libretto for Strauss’ opera. He keeps reasonably close to the play – although he starts, not as Sophocles had done, with Orestes returning to Mycenae with his friend Pylades and his old servant, but with Elektra herself and the maidservants. In Sophocles’ play, the maidservants are largely sympathetic to Elektra, and are on stage throughout, discoursing with Elektra and providing commentary; in the opera, they are largely unsympathetic to her, and do not appear after the first scene. But the most significant change is in the great confrontation between Elektra and Klytemnestra: in the play, it is Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis who tells her of Klytemnestra’s dream, and when Elektra and Klytemnestra meet, they each speak of the justice of their respective causes, though each is unable to take in what the other is saying. But in the opera, neither character refers to past events: the focus is not on the past at all, but, quite unremittingly, on their present states of mind. It is Klytemnestra who describes her dream to Elektra, and here, in possibly the most terrifying passage of any opera, Strauss’ music twists and turn and curdles and churns and drifts off into multiple tonalities, evoking mental landscapes that most of us, hopefully, do not encounter even in our most horrific nightmares.

Elektra is on stage, still alive, at the end of Sophocles’ play: the tragedy is not that she dies, but, rather, in the deformation of her mind, in her defeat even as she claims victory. In Strauss’ opera, Elektra, her sole purpose in life achieved and with nothing more to live for, falls dead, in, one can but assume, an excess of ecstasy. But the sheer terror of brutal, implacable hatred is not something that leaves the listener easily. It has been two weeks now since that concert, and that sense of terror is with me still.

But perhaps the opera is not entirely to blame for that: always a sucker for punishment, I suppose, I have been immersing myself these last two weeks in Sophocles’ play, in translations by Robert Bagg and by Michael Ewans. (A production of Michael Ewans’ version may be seen here.)

In works I value written in languages to which I have no access, I often find myself comparing different translations; but whenever I compare translations of Greek tragedies, the differences are so often so great, I can’t help wondering whether the various translators are all working from the same text. I suppose it could also be the case that the original text contains so many different layers of meaning, that translators are forced to interpret, and highlight certain meanings above others. But I was glad I picked these two particular translations, as they are so very different in conception. Ewans (and his colleagues Graham Ley and Gregory McCart for the other Sophocles plays in the set) focuses hard on how the plays would have been staged in the Greek theatre: the various scenes are numbered, the strophes and antistrophes clearly marked, and so on. The language, if not necessarily monumental, is dignified. Bagg and Scully on the other hand aim for a greater fluidity of language, not afraid of intrusions of what may strike us as modern diction. When I had written earlier of James Scully’s translation of Sophocles’ Aias, I had been generally appreciative, but had complained of the occasional sense of bathos; but now, having read all the Sophocles translations by Robert Bagg and James Scully, I think that criticism had been more a reflection of my own expectations than anything else; for, as the translators say in the introduction, the plays of Sophocles range across a wide range of dictions, including the everyday, and that the expectation we have of a monumental quality does these plays no favours at all. Not knowing Greek myself I am in no position to argue; but it is fair to say, I think, that I have now become accustomed to their style of translation, and, while I am clearly unable to comment on its closeness either to the letter or to the spirit of the original, I no longer find in them those  moments of bathos that had struck me on my first reading.

However, I remain perplexed at some of the variations between the two translations. For instance, in Bagg’s translation, Elektra says near the start of the play to the chorus of maid-servants:

So how can I be calm
and rational? Or god-fearing?
Sisters … I’m so immersed
in all this evil, how
could I not be evil too?

In Ewans’ translation, this becomes:

My friends, in such a situation it’s impossible
to be modest and reverent; when times are bad
there is tremendous pressure to act badly too.

I suppose the two versions say similar things, but the effect is very different: “when times are bad” is hardly the same as “in all this evil”. I have no idea which one is closer to Sophocles, but in terms of how it reads in English, much prefer Bagg’s version here: it is more direct, and depicts a self-awareness on Elektra’s part of what she has become; in contrast, in Ewans’ version, Elektra’s lines seem merely defensive, and its phrasing seems to me dramatically weak.

But then, compare this following passage, when Elektra recognises her brother Orestes:

The hate of many years has melted into me,
And now I’ve seen you, I’ll never stop
my tears of joy. How could I stop?
I’ve seen you come back here first dead and then alive;
You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand.
– from the translation by Michael Ewans

 I think this is splendid – especially that final line. But here is the same passage in Bagg’s translation:

My hatred for her runs too deep.
Since you’ve come home, I feel
so much joy it makes me cry.
How could I not? One moment
you’re dead, the next, you’re not!
you’ve made me believe anything
can happen.
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

In this instance, it is Ewans’ version that seems to me both poetically and dramatically more impressive. But I must confess myself puzzled by their renditions of that last line. No matter how knotty the original text may be, it is hard to believe the same line of Greek yielding the different interpretations “You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand” and “You’ve made me believe anything can happen.” These are times when I wish I had a classical education, so I could read what the original says.

However, having spent these last two weeks since the concert perusing these two versions of Sophocles’ Elektra, and having listening to a recording of it (I have the famous recording conducted by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with Birgit Nilsson as Elektra), I find I am no nearer an answer to my original question: why should we cultivate a taste and receptive faculties to take in something so horrific and so utterly devoid of nobility or of elevated thought as this? Oh, of course, one can wheel out all the old arguments about how tragedy purges us, and all the rest of it, but I have never quite believed that: I don’t think a work such as Elektra purges us of anything – not me, at any rate. In Aeschylus’ play, this horrific story is part of a larger pattern in which, even in the joyous finale, the dark shadows obstinately remain. And in Sophocles’ play, and in the modernist masterpiece created by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl, we are presented with an unblinking look into the darkest abyss of the human spirit; these works depict humans so deformed morally and mentally that they can barely be recognised as human at all. And no, I cannot defend the fascination I obviously feel for these works. Maybe those who walked out had a point after all!