Musical Introductions to Oedipus

During our meeting about The Antigone, we discussed the difficulties of transferring ancient Greek dramas to other art forms (as, for example, contemporary theatrical performance).  Oedipus Rex – or at least the myth upon which it is based – has been widely adapted and retold as everything from a foundation for classic Freudian psychology to a famous song of the 1950’s and 60’s. (See below.)
Among the more successful re-imaginings of Sophocles’ play itself was a 1927 dramatic oratorio composed by Igor Stravinsky from a script by Jean Cocteau. The original text was written in French and then translated into Latin. Stravinsky and Cocteau called their collaboration an “opera-oratorio.”  The Latin sections of the music are framed by a narrator, who speaks in the language of the audience. Stravinsky wrote Oedipus Rex at the beginning of his “neoclassical” period;  it’s considered one of his finest and most original works.  It runs about 40 minutes.

There are several good recorded performances.  The earliest modern (mono) recording was made in Cologne in 1951, with Stravinsky conducting and Jean Cocteau reading the narration in French.  In the 1960’s, Stravinsky (or his shadow, Robert Craft) conducted a stereo recording, which was narrated in English. While the earlier performance may be a little more raw (as befits the music), the latter recording is much fuller and clearer in sound and packs a powerful wallop of its own. Both are readily available on CD.

Colin Davis is another conductor identified with the score.  (Davis’ big break as a young conductor occurred when he filled it for an ailing maestro at Sadler’s Wells theater and had a smashing success.) His first recording (1960 – out of print) was based on that performance – Ralph Richardson provided the narration. Davis’ later recording (1983, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony) uses a French narrator.  Colin Davis emphasizes the lyrical quality of the music, Stravinsky, its formal, classical structure.  I am unfamiliar with other performances.
Finally, on a less elevated level yet still a work of genius, the MIT mathematics professor, Tom Lehrer, wrote his (in)famous song, Oedipus Rex, in the late 1950’s.  I’ve posted his performance here.


PS:  I attach here the Libretto for Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” (from Colin Davis’ CD), as these days CDs don’t always include it.

And here is a link to Comments on Stravinsky’s Oedipus by AL Malone (from that discusses some of the history and motivation behind Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

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