On Le Sacre, Oedipus Rex, and Igor Stravinsky

This week, I had the students who are studying Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology and Biblical Narrative check out a couple of works by Igor Stravinsky:

  • The Rite of Spring (the ballet)
  • Oedipus Rex (the opera-oratorio)

For Oedipus, we watched the one-hour DVD of the Seiji Ozawa production (the one with Jessye Norman) in class; for the other, I had them check out The Rite on  Youtube — it’s one of the productions in which the performers did they best to reenact Nijinsky’s original choreography, and they also attempted to resurrect — as faithfully as possible — the original costumes and set design.

Note: this isn’t a class of music majors. We’re focused on mythology, and I’m trying to get them to grapple with that trend within (early 20th-century) modernism in the Anglo-European arts towards an interest in the ancient, pre-Christian, pagan world.

Anyway, something interesting cropped up on one of the discussions, where a student noted (astutely; it’s been said before many times, but this student has no way of knowing it) that The Rite itself can be understood to consist of a kind of satire of the more familiar forms of ballet that preceded it. I suggested that it was not so much a satire as an assault, which amused the group, but they agreed that it does seem to be a work brimming with violence, and not just internally, such as in its use of human sacrifice, but also in a meta-artistic level: a kind of violence is enacted against ballet, against audiences whose expectations bind ballet into a form of mere grace, pretty dancing, and sugary music.

That, certainly, made sense to me.

But it made me wonder why Stravinsky would have chosen Oedipus Rex at the moment he did. The liner notes to my DVD of the Ozawa production suggest that the piece is basically his first Neoclassical masterpiece, though it wasn’t recognized as such at the time. This in itself is notable — Stravinsky’s return to classical forms is announced with a similar return to classical narrative.

But I wonder if there’s not a second way to read this: if we look at The Rite of Spring as a major act of musical aggression — aggression against the musical tradition from which it sought to break free — then it’s possible to read the work in terms of Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence: the idea that authors, in order to write great works, tend both to imitate but also to have to slay their artistic predecessors, just as their artistic predecessors did to their artistic predecessors. There is something fundamentally Oedipal in this suggested relationship between authors and the predecessors whom they identify as their inspiration, their forebears, or whatever.

What’s really interesting, then, is that when Stravinsky turns to neoclassicism, when he makes a return — of sorts — to the very tradition against which he so successfully made his attack, he returns with the story of Oedipus, the man who (unknowingly) slew his father, and committed incest with his mother while he sat upon  his own father’s throne… and then fled in ignominy, banished in blindness. What is Stravinsky saying here? Is he playing the role of Oedipus, subconsciously? Is there a sense of capitulation in him? Is he declaring artistic maturity, for he has left the city he ruled and corrupted by unjustifiable violence?

I’m not sure, but it certainly does seem to be an interesting choice of narrative for the work, and I’m not sure I can quite buy that it was simply a choice driven by the desire to work with a story everyone knew… I can’t help but suspect something unconscious was maybe going on as well…

In any case, I’ve posted videos for The Rite before (here’s that link). The Ozawa production is also available on Youtube, apparently in its entirety:

Does it say something about me that when I finally hit upon this sense of Stravinsky as having committed violence in The Rite, the first thing that occurred to me was to imagine him on a rampage, burning  all the remaining operas of all history, burning down the music libraries… while of course keeping a stash of the best stuff for his own private collection? A kind of authoritarian politicization of artistic practice, or something… it’s not that I imagine Stravinsky would have done such a thing — in his “auto”-biography (co-written with Robert Craft, or that’s what we’re supposed to say) he reminisces positively about operas he saw in his youth, and I imagine he wouldn’t want to deny others the pleasure of seeing them.

Still, it is a compelling sort of figure to imagine: a warrior composer. Perhaps I shall end up with a series of Stravinsky stories, or stories about figures uncannily like Stravinsky…

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