The first time I heard Stravinskij I had no idea who he was. Like many of my generation (I was born in ’92) it happened during my childhood, sitting on the floor in front of a cathode-ray tube watching Fantasia, the 1940 Disney animated film. There, listening to background music to images depicting the birth of the universe and planet earth, I unwittingly heard the ostinatos and dissonances of Le Sacre du printemps, one of the most revolutionary pieces of music of the 20th century. I did not appreciate the importance of that ballet and of Stravinskij himself to the history of music until I was at university, and it took me a while to dislocate it from those childish fantasy worlds of volcanoes and dinosaurs, to explore its ‘adult’ meanings. Even then, however, there was something magical that attracted me, leaving me open-mouthed and wide-eyed in admiration of “that strange music”.
Fantasia Dinsey (1940), Le Sacre du printemps
What I discovered studying Stravinskij left the ten-year-old me bewildered. The music, which had seemed so perfect in the purity of youthful naivety, was greeted in 1913 with laughter, insults and whistles, in a Parisian hall split between indignant conservatives and enthusiasts of anything that was avant-garde. It was just the dance style or the way the dancers were dressed that shocked (they were wearing Russian dresses instead of tutus), but Stravinskij’s new form of composition, and particularly the strange (and soon famous) dissonant chord repeated in the middle of the score which, to laymen, suggested a “casual slap” on the piano keys. In short, what seemed to me like a triumph was, at the time, a near disaster.
Fifty years after his death, it is strange to think of Stravinskij today as an unlistenable experimentalist or an extreme avant-gardist, locked up in his famous (and very crowded) ivory tower, judging us all for our stupidity. Despite the uproar of the opening night, we find, when we lift the veil with which we often colour historical events to make them more interesting, a very intelligent musician and astute connoisseur of the music industry who, in one way or another, has always managed to make people talk about him for diametrically opposed reasons. Stravinsky was originally leader of the historical avant-garde, but, within only a few years, became the most conservative member of that same movement. He was always changing with the times, constantly distancing himself from anyone who approached his style.
Indeed, thirteen years later he wrote Oedipus Rex, a work that apparently has very little to do with Le Sacre du printemps. Stravinskij was fully in his neoclassical period at the time, having completely abandoned the wild compositional style of his early works. Everything was now monumentally still, closed, static, almost totally immobile. This is precisely what Stravinskij wanted. His aim was to speak exclusively through music, a little like Wagner with his “total music”, capable of narrating what happens on stage in its own right. Of course, everything that made him famous and innovative from the start — his trademark rhythmic ostinatos and so-called “harmonic dissociations” (superimpositions of different harmonies or keys) — was still there, but his once extreme experimentation no longer is. Stravinsky had taken a big step backwards towards romanticism and even Bach. If before his scores were a mysterious assemblage of notes, now they were filled with classic labels ‘aria’, ‘duet’ and ‘chorus’. Something in Stravinskij had profoundly changed.
Igor Stravinskij (Getty Images)
Something had changed in all of music, during a post-war period when confidence in the avant-garde had been demolished. The First World War showed the whole world that everything can be destroyed in an instant, and faith in the role of art as a means of discovering a future reality had diminished. Returning to classical forms was both an attempt to reassure and an admission of guilt: Stravinsky no longer felt capable of discovering, researching or anticipating anything with his art. This was a heavy blow for him and for music in general. On the one hand, the avant-gardists were heading towards ever-greater compositional complexity which gradually made them the preserve of experts. On the other hand, opera was undergoing a fossilisation that meant the form would longer be a mirror of contemporary reality but a memory of something that no longer exists.
But let’s return to Oedipus, that classical and resounding work. As we have said, Stravinsky wanted his music to speak alone, so he needed a well-known subject, like Oedipus, that needed no explanation. And that was just the start. To avoid placing the focus on the text the composer opted for Latin, a language that could not be immediately understood by most. As Stravinsky himself declared, it is a “[…] material that is not dead, but petrified, becomes monumental and immunised against any trivialisation”. His choice was the result of an unexpected enlightenment, when by chance Stravinskij found a book on Saint Francis in a stall in Genoa. In that book he read about how the saint used Provençal for the most solemn parts of his texts, as he believed the language was closer to prayer. Hence Stravinksij’s decision to use Latin. In its musicality, the language was to be a vehicle for mysticism. Furthermore, Stravinskij ardently did not want to be understood, because he felt that there was nothing left for him to communicate.
Yet he still felt obliged to include a talking narrator, a figure who does not exist in the opera or the oratorio. The narrator is responsible for introducing the scenes, usually in the language of the country in which the opera is staged. To better understand this choice, we spoke to the narrator of Spoleto’s Oedipus, Pauline Cheviller, who told us:
As you said, the narrator introduces the audience into the action. Stravinsky's music could stand on its own, it already tells the essential of the story by the rhythm, the changes of rhythm, the sounds, the mood, the various tonalities, etc... it already tells the questions, the troubles, the revolts, the total disarray... The music introduces the protagonists one by one throughout the drama. Each role has its own musical character. The narrator merely puts words to what is already audible, sensed. It is a complementary point of attachment. The narrator definitively establishes through the verb what the music is already telling. He makes the sensations concrete.
And the staging? It doesn’t exist. Or rather, it is there but as if it were not. So much so that Stravinksij coined a new label for Oedipus, an opera-oratorio, and specified that it could easily be performed in concert form. The score’s indications state that there should be no stage depth, so that all voices are on the same level and the chorus is seated on a single line in the centre of the stage, wearing black cloaks and hoods throughout. Only three characters are permitted to stand: Tiresias, the Shepherd and the Messenger, although only their head and arms can move and they must always wear a mask. This mise-en-scène denies any kind of theatricality, distances itself from any form of empathy and vehemently rejects any expressivity that is not musical.
Schizzi per la messa in scena di Igor Stravinskij
Many contemporary directors ignore Stravinskij’s indications, as with Peter Sellars’s very successful Oedipus Rex in London, in which Pauline Cheviller featured once again as the narrator. The artist tells us about this experience:
That's a difficult question to answer. I'm not a director. Simply, having worked with Peter Sellars on this very work "Oedipus Rex", I realised that his minimalist staging, composed only of five royal seats, made it possible to highlight, in my humble opinion, the smallness of man and, at the same time, his magnificence. The monumental and the abysmal nothingness of the world. The empty and the full. Always. It is a way, in my opinion, to symbolically and modestly represent the world as it is, in its essence, the human condition, man, honestly, totally. Scenography is yet another language, another instrument at the service of music. Everything must communicate, exchange, relay, between the auditory, the visual, the sensory, in order to create emotion and transmit.
The audience sits still and the chorus mirrors it, also sitting still. Their masks deny expressivity, the prohibition of movement and the impossibility of contact express the incommunicability of the subject. Let us leap forward ninety-four years to Spoleto today. We realise that the same conditions Stravinsky was seeking still apply to any theatrical and musical work today. We are the anonymous statues, those engulfed by the inevitability of destiny, the pivotal theme of this opera-oratorio: the result of whatever has rained down on us, like in a Greek tragedy. Like the Thebans, sitting on our folding seats in Piazza Duomo, we witness the collective drama, powerless spectators of what is happening before our eyes. And yet, this physical presence brings a spark of hope which would have been impossible only a few months ago.
The last question we put to Pauline, then, was what it means to finally be able to return to the stage, even with all of the limitations:
Coming back on stage is this opportunity to offer as many people as possible what is happening at the same time. Beats, pulsations, exchanges, glances, at the same time precisely. Try to connect with the living. Going out, going to look for, to grasp, through the different languages I was talking about, the different instruments of communication. It is being able to create, to recreate together an extraordinary sacred present moment. It is being able to remember that we are flesh, palpitations, echoes and resonances. To be able to play life itself. Going back on stage is reaffirming life through art.