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[August 10, 1962] Eyes on Oedipus (Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex)

[I am pleased to present an unusual piece from our fan-turned-columnist, Vicki Lucas. It covers one of the oldest fantasies, as presented by one of the newest musical artists. As we all have had a Classical education (do you remember your Latin declensions?) this review of a modern interpretation of Oedipus should be right up your alley…]

by Victoria Lucas

“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Frederick Douglass 8/3/1857

Those of you who have read my previous columns may remember that I have strange tastes in music (hallucinating music as a tactile object when I heard a totally new form) and that I have a somewhat political slant on some things (my participation in a lie-in and my feminist musings last time).  The above remark of the former slave Frederick Douglass is relevant to some music I’ve been listening to—and its composer.

Last year I was surprised and delighted to hear relatively modern music on television and see Igor Stravinsky’s 1927 oratorio Oedipus Rex. So when I returned from Stanford, I checked out of the library the 1952 record of Stravinsky conducting, with Jean Cocteau as narrator. I’ve been listening to it over and over. Stravinsky is best known for Rite of Spring, a ballet with a throbbing beat that caused a riot at its premiere in 1913, but this music is very different.

And then I heard about Stravinsky’s return this year to Russia for the first time since 1914. On this same trip he conducted concerts in South Africa. I found out that Stravinsky appears also to have politics. He will not drink Russian vodka but asks for Polish, saying that Russia did terrible things to the Poles (a slant on Stalin, perhaps?). In South Africa in May he did not know that he had been scheduled to appear before whites only, and when asked if he would like to appear before a mixed audience he replied, “I would like to appear before human beings, that’s all.” He asked to give a free concert to those the South Africans call Bantu (blacks), and was allowed to do so.

So I started thinking about politics in Oedipus Rex. Not just by Stravinsky. The literary original was a play by Sophocles first performed about 430 BC. There was also a play by another ancient Greek playwright, Euripides (best known for Medea), but the script did not survive; there are fragments. Also, Stravinsky asked Jean Cocteau (best known for his film Beauty and the Beast) to write the libretto. That took three tries that may not survive, but which may have been reworked into Cocteau’s 1928 play. And there was the Catholic cardinal Jean Daniélou, a seminarian at the time, who translated Cocteau’s libretto (with Stravinsky’s corrections) into Latin, Stravinsky’s chosen language.

Everyone knows about Oedipus: Freud’s Oedipus Complex presented as Everyman’s desire to kill his father and marry his mother.  However, the real story is ancient. Sophocles’ original Greek title of his play was “Oedipus Tyrannos,” but it is commonly known by its Latin title. The word “tyrant” is more accurate when it comes to Oedipus — an unconstitutional monarch accepted by popular acclamation.

You also probably know the story, but briefly it is this: Oedipus was born to a king and his wife but under a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The royal couple gave the baby away to kill it, but it was given to and adopted by another couple. When Oedipus is old enough, he consults the oracle, who tells him the same prophecy, whereupon he leaves his adoptive home, unwittingly encounters his father and kills him. On his way he finds the Sphinx, whose riddle he solves, thereby saving a city from starvation. He is acclaimed king and by custom marries the old king’s widow. The dramatic works start at the point where a new crisis forces Oedipus to consider his past, revealing that the prophecy was true and making it necessary for him to leave his throne.

Stravinsky’s piece was written as a short opera.  The library recording is an oratorio–music with minimal staging and costumes.  As in the premiere in Paris, the narration on this recording is in French and the libretto in Latin.

The idea of using Latin was something that captured Stravinsky’s imagination because, in 1925, his native “Russian, the exiled language of my heart, had become musically impracticable, and French, German, and Italian were temperamentally alien.” Stravinsky felt uprooted (“déraciné”) from his native Russia because war and revolution had made his return impossible by destroying his family home and fortune. Thinking about Latin, he realized he could probably use its “monumental character” to create the “still life” he wanted. He also found it compatible in “scansion” (rhythm) with his music.

So he wrote to Jean Cocteau, whose remake of the Sophocles play Antigone he admired. But when Stravinsky finally felt he could use the third draft he also entrusted the Latin translation to Cocteau, who knew a 20-year-old seminarian. So someone my age translated Cocteau’s work into “Ciceronian Latin” (not medieval in pronunciation). And he apparently did it with the original Greek in hand or in mind, because the Latin approximates Sophocles rather well, at least where I could see the Greek compared with English.

What are the differences between Stravinsky’s oratorio, Cocteau’s play, Sophocles’ play, and fragments of a play by Euripides? Stravinsky’s and Cocteau’s work is based on Sophocles’ play, so there are more subtle differences among those three. Euripides is another matter entirely.

For one thing, in Euripides’ play there is no plague. In Sophocles’, Thebes is under siege by a plague. As it happens, there was a plague in Athens (Sophocles’ home theater) at the time Sophocles wrote. Was this the first time that a play was set somewhere else to avoid accusations of political criticism? If so, it certainly wasn’t the last. (Shakespeare used the device a number of times in the sensitive Elizabethan political climate in which one could easily find oneself beheaded.) Apart from the plague, Athens was under siege by Sparta in this second year of the Peloponnesian War.

The plague and the siege by the Sphinx (rather than Sparta) figure largely in both Sophocles and Stravinsky. The current (430 BC) head of Athens was also a tyrant, Cleon. He was described by contemporaries as a “demagogue,” and three years later (427 BC) his opinion of what should happen to a city in the Athenian empire whose people had revolted and were put down was to kill all the men and enslave all the women and children. Fortunately, at the last moment someone rescinded that order.

The fictional plague of Thebes figures large in Stravinsky’s work as motivation. Early on the chorus repeats “serva nos” (save us), three notes forming a tritone, which, along with descending and ascending thirds, create a repeating musical theme of threes in the oratorio. It was at a particular type of crossroads that Sophocles has Oedipus kill his father King Laius–a trivium (three roads coming together). Stravinsky was taken with the concept of the trivium and won’t let us forget it while those thirds and tritones are played.

Stravinsky’s Oedipus is less affected by the pleas of the chorus than Sophocles’ tyrant. Instead of telling the chorus he feels their pain (as in Sophocles), he says, “I, the brightest Oedipus, will save you.” He promises to search for the killer of Laius after his brother-in-law Creon brings news that an oracle has decreed that the plague will not leave the city until the death of Laius is “avenged.” He tells Creon that it is unlikely they will find the perpetrator of such an old crime and, once again calling himself “the brightest,” boasts of solving the riddle of the Sphinx and says he will solve this too. The Latin for what he promises to do is “eruam,” which has three syllables and is an uncommon word for “search,” but it matches the Greek word Sophocles used, which is more like “root out,” and Stravinsky repeats those three syllables.

Cocteau’s introduction to his own play states: “It is not a piece of theater that you are going to see. It is a torture, a famous cause, a trial.” This is particularly true of Cocteau’s version of the tale, in which Oedipus is on trial but doesn’t see it that way.

Oedipus’ behavior is consistent in the three scripts:

  • Oedipus won’t take advice and sabotages every effort to spare him the fate he pursues and finally faces. If he had followed Jocasta or Creon inside and had private conversations, perhaps that would have led to his leaving the city and never being exposed. Perhaps this would have placated the gods, given that leaving office and living as a pauper would have been punishment, maybe even punishment enough given his sense of entitlement. But it wouldn’t have satisfied his sense of drama.
  • He attacks Tiresias when that prophet is trying to save him. Oedipus threatens Tiresias instead of taking his advice, unnecessarily provoking him into a public disclosure.
  • He attacks his brother-in-law when that worthy tries to calm him down, accusing him of being in a plot with Tiresias.
  • He even dismisses Jocasta’s increasingly desperate efforts to get him to shut up and go inside. When he learns that he was picked up by a shepherd who delivered him to a childless couple who raised him, he chooses to believe that he might be the son of mythical creatures or gods. When Jocasta gives up and “flees” (Cocteau’s version), he opines that she is ashamed of the possibility that he was the son of a slave.
  • Finally he interviews the shepherd who took him to his adoptive father. He says (Cocteau) “I order you to tell me everything. If you are stubborn, I will have you tortured.” When the shepherd pleads with him, Oedipus calls out, “Bind him!”

At every turn, Oedipus refuses to see the truth. Then he blinds himself when he does see it, still not wanting to see what is plainly before him—that he has been the ruin of his wife and children as well as himself. (At least this is true in the three scripts we have; Euripides has Jocasta accompany him to exile, and in that version he does not blind himself. Sophocles and then Stravinsky are harder on him, and Cocteau hardest of all.)

Why did Oedipus attack his father and his father’s retinue in the first place? This is never settled in the Stravinsky script. In both Sophocles’ and Cocteau’s version it happens because: (Sophocles) “They ordered me out of the way”; (Sophocles and Cocteau, Cocteau’s words translated by me) “They jostled me, I hit … I killed!” What a temper this man has! He threatens everyone around him but his wife, and even her he accuses of being haughty and unmotherly.

The chorus’ reaction to Oedipus’ downfall is interesting: they see him off, no longer pleading with him to save them, but telling him they loved him (a Latin past tense that indicates the action went on for a time but is now over). They have no regrets for making him their tyrant, but of course now he has to go. This is all matter of fact, lacking Oedipus’ flair for drama.

So what did Sophocles mean to say about the politics of Athens in the time of plague and the tyrant Cleon? We may never know unless we unearth more documents from that time, but were there those who believed that a solution to Athens’ plague might lie in a change of leadership? Or were there those who thought that the government was as bad as the plague that had killed its last lawful leader? I look forward to more archeological findings, but in the meantime we can speculate about whether Stravinsky (and perhaps Cocteau) was saying something about Stalin and other dictators of their youth, and further about the similarities between Sophocles’ demagogue and living men today.

[July 6, 1962] Enjoy Being A Girl? (Gender and Possibilities in the 1960s)

[The rush of modern technologies has created whole new industries, one result of which has been the breaking down of traditional barriers, as Ms. Lucas will illustrate…]

by Victoria Lucas

As a child I learned that there were expectations.  Not so much rules.  I don’t remember being taught rules except for rules of grammar or other school subjects, including physical education class.  Those Expectations determined What You Did, Who You Were, and other facets of one’s life including Who You Know.

My encounters with Expectations came to a head on two occasions that I remember in my childhood, one when I was somewhere between 6 and 8, and one when I was 12.  When I was 6, maybe 7, I remember sliding out of bed on the way to getting up and, with my head touching the floor but my legs still on the bed, having the epiphany that I was responsible for my own actions–not my parents or anyone else.  Obviously it took me some time to work out the ramifications of this, but I had the basic concept, anyway.

When I was 12, I discovered that I was A Girl. 

This hit me like a heavy blow.  Suddenly lots of things were excluded from my future.  Girls didn’t do science or compose music.  Girls were nurses, assistants, secretaries, and so on, but not generally People of Importance unless they were actresses.  Even then they were inferior to Actors, and people didn’t really take them seriously.  I had never heard of Hedy Lamarr, and I don’t remember knowing anything about Eleanor Roosevelt or any of the women who have been resurrected from European
culture as having had something to do with their own futures.

As a teenager I ran into the Girl thing again when my high-school counselor specifically delimited my career choices: secretary, wife and mother, waitress, teacher, or nurse.  That was it.  I had to choose among those.  Since I had no boy friends, couldn’t remember a food order even after I myself had made it, and was squeamish about blood, that left secretary and teacher.  I kind of held onto “teacher” for awhile since there was nothing I could do about it till I finished college.  So I took secretarial courses, sacrificing a third year of my beloved Latin to be sure I could get a Job after high school.  A Career?  Now that was something totally unknown.  Mostly those were Men things.  I haven’t got the hang of those yet.

I was never given the results of the intelligence test I took when I was in school.  I don’t think anyone paid any attention to it (possibly the Girl thing, but it never occurred to me it might be a “Spic” thing too, given my name.) I tended to be a Teacher’s Pet, but that wasn’t an advantage.  Socially it was a bad disadvantage, and it took getting through a few grades to latch onto that concept.  So I accepted my father’s preference of a nickname (“Vicki” for “Victoria”), learned to be very vague about answers to any question like “So how’d you do on that test?” and was careful to be ready to expound on anything we had to have read before class. 

This gave me the reputation in high school for being happy to explain anything to anybody in the minutes before class started so they could rush it onto paper and onto the teacher’s desk, making homework out of it.  And the further nickname “Encyclopedia.”  Classmates would tackle me on the way to class, and I would move slowly to the classroom door followed by people asking me to regurgitate the day’s book report or lesson.  So I was trying to avoid other peoples’ Expectations – for instance, being smart made one Stuck Up. 

I tried to go to parties, but my Expectations that these would be rational and enjoyable events were ruined the first time someone drove me to a drunken high school shindig.  I think I went to two parties
during high school and regretted going to both of them, not because anything bad happened, but because I realized I didn’t know what Fun was, and I was terrified of the driving my rides exhibited.

My idea of Fun, as it turns out, has a lot to do with foreign movies (including British “Carry On” comedies) and some few American ones, along with reading, writing, research, and intellectual company.  Also with interesting music, and my idea of “interesting music” turns out to be very strange.  Last summer at Stanford I took an Introduction to Music course to round out my summer units. 

Sitting at the back of the practice theater in the basement of Dinkelspiel, I would nod off to the strains of Beethoven or others of the (to me) boring 20th-Century Canon—which was mainly what was being taught.  I should explain, since like as not the “20th-Century Canon” will not be a term with which most people are familiar.  It refers to the works in Western culture that are considered to be worth teaching.  In music it refers to what people call “Classical Music”– the “three Bs,” Bach, Beethoven & Brahms, but also the rest of the “important” male composers who made European music from about 1600.  From the time I began to occupy my own piece of the house (built for my uncle and aunt before they left) I played records, starting with my mother’s 78s and finishing with all the ones in the public library—over and over.  I knew all the stuff in the course.  I just was having it organized and analyzed for me.

But, as the last thing he did in the class, the instructor introduced “tape music” to us by telling us that it was the latest thing, putting a tape recorder on a chair in the middle of the stage, starting it up, and walking off.  Now, I know what a tape recorder is.  Here’s the little portable number I used to do sound for Bob Hammond’s “Solitaire” and “Bon Voyage” and Robinson Jeffers’s “Cretan Woman” at the Playbox Theatre.  It only weighs 25 lb.

My friend and mentor Barney Childs wrote the incidental music for those.  But this …

As I sat listening, the music spilled out of the machine and over the apron, into the orchestra pit.  Since music has no gravity, only levity, it went UP the aisle stairs all the way to me in the back and swirled around my ankles before it receded.

I haven’t been the same since.  Neither have my Expectations.  This time, the only thing that being A Girl has to do with it is that I don’t even remember whether the composer was male or female.  It didn’t matter.  Whoever it was spent perhaps hundreds of hours recording, rerecording, treating recorded sounds, whether music or any sound, as material to be distorted, slowed down, twanged and edited with the same little razor-blade kit that I use, then rerecorded onto a final reel of tape that would bear all the machinations of the composer.  This was new. 

It was a hallucinatory hopestorm that drove that music up the aisle.  There is still room for the new, even if it’s female.  Even if it’s me.

[September 3, 1961] Musical interlude

by Gideon Marcus

Galactic Journey is all about spotlighting the exotic, from science fiction to the Space Race.  Sometimes, the far out stuff can be found right here on Earth.  I’m talking about music, man.  Music.

Music is a weird thing.  Unlike evolution in animals, which scientists believe is a smooth, unbroken process, music seems to evolve in sudden spurts.  A genre will be born, flourish, and then become overripe.  That’s when another will spawn out of nowhere and supplant the old one.

For instance, in the 30s and 40s, popular music was all about Big Band Jazz.  Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, they all peaked pre-War and kept us dancing while our boys (and ladies) went to fight the Axis.  After the War, that music evolved into a syrupy, schmaltzy mess.  By 1954, the radio was almost unlistenable, filled as it was with crooning and orchestras. 

Unless you tuned into the Black stations.  There, a fusion of Western and Blues called “Rock n’ Roll” was catching fire.  The Crows and Chuck Berry were joined by White performers like Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis Presley.  All of a sudden, music was alive again.  The late 50s, right around the time I started this column, were an exciting time for listening.

(Don’t get me wrong — Jazz was and is still a thing.  Coltrane, Gillespie, Brubeck…just look at the recent popularity of Take Five, for instance.  But it’s for hipsters and hepcats, not for the hoi polloi.)

This may be a purely subjective view, but the 60s seem to mark another transition period for popular music.  It seems to be floundering, torn between the classic (and now stale) riffs of the last decade and…something else.  Of course, one rarely knows how a revolution will work itself out until its over, but there are a couple of movements might be indicative of where things are going.

On the one hand, you’ve got The Miracles with last year’s popular tune, Shop Around, and The Marvelettes with their brand new hit, Please Mr. Postman.  These acts show off the Motown Records sound, a Detroit based mix of Pop and Rhythm and Blues.  You can add Bobby Lewis to that list: his Tossing and Turning was probably the hit of this year, and while he now lives in New York, he started his music career in Detroit.  To my ears, the music these acts produce sounds fresh, and it may well become the emblematic sound of the ’60s.

On the other hand, you’ve got instrumental music — what people are calling “Surf Guitar.”  If you’re not familiar with surfing, it’s wave-riding done on a long, flat board.  The Hawaiians made it popular, and it’s become an overnight craze here on California’s coasts.  A certain kind of music has become identified with it, a lyric-less, guitar-intensive sound. 

Big acts include Link Wray, The Ramrods, and The Ventures.  On the other side of the pond, Cliff Richard and his Shadows have refined the genre to a high art.  Dig their hit single, Apache, in particular.  And don’t forget the Swedish Spotnicks!

Surf music is a big departure from the rock of the ’50s.  The simple riffs are gone, as are, for the most part, variations on the 12-bar blues (God, may I never hear them again…) In their place are throbbingly energetic, almost raucous tunes.  These songs aren’t vehicles for words — they are raw emotion, displays of real musical prowess.

I saw a prime example of one of these guitar masters last night, a local talent who still hasn’t cut his first single.  Dick Dale lit up a Vista stage with traditional and original songs, all sizzling with his instrumental virtuosity.  The man is fab. 

Maybe instrumental guitar won’t be the “in thing” for the decade.  It probably requires too much skill, and the audience may be too limited (coastal types).  But man alive, I’m sure digging the scene.  I hope it lasts a good while, at least!

Next up…  a report from Worldcon on this year’s Hugos!  Will they match my Galactic Stars for 1960?

[August 17, 1960] Dancing to a new beat (The Twist)

We interrupt this cavalcade of science fact and fiction articles to bring you…some pop culture.

Seven years ago, The Crows came out with Gee, what is now generally recognized to have been the first “rock ‘n’ roll” song.  It was a revolution–within months, the crooners and the overripe schmaltzy swing tunes were swept aside in favor of the new mode.  Well, at least on the Black stations.  Then Elvis and Pat Boone came along and made this scary new music safe for everyone else. 

This year, it appears Chubby Checker has sparked a similar, related revolution.  With a simple, catchy rock ‘n’ roll tune, The Twist, he appears to have single-handedly invented solo dancing. 

Think about it: for centuries, from the Estampie to the Waltz to the Cha Cha Cha, dancing has been something you do with partners.  Now, with The Twist, you can shrug all by your lonesome–or with hundreds of friends.  There’s no denying its popularity.  Checker’s song is at the top of the charts this week (displacing Elvis’ short-lived tenure, thankfully), and if you caught his performance on American Bandstand the other day, you were probably tempted to join in the fun.  There may not be a jukebox in America what doesn’t have, at any given hour, several teens around it Twisting the night away.

I only hope that Checker, a promising nightclub player with a talent for mimicry (check out last Christmas’ surprise hit, The Class), doesn’t get pigeon-holed, doomed to release dance number after dance number to stay afloat. 

I suppose it is better to have one hit than none. 

When the music died (2-03-1959)

The music died yesterday.

When I started reading science fiction back in 1950, we were in what I called a “music blight.”  The bouncy swing tunes of the war years had gone overripe.  Schmaltzy ballads and crooning filled the airwaves.  For a while, I didn’t even bother to turn the radio on, so sure was I that nothing of note would be playing.

Then, around 1953, I discovered “Black” stations (as opposed to “White” stations).  There was the energy and passion I had been looking for: Negro performers fusing blues and bluegrass and jazz into something that didn’t even yet have a name.

But Negro stations aren’t that common, and the White stations are stronger out here.  Then, around ’55, rock ‘n’ roll jumped the color tracks and careened into the mainstream.  Bill Haley was the pioneer, and of course Elvis.  Negro luminaries like Chuck Berry followed.  “Oh Mine Papa” was banished to make way for “Maybellene.”  It was a renaissance of music, not a little aided by the influx of sounds from south and southeast of the border (Latin, Cubano, Calypso).  Gradually my radio came to be on all the time.

Rockabilly was one of the first and still one of the strongest branches of rock ‘n’ roll.  Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison… these are all household names.  But perhaps the greatest rockabilly performer of them all was Buddy Holly. 

Holly was versatile, mixing in folkish refrains a la The Everly Brothers with his toe-tapping rockabilly tunes.  “Oh Boy,” “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” “It’s so Easy,” “Every Day” The list goes on for miles, and he’d just gotten started.  Just 22 and newly married, he was set to write the musical landscape of the 1960s.

And now he’s gone.

Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela) exploding onto the scene last year with his sizzling rendition of the Mexican traditional song, “La Bamba,” and his ballad, “Donna,” has sold a million copies.  He was just 17, a high-school drop-out, and had just starred in his first movie.  Valens could have brought a latin touch to rock n’ roll just as Presley and Haley had popularized Negro music.

But now he’s gone.

24-year-old J. P. Richardson was better known as The Big Bopper.  His novelty rock n’ roll song, “Chantilly Lace,” was the third-most played record last year.  A disc jockey by trade, he’d taken a break to make it big and tour with Holly and Valens.

All three of them had just entertained a thousand fans at the Surf ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  They then got on a chartered Beechcraft Bonanza bound for Fargo, North Dakota for gig last night.  They never made it.  Shortly after take off, the plane crashed killing all aboard (including the 22-year old pilot, Roger Peterson).

Today, my heart is so sick, I can barely type.  I know I’m sharing this emotion with millions of people around the nation, around the world.  I cannot even fathom the blow that has been dealt to music.  This is one of those unforeseeable events that changes the course of history and will always have us pondering “what if?”  and “if only.” 

I apologize for the break in schedule.  I just felt it important that I lower the flag of this column to half-mast in honor of the passing of these three musicians. 

Rest assured that my show will go on.  Put “That’ll be the Day” on the Victrola, have a good cry, and hang in there.  I’ll be back day-after-tomorrow.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

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