Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex is an opera-oratorio in two acts composed by Stravinsky in 1926–27 after Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus and is scored for a speaker, soloists, male chorus and orchestra. The work belongs to Stravinsky’s neo-classical period and is considered one of his finest works in that style.

The libretto, in Latin, was originally written in French by the writer Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), and was subsequently translated into Latin by the priest Jean Daniélou. Stravinsky’s interest in composing an opera in Latin on an Ancient Greek tragedy is documented in a letter that he wrote to Cocteau in October 1925: ‘For some time now I have been pursued by the idea of composing an opera in Latin on the subject of a tragedy of the ancient world, with which everyone would be familiar.’ In Oedipus Rex Stravinsky not only draws inspiration for the work’s subject from the past. The music also takes inspiration from eighteenth and nineteenth-century music, especially the music of Verdi as the composer himself stated: ‘if another composer is suggested in my score, he is Verdi’.

The characters in Oedipus Rex are Oedipus, Jocasta, Creon, Tiresias, the Shepherd, the Messenger, the Speaker, and a chorus consisting of tenors and basses only. Cocteau’s 1927 stage directions stipulated that the main characters should appear in costumes and masks and were to be quite rigid, resembling the ‘static’ Ancient Greek tragedies: ‘Except for Tiresias, the Shepherd and the Messenger, the characters remain in their build-up costumes and in their masks. Only their arms and heads move. They should give the impression of living statues’.

Oedipus Rex received its first performance in concert form in Paris, at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt on 30 May 1927 with Stravinsky himself conducting. The first staged production took place the following year at the Staatsoper in Vienna, on 23 February. Although the first performance was not well received not even by Diaghilev for whom Oedipus Rex was intended as a surprise birthday present marking the twentieth anniversary of the Ballets Russes in 1927 the work was later recognised as a masterpiece. 

Igor Stravinsky

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