Symphony of Psalms
April 21, 1927
I am writing to you this time about a wholly different matter. Knowing of your piety, but also knowing that, for many reasons, you do not attend religious services during these holy days, I think of you often and, as I pray for you, I would like you to join even indirectly in this spiritual union, by act if not by personal presence. Something very simple is involved through our Father Nikolai. On the day of Christ’s Resurrection, I am arranging for a distribution of alms among the poor, among all those who waste away in destitution. I will participate personally, and I am seeking people who might respond to my appeal. If you would like to give something yourself, and take up a small collection among those around you, you would be performing an act of charity. But do it right away (if possible), so that I have the money on Sunday to give to Father Nikolai.
I embrace you and send you all my best wishes on this holiday eve.
Igor Stravinsky sent this extraordinary and surprising letter to Serge Diaghilev a few weeks before the Paris premiere of Oedipus rex. The letter itself is testimony to the state of mind that Stravinsky was in as he worked on the piece, a sense of public and personal crisis, and the atonement and purification process that must be engaged in individually and collectively if society is to survive.
While Stravinsky carried on an open affair with his mistress in Paris, his own wife was dying of tuberculosis in the south of France. Perhaps this accounts for some of the extraordinary anguish that gushes forth in the opening chorus of his Oedipus, and the vividness of the musical evocation of the stages of disease, deterioration, debilitation, and decay. And then denial.
The dazzling and seductive melismatic flourishes in Oedipus’ vocal lines show a brilliant mind at work, quick-witted, chameleon-like, able to transform itself to suit the occasion, and prone to repeat the word “clarissime” –. Not just famous, but the most famous. All his life Stravinsky surrounded himself with a tireless and well-oiled publicity machine to ensure that he was the most famous living composer. Countless ghostwritten books and articles assure us of his supremacy, and the difference between his music and the music of the “other” composer (Schoenberg) was the difference between good and evil.
His autobiographies claim that his music is “pure” – consummate form devoid of personal content, but simply to be admired for its astounding intelligence and beauty of craftsmanship. But of course his sterile, hollow, arrogant, stylish, dazzling, and seductive autobiographical writings consistently ignore or conceal the most important events in his life as a human being – as if, like Oedipus, it is enough to be king, universally praised (except by your jealous enemies) for your brilliance in solving riddles, but what got you to this point, your actual origins, and what actually sustains you, and what tragedies have occurred along the way must be suppressed. As if success is all that matters in life.
Fittingly, the Paris premiere of Oedipus was a failure. The history of drama is the history of failure – Oedipus, Hamlet, Phaedre, Masha, Winnie – these are not success stories. Sophocles’ point is that the understanding of and active compassion for failure are the measure of human greatness, that man is only exalted by humility, and that we only find ourselves once we are lost.
Of course Stravinsky told people that he chose the subject of Oedipus because the audience would already know the story, but you don’t tackle the most central myth in the history of Western civilization by accident, without noticing. And of course there are no surprises. Plato would say that we have all knowledge before birth, and upon entering this world we forget everything. Thus our passage on the earth is a process of remembering things which, deeply, we knew already. The word that Aristotle uses is recognition – to cognize something again.
Theater, as a religious ritual, was invented by the Greeks to help deepen and intensify this process as a collective experience, not as a private therapy, but as an act of social healing. But Aristotle makes it clear that in dramatic form, reversal must precede recognition – first this world of illusions must be turned upside down. We have to understand in a Buddhist sense, in a Christian sense, in a Muslim sense, that kings are finally beggars, that probably only beggars can achieve the beauty, power, and poise of genuine kingship. That when we imagine that we see we are really blind, and that when we learn how to look with our heart we can finally begin to see.
Stravinsky needed to create a religious ritual of return in a modern social context that had lost all ability to share a sacred experience, that had exhausted and de-natured its store of religious vocabulary through an exploitive, excessive, and hypocritical theatricality. Needless to say, he could hardly confess his motives and ambitions in public in the brittle social whirl of Paris in the mid-1920s. So, to throw people off the scent he hired Jean Cocteau, a perversely brilliant artistic avatar who specialized at the time in reducing Greek tragedies to snappy psychological fashion statements. (In fact, we have returned to Sophocles for the narrative interludes in these performances.)
On the positive side, Cocteau was famous, and Stravinsky liked being seen and photographed with famous people. But, finally, they had little in common artistically. Stravinsky’s first step was to neutralize Cocteau – making him rewrite the libretto three times and putting it into Latin. Latin offered a liturgical feeling, but it also provided a convenient linguistic mask for an exiled Russian who was travelling culturally incognito, denying his own birth and origin, and hoping to be crowned king in the next city he came to.
And yet, his first act of artistic preparation to begin writing choral music again was to set the Lord’s Prayer in old Church Slavonic (1926). The famous shifting accents in the word setting (Oedipus, Oedipus, Oedipus) were grandly, imperiously dismissed by Stravinsky as necessary according to his “musical dictates.” The words are abstract forms which can be chopped up, rearranged, repeated, and shifted at will. But might another reason for this bold aesthetic license be that our cosmopolitan composer was actually thinking in Russian as he wrote?
In other words, was the myth of modernism – pure line, pure form, pure color, pure structure – that invaded the arts early in the last century in fact the product of a group of exiles who were determined to hide their ethnic identities, and needed a blank canvas on which to recreate themselves with no ties and with no personal responsibilities to the society that created them? In Stravinsky’s case we have by now traced the origins of specific numbers in his most quintessential and path-breaking compositions (to this point), Le sacre du printemps and Les noces, to specific sections of published ethnographic materials.
Which brings us quite sharply, at the slightly delayed beginning of our new century, to a much needed revision of that form of widely accepted “ethnic cleansing” which has maintained that Western culture is inherently superior to, say, African culture, or Hindu culture, or Islamic culture. In fact, Stravinsky is using African rhythms, and of course a Bach Siciliano is derived from Sufi sources. In fact, the longer one looks at where we have all come from, it turns out that a lot of information has been suppressed. Stravinsky’s particular genius is to culminate Western music by being a profoundly “non-Western” composer.
Certainly he re-integrated into the modern vernacular the tradition of Western music before it became “westernized” by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the 19th century (periods of seemingly endless colonialist, capitalist expansionism that were not fond of the Oedipus myth with its strict limits on human knowability, ambition, and will-power). In the medieval tradition of chant and polyphony he recovered a concept of faith that was without personal psychology. In Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex, with its blocks of sound and rigid rhythmic ordination, we rediscover the “cradle of Western civilization” – ancient Greece, in its power and religious rigor undomesticated by the age of imperialism and attendant bourgeois presumptions.
Freud, at the beginning of the last century, proposed the Oedipus myth as the classic example of personal trauma, and proceeded to diagnose it and suggest paths towards curing it through personal psychoanalytical work. Sophocles and Stravinsky, however, are not interested in personal psychology and whims, vagaries, and the self-destructiveness of individual human willpower which inevitably destroys whatever it touches. For them, the crisis is collective – it is not just an individual who suffers, but an entire society that is poisoned. The cure, like the disease, is public, collective: not private therapy, but a purgative, cathartic ritual that has a liberatory force to transform an entire community. This is an understanding that would be typical in an African or Korean village.
Was Oedipus guilty? Is it his fault? Well, to go back only one step, it does seem strange to forget that you murdered five people on the way into town one day. Laius [Oedipus’ father and the king of Thebes] and the men in his retinue ordered Oedipus to step off the road so they could pass. He killed all but one of them. Here in Los Angeles we know something about the pervasive tension in a city and the anger and fear carried around everyday by certain individuals that results in someone being shot for cutting in front of someone else on the freeway.
But also, as Americans, a new awareness is dawning of the Karmic debt that must be paid as 400 years of unpaid wages of African-American slaves come due in my generation. We are aware that we can buy a cheap T-shirt because someone in Singapore is working in a sweatshop 12 hours a day for sub-standard wages with no benefits in an unsafe firetrap in which the doors have been locked to keep the workers from escaping their brutal work quotas. We have cheap tin foil because Bolivian miners will be shot if they protest their wages. As privileged individuals in privileged societies, we do tend to forget, as we sit down to our nice meal, the people who have had to be killed, tortured, or imprisoned so that we can maintain our “standard of living.”
But was Oedipus guilty from birth? Jesus was once asked, who is guilty, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus replied, no man, but it is so that the works of God might be made manifest in him, and all the world might see it, and believe. And Jesus healed the man of his blindness.
Which brings us to Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus at Colonus.
Was Oedipus cursed at birth, or was he blessed? The second half of his life is taken up in Sophocles’ final play, written at the age of 80. Wandering across the earth as a blind beggar led by his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, cast out in every country that they come to, they finally arrive at the sacred grove of the furies in Athens, where they are at last welcomed and protected by the citizens of Athens. Like the greatest Tibetan masters, Oedipus prepares for death. The oracle has said that his death will come as a benediction to the city and the land in which he dies. He moves off alone, out of sight of his daughters, into the trees. And then a miracle occurs – he dies, without pain, without lamentation, at peace. There are no remains, there is no corpse – he vanishes into heaven, into the earth – no mortal can say. His daughters come to look for him, Antigone in mourning and Ismene in joy. She dances to calm the restless spirits and to guide the passage of his soul after death. Her dance is a prayer.
Stravinsky said that his music is meant to be danced, not sung. He was talking about that which is unspeakable, that which moves and which moves us. And he is asking us to think of singing as dancing, of poetry as dancing, of architecture as dancing, of prayer as dancing – a physical commitment, a commitment of the entire being to contemplation, yes, but then to action. This is the difference between the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and the Stravinskian Gesamtkunstwerk – Stravinsky does not extend your sense of time into an expanding dream world – Stravinsky compresses time to let you know that at this very minute, while you are wide awake, a miracle is occurring, a miracle which calls upon your entire being to act – to change yourself, to change the world, to create.
In Oedipus rex, Stravinsky makes a long journey towards discovering his own creative identity. Like Oedipus, he is trying on different masks, and making them his own. Appropriately finding value in and recycling materials that his contemporaries in the European avant-garde have rejected and consider to be trash (Verdi, for example) or borrowing voices of his actual progenitors (there is a strong reminiscence of Mussorgsky’s Pimen in the Tiresias music, for example) until he arrives at the crisis point. With the entrance of the Messenger and Shepherd, the truth comes out and his own mark as a composer finally asserts itself in the rhythms and rigor of their material. It is a major breakthrough.
Three years later, again writing in Latin, Stravinsky finally has the courage to admit in public that he is, like most composers throughout history, primarily a religious composer. He writes a symphony of psalms, putting for the first time the dedication at the top of the score that Bach started every work with: “To the glory of God.” Every note is pure Stravinsky. The piece begins with the children of Israel trudging across the desert, generation upon generation of exiles – with thunder and lightning, God moving before them, a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. In the second movement, the rebirth is heralded by a fugue. The third movement is an ecstatic dance of joy around the grave.
Notes by Peter Sellars