Hugo von Hofmannstahl was a writer born in Vienna. I got to know his work from the operas of the German composer Richard Strauss.
My recent visit to Vienna, brought back to me memories of the operas and his work, and today I want to share some elements of his masterpiece, Elektra. Hofmannstahl took Sophokle’s “Athenian”5th century B.C. Elektra and turned her into a “Vienese” Elektra of the beginning of the 20th century.
Quoting from the book “Hugo Von Hofmannsthal: The Whole Difference” Edited by J. D. McClatchy, published by Princeton University Press (2008):
Their opera opened at the Koenigliches Opernhaus in Dresden on January 25, 1909, and was an immediate, if controversial, success around the world. Its complex psychologizing cannot disguise its raw brutality. Its single act hurtles through a series of confrontations towards the fatal dance of triumph at its conclusion,as Elektra celebrates her brother Orestes’ murder of their mother Clytemnestra in revenge for her killing of their father Agamemnon. The text is a delirious rhapsody of anguish and violence; the music erupts with demonic force.”
I now want to introduce Elektra’s monologue, when she is calling on her father in a state of delusion.
The monologue is sung by the unforgettable Hildegard Behrens, who died earlier this year at the age of 72. The performance in the Metropolitan Opera of New York is conducted by James Levine (1994). You have to be patient to watch and hear and read the words, but the nine minutes are worth it!
The following synopsis is from the Metropolitan Opera of New York
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, adapted from his play
World premiere: Dresden, Court Theater, January 25, 1909
Mycenae, ancient Greece. In the courtyard of the royal palace, servant girls comment on the wild behavior of Elektra, the eldest daughter of the late king Agamemnon. After they have left, Elektra appears, dressed in rags (“Allein! Weh, ganz, allein”). She is obsessed with thoughts of her father’s murder at the hands of her mother, Klytämnestra, and her mother’s lover, Aegisth. Calling on her father’s spirit, she renews her vow of vengeance. Her tirade is interrupted by her younger sister, Chrysothemis, who urges Elektra to give up her obsession with revenge so they both can lead normal lives. Elektra mocks Chrysothemis, who runs off as noises from within the palace announce the approach of Klytämnestra.
The queen staggers in. Drugs, loss of sleep, and fear of retribution for her husband’s murder have made a wreck of her (“Ich habe keine guten Nächte”). Surprised that Elektra will talk to her, she appeals to her daughter’s intelligence and demands to know what she needs to do to find peace of mind. A sacrifice has to be made, Elektra replies. When Klytämnestra fails to comprehend what her daughter is hinting at, Elektra screams at her that it is Klytämnestra herself who must die and that she and her banished brother Orest will kill her (“Was bluten muss?”). Klytämnestra is horrified, but when her confidante runs in and whispers something, her mood changes abruptly. Laughing maniacally, she disappears into the palace.
Her behavior is explained when Chrysothemis reappears with news that Orest is dead. Stunned, Elektra at first refuses to believe her, then tells her sister that she must now help kill Klytämnestra and Aegisth. Chrysothemis runs off in terror. As Elektra frantically starts digging for the buried axe that killed Agamemnon, a stranger appears. She asks him what he wants and he calmly replies that he has been sent to bring news of Orest’s death (“Was willst du, fremder Mensch?”). But when Elektra reveals that she is Agamemnon’s daughter, he tells her Orest lives. Suddenly servants appear, kissing his hands and feet. Frightened, Elektra asks who he is. The dogs in the courtyard know me, the stranger replies, but not my own sister? Crying his name, Elektra gives in to her unspeakable joy and declares she has lived only to avenge their father’s murder. When Orest’s guardian tells him the queen waits inside, the men enter the palace.
Elektra waits anxiously and when a scream is heard she knows Orest has killed their mother. Aegisth arrives, having heard the news of Orest’s death, and Elektra lights his way into the palace with sarcastic courtesy. A moment later he reappears at a window, crying for help, before he is dragged inside and killed. While tumultuous confusion spreads through the palace and courtyard, Elektra, in a state of ecstasy, begins a triumphal dance. Chrysothemis returns but Elektra doesn’t hear her and at the climax of the dance falls dead.”
Tim Ashley’s review for the Guardian back in 2003, is illuminating, and I therefore take the liberty to quote it almost in its entirety.
“……..Yet beneath some of those early comments lurked distorted vestiges of the truth. The opera had hit raw nerves. Each age reinvents classical mythology in its own image. Strauss and Hofmannsthal were holding up a mirror to their times and many didn’t like the reflection. A study of pathological hatred and self-perpetuating violence, Elektra forms a grim prophecy of the convulsions that dominated the 20th century and continue into the 21st.
The myth of Electra forms part of the vast classical saga of the house of Atreus, whose nominal founder, after a row with his brother, Thyestes, killed the latter’s children and served them up to him to eat. Thereafter, the gods compelled various members of this tribe to take one life for another, then to be murdered in revenge in their turn.
The Atreidan myth is the only subject common to all three extant Greek tragic dramatists, though they approached it in different ways. Aeschylus’s Oresteia focuses on chains of retribution and guilt. Euripides’ Electra ironically questions belief in a metaphysical system that encourages crime only to punish it. Sophocles’ Electra, centring on the heroine’s grief for her father and her overwhelming desire for Orestes to return to shed his mother’s blood, is widely regarded as the most psychologically advanced of Greek tragedies though Sophocles still presents the Atreides as motivated by divine commandments.
Hofmannsthal wrote his own Elektra in 1903 in response to a request for a version of Sophocles’ from the Berlin-based director Max Reinhardt, and what he came up with was groundbreaking. Fastidious, intellectual and precociously erudite, Hofmannsthal’s head was full of both the naturalistic theatre of Ibsen and Strindberg, and the murky psychological probings of symbolist poetry. His response to Reinhardt’s request was to haul Sophocles into the present.
Much has been made of his ditching of many overt trappings of Greek drama, such as turning Sophocles’ single-minded chorus into a gaggle of squabbling maids. Infinitely more important, however, was his decision to jettison the myth’s metaphysics in their entirety. There is no divinely imposed pattern of retribution, no Furies to goad and torment his Orest, and the characters are consequently at the mercy of their own uncontrollable psyches and irrationalistic obsessions. Myth becomes the embodiment of psychological extremism as Hofmannsthal collides with his contemporary Freud.
Elektra has often been cited as the first play to take Freudian theory on board. In some respects this is erroneous, since the only psychoanalytic work Hofmannsthal knew at the time was Studies on Hysteria, co-written by Freud and Joseph Breuer and published in 1895. Elektra does, however, anticipate not only psychoanalysis, but other developments in psychiatry.
Hofmannsthal depicted Elektra as an obsessional neurotic long before Freud went public with his analysis of the condition. She and her mother are locked in a horrific co-dependency. Elektra’s relentless thirst for blood fuels Klytemnestra’s guilt, which she seeks in turn to assuage by turning to her daughter in the hope of some sort of solace. Terrified by nightmares of Orest’s return, Klytemnestra asks Elektra to interpret and cure her dreams. In Hofmannsthal, however, unlike Freud, there are no cures: Elektra tells her mother her nightmares must continue until the axe falls and extinguishes her life.
Throughout, both sexual motivations and repression dominate. Elektra has sacrificed her sexuality to keep her obsession alive, and describes, in a scary passage, how she gave birth, parthenogenetically, to “curses and despair”. Hofmannsthal, far from emphasising Freud, admitted that his principal influence was Hamlet. Both play and opera form an examination of the neurotic bifurcation between fantasy and action.
Nowadays, it is impossible to think of Hofmannsthal’s text without Strauss’s music, though the play proved influential in its own right, opening the way for later dramatists to reinvent classical myth as psychodrama. Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Sartre’s The Flies are among its many successors. The playwright most strongly influenced by Hofmannsthal was Eugene O’Neill, who first read Elektra in the mid-1920s, and was inspired to write Mourning Becomes Electra as a result.
Strauss, meanwhile, saw Elektra during its opening run in the winter of 1903-04 and promptly contacted Hofmannsthal with a view to turning it into an opera. It wasn’t until 1906 that they could actually start work together on Elektra, by which time, Strauss, to Hofmannsthal’s alarm, began dithering. He wanted a libretto on a different subject, he told Hofmannsthal, who quietly held firm. Once work on the score was begun, Strauss, usually the most fluent and confident of musicians, began to suffer from composer’s block.
Strauss was a secretive man, and his chirrupy letters to Hofmannsthal make no mention of the trauma he was going through, namely that the text was triggering deep anxieties deriving from his own ambivalent attitude towards his parents. Strauss’s father, a domineering man, who encouraged his son’s compositions but repeatedly disparaged the results, had died in 1905, an event which in turn caused Strauss’s mother (whose mental health was never less than precarious) to have a massive breakdown, necessitating confinement in a sanatorium.
The subject matter of Elektra touched every raw nerve in Strauss’s being and explains why he took so long over the score. Those same raw nerves, however, also spilled into every bar of the opera’s music and also explain the torrential savagery of the emotions it recreates in the listener. Elektra is at once terrifying and elating, and to experience it is to go beyond the limits of reason into a world of naked, uncontrollable emotion. The collaboration between Strauss and Hofmannthal lasted for more than 20 years and became one of the most famous partnerships in operatic history, though neither was to produce work of such dreadful intensity again…….”