The “Oresteia” in music


I am thinking of the three major musical approaches to Aeschylus’ surviving trilogy:

Sergei Taneyev’s opera, composed in 1887-94 and based on a Russian adaptation by A. A. Wenkstern;

Darius Milhaud’s oratorio, composed in 1913-23 and based on a French adaptation by Paul Claudel; and

Iannis Xenakis’ ritual, composed in 1966-87 and based on the Greek original.

(I might add Harrison Birtwistle’s incidental music for Peter Hall’s 1981 production though I believe it is not a stand-alone composition and has not been recorded as such.)

Together, in their totally different ways they raise many questions:  What is the relation between theater and music in modern times? How may tragedy be set to music? What happens when a modern choir plays the role of an ancient (tragic or comic) chorus? How may music treat explicit political issues? What is the possibility of a musical trilogy after Richard Wagner’s Ring? To address such questions, one may take an Aeschylean choral ode and compare its settings in these three works. Pantelis Polychronidis would also point out the importance of the different language used in each work.

Incidentally, Ann Arbor, the college town where I live, has a connection to at least two of these large-scale works: Xenakis’ composition was commissioned by the neighboring town of Ypsilanti in order to honor its unique Greek name, and was originally part of a production directed by Greek director Alexis Solomos and given in 1966 in a baseball field, while the complete recording of the Milhaud composition took place in 2013 before a live audience at Hill Auditorium of the University of Michigan. (I missed the former but not the latter.)

October 19, 2016

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