When Hugo von Hofmannsthal was nineteen, he was widely known as Austria’s greatest living poet. He brushed against Stefan George’s German circle, which was devoted to pure lyric poetry and private artistic expression. Somehow this (or that, or the other) led him to abandon the lyric and then fiction – to abandon private art. See “The Lord Chandos Letter” for details, maybe.
He turned instead to public art, collaborative art, to the stage, co-founding the Salzburg theater festival and most famously writing libretti for Richard Strauss. Temperamentally, their partnership makes little sense, but that difference in aesthetics and approaches must have been what Hofmannsthal needed.
My taste for Strauss is weak. I am listening to Elektra (1909) as I write this, and when I am not paying attention it recedes into shrieking backed by strange orchestral sound effects. “She broke into howls and threw herself / in her corner” (p. 8). With attention – well, I would love to see it performed someday.
The libretto – or really the play, first performed in 1903 – is highly readable on its own. I am looking at Alfred Schwarz’s translation, in Selected Plays and Libretti (Bollingen, 1963). It is not presented as an original play but as an adaptation of Sophocles, so again, explicitly collaborative. It is adapted not so much into German as into Freudian.
Electra – in the translation she is Electra – her father is murdered, “driven away, down into his cold pit” (11), by her mother Clytemnestra and her no-good bum of a stepfather. Her older brother is missing, perhaps dead. Her younger sister Chrysothemis just wants a normal life. The closest thing to a love duet is between Electra and her sister:
ELECTRA: As you struggle against me, I feel what arms
they are. You could crush whatever you clasp
in your arms. You could press me, or a man,
against your cool firm breasts with your arms
and one would suffocate! Everywhere
there is such strength in you! It flows like cool
pent-up water from the rock. It streams down
with your hair upon your strong shoulders!
CHRYSOTHEMIS: Let me go!
The mother, Clytemnestra, is in just one scene, but it is spectacular. She is superstitious, “completely covered with jewels and charms” (22), terrified of her daughter’s insanity, which she fears is witchcraft, and haunted by guilty nightmares “[s]o that the marrow dissolves in my bones” (29).
As events move towards their inevitable happy ending, the play requires music as much as the opera, something to which Electra can do her “nameless dance”:
ELECTRA: Be silent and dance. All must
approach! Here join behind me! I bear the burden
of happiness, and I dance before you.
For him who is happy as we, it behooves him to do
only this: to be silent and dance! (77)
Or maybe this is weirder with no music, Electra dancing only to whatever tormented sounds are in her head.