Musical highlight: The chilling motif that haunts Strauss's Elektra
A closer look at the ‘Agamemnon’ motif, used throughout to re-enforce themes of revenge and obsession.
Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis and Alfie Boe as Young Servant in Elektra © Clive Barda / ROH 2008
The opera may be called Elektra but it’s her father’s name that dominates the score.
A rampaging, unison, fortissimo orchestral ‘Aga-MEMMMM-non’ opens Richard Strauss’s 1909 opera. It’s a monumental statement and a thrilling beginning to a work depicting a woman tormented by a single obsession: the revenge of her father’s murder.
Listen to the opening played by the London Symphony Orchestra:
Elektra’s mother Klytämnestra killed her husband (Elektra’s father) Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War. Elektra has longed for the death of Klytämnestra, and that of her accomplice and lover Ägisth, since then. Elektra buried the axe they used to murder her father and has stood watch over that patch of ground, waiting for the return of her exiled brother Orest so they can exact justice with the same weapon. Elektra thinks of nothing but Agamemnon; there is nothing else left.
The ‘Agamemnon’ motif is a musical monolith. In technical terms it’s a minor triad (three-note chord), one of the most fundamental building blocks of tonal music. Following the immediately recognizable speech rhythm, two semiquavers shape a descending 4th before we rest blaringly on the minor third, the note that’s most crucial to the character of the chord. It’s an astonishingly basic musical idea – and one that has terrifying consequences for Elektra.
It could have been enough that Strauss has the ‘Agamemnon’ motif open the opera, and in such an unequivocal statement. But that he also makes the motif so simple means Elektra can never escape the spectre of her father. It’s woven into everything, becoming her whole reality.
Naming and identity is crucial to Strauss’s score, and to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto. Orest, when Elektra finally recognizes him, is adoringly greeted by his sister over and over again on a rising 4th, part of the three-note form of the ‘Agamemnon’ motif. The few statements of Elektra’s name are also triadic. The name of Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister who refuses to help her sister carry out their revenge, is never spoken.
But Agamemnon’s name lurks round every corner, and it’s the orchestra’s explicit statements that hit hardest: an obscene upbeat to Elektra’s attempts to seduce Chrysothemis into helping her; a teasing, bubbling motif that torments Elektra as she digs desperately for the buried axe; when Elektra, with a horrified Orest, recalls her former beauty and how it has been sacrificed to her revenge.
Agamemnon even has his stamp on Strauss’s other main motifs. The savage accent of Agamemnon’s name – pah-pah-PAH – becomes the motif representing Orest’s action, appearing with more and more insistency as we approach the opera’s terrifying climax. You can also hear its influence on the mournful motif that signifies Elektra’s relationship to her brother.
It all builds to one of the most thrilling endings in opera, where Strauss’s sophisticated use of musical keys also plays an important part. A violent E flat minor chord sends the exhausted Elektra crashing to the ground, dead. Several brutal statements of the ‘Agamemnon’ motif, in C minor, are answered by implacable pianissimo chords in E flat major. Finally, Chrysothemis’s plaintive cry for her brother, uttered twice, is answered by a vicious repeated statement of the motif of Orest’s action, hammering down a horrifying C major ending. It’s almost too much to bear – but that’s what makes it great opera.
The Royal Opera’s Elektra runs from 23 September – 12 October 2013. Tickets are still available.