Oedipal Opera

Harry Partch’s Oedipus and Operatic History


In the autumn of 1934 a waifish-looking thirty-three-year-old American stood on W.B. Yeats’ doorstep in Rathfarnham on the outskirts of Dublin. He carried some sort of fiddle with him and, though nervous and “feeling fairly miserable,” was bent on performing for the poet. He knew Yeats’ views on music, as set forth in his essay “Speaking to the Psaltery,” with its plea for “a method of setting to music that will make it possible to sing or to speak to notes a poem . . . in such a fashion that no word shall have an intonation or accentuation it could not have in passionate speech.” If the young man’s letters were to be believed, he had himself discovered such a method. Yeats was skeptical: his long collaboration with Florence Farr, who under his direction had recited verse to the tones of a psaltery made for her by Arnold Dolmetsch, as well as his musical experiments with Edmund Dulac for their Abbey Theatre productions, had excited some ridicule, and being now nearly seventy years old, with no formal musical training whatsoever, he lacked confidence, time, and energy to pursue the idea further.

He was, however, intrigued, and listened while the young man half-spoke, half-intoned, in his strange, unprofessional voice, the words of the 137th Psalm to the weirdly harmonized, microtonal drone of his long-necked viola, which he played cello-fashion between his knees.

Yeats was excited by what he heard. He didn’t care for the young man’s voice, he told him, “but a play done entirely in this way, with this wonderful instrument, and with this kind of music, might really be sensational.” As it happened, the young man had some ideas about that as well. The play he proposed to do “entirely in this way” was Sophocles’ King Oedipus, in Yeats’ recently published translation, and he wanted Yeats’ blessing, and whatever help he could give, for the undertaking.

Yeats met with him over the next few days, intoned choruses from his Oedipus translation while the young man attempted to record his vocal inflexions in musical notation, and gave him letters of introduction to Dolmetsch, Dulac, and various people connected with the Abbey Theatre.

The young man was Harry Partch, and his Oedipus: A Music-Dance Drama premiered eighteen years later in Oakland, California, thirteen years after Yeats’ death. The incubation period might seem extraordinarily long, until one considers that the composer had spent a good part of the decade after his meeting with Yeats as a vagrant back in America, hitchhiking, hopping freights and living in hobo jungles, and that the final production featured actors speaking and intoning, and a chorus singing, to precisely tuned microtones drawn from a 43-tone “just” scale, accompanied not only by the “wonderful instrument” Yeats had heard, but a dozen others, the majority hand-built by the composer, including several large enough to dominate the stage, for which, looking like exotic sculpture, they also served as a set.

Since then, the work has been produced only twice. A sound recording was made of the original production, but the Yeats estate, adhering to a general policy on recordings of the poet’s work, stood in the way of its release, and the composer was forced to substitute his own text and to rewrite the music to fit it. This second version was produced in 1954 in Sausalito, and a recording, with some abridgements, was released on Partch’s Gate Five label. A final revision, completed in 1967, had its premier in late March of 2005—thirty-one years after Partch’s death—at Montclair State University in New Jersey (a concert version had been done in 1997 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).

The first performance of Sophocles’ play in a modern language, as far as we know, was in Vicenza, Italy in 1585, for the opening of the still extant Teatro Olimpico designed by Palladio. Opera did not yet exist (it would be invented over the next couple of decades), and the Italian dialogue was spoken, but the choruses were set to music by Andrea Gabrieli. There was a great deal of controversy among humanists at the time about the exact role of music in Greek tragedy. The common view (the one scholars generally still hold today) had been that only the choruses, and occasional monodies, were delivered to music, while the bulk of the dialogue was spoken. But some, like Girolamo Mei, insisted that the dialogue was set to music throughout, though in a much sparer and more speechlike style than the current European one. It was Mei’s theories, as expanded on by Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo) and other members of the Florentine Camerata, that eventually led to the “monodic revolution” and the birth of opera.

Partch was fascinated by the Florentine monodists, and liked to portray the entire Western operatic tradition as one long betrayal and perversion of their ideals. That tradition, of course, was also disparaged by Gluck, Wagner, and every opera reformer who ever lived. Operatic revolutions have always proceeded to the (generally short-lived) cry of “respect for the words.” But Partch had no interest in reforming opera: he thought it was beyond saving. What he wanted was drama, a thing forever and fatally incompatible, in his view, with opera of the Western variety, though certainly not with music.

The early opera composers themselves had notions of drama that are apt to seem a bit anemic to us. One might have thought, since they claimed to take Greek drama as their prototype, they would have left us at least one setting of the most terrible and famous of all Greek tragedies. In fact, they rarely if ever set straight translations of the ancient plays, which never seemed to deal with their favorite characters (Orpheus, Eurydice) or themes (love, the power of music itself). It was left to the Englishman Henry Purcell to compose what is sometimes described as the first Oedipus opera, although his 1692 setting of the Dryden-Lee text, a mishmash of Corneille, Sophocles and Dryden, left the dialogue portions spoken, as his opera-resistant English patrons preferred. About all that is remembered of Purcell’s Oedipus today is the ravishingly Orphic “Music for Awhile.”

What seems to captivate and move early opera is nothing so much as its own new-found voice. And it wouldn’t be hard (or indeed very original) to make a case for a certain narcissism being the enduring characteristic of the genre ever since. That would be one way of accounting for its shortcomings as a dramatic form.

Why insist on setting every single word of a play to music? There seems no a priori reason why spoken and sung word can’t share the same stage, as indeed they have done in operetta, Singspiel, the American musical, and other “lighter” forms of musical theater, whose antecedents go back even farther than opera’s. These forms have produced some splendid scores, and entertaining theater. But drama of a high, serious sort has generally been considered beyond their scope. Singing, in the classical Western tradition, is such a different thing from speaking that one can’t pass from one to the other without a considerable “bump,” a shattering of dramatic illusion in one direction or the other. This does no harm in a comic, light-hearted, or satiric context, and even adds to the fun, but for a dramatist trying to draw audiences into a compelling world of high passion and poetry, it’s quite a hindrance. So the operatic composer strives to absorb every scrap of dialogue, even the most “functional,” into the music’s metabolism, while the “legitimate” playwright accords an “incidental” role, or none at all, to music.

Modern scholarship has mostly rejected Mei’s contention that Greek tragedy was sung throughout. Was its music, then, merely incidental? In the sense that the tragedies that have come down to us are clearly not just librettos, but poetically and dramatically substantial plays, apparently so. But it seems just as clear that music in tragedy was not confined to the roles deemed appropriate to incidental music today. Apart from a few choruses that sing “in character,” such as the chorus of Bacchantes in Euripides, Greek tragic choruses freely comment on the action, wax philosophic, and tell stories in song, with no attempt to realistically justify the fact that they are singing rather than talking. Monodic song also occurs, rather operatically, at points of high tension or emotion, again with no account taken of realism.

Greek theater apparently used quite a range of vocal styles. We can’t reconstruct them in any detail, but the evidence of poetic meter gives a pretty clear outline of the main types and where they occur. The only parts we know to have been sung, in the sense of having precise tones allotted to individual syllables, as well as instrumental accompaniment (provided by a single aulos player), are the choral songs and monodies, and occasional sections that alternate solo and chorus. These all have their own characteristic, mostly strophic verse forms. Then there are sections for chorus—once in a while for solo actors as well— that are in an even, anapestic rhythm that suggests a chanted delivery. It’s a fair guess that these had music of some sort too. Normal dialogue almost certainly did not; one must bear in mind, however, that it was in iambic verse, not prose, and we don’t know how “heightened” or naturalistic the delivery may have been. The picture that seems to emerge is that, however we might describe its various vocal styles, whether they would have sounded to us more speechlike or songlike, the whole organization of tragedy was musical, in a much more literal sense than could be said of almost any modern “legitimate” play.

There is, to be sure, an analogy to later poetic drama. Shakespeare has his own repertoire of delivery modes—prose, blank verse, rhymed couplets, songs—and shows considerable musical sense in their deployment and contrast. But Shakespeare never, as far as we know, composed music for his songs, as the Greek dramatists did for theirs, and songs in any case form a far smaller portion of his plays than the songs in Greek tragedy. Nor, probably, did he choreograph the occasional dances in his plays (Greek choruses danced as they sang, and the poet-composer was also the choreographer). The legacy of Medieval and Renaissance Europe had made poetry, music, and dance into very distinct arts, each with its own highly elaborate, independently evolved practice. There was, of course, great interest in recombining them, particularly in the theater. But how to do it consistently, as the Greeks had done, rather than in a hit-or-miss fashion, seemed, in the context of modern practice, like an intractable problem. Galilei, Peri, Caccini, and others in the Florentine Camerata—which was active during the very years when Shakespeare was launching his career in London—tackled it head-on, and that won them Partch’s admiration, for it was the same problem that obsessed him, three hundred and fifty years and many more avatars of artistic “specialization” later.

The question of why they failed, in the sense that the enduring result of their experiments was not Greek theater reborn but opera, was also one that would worry him. There is a long tradition, going back at least to Plato, of seeing respect for the words in vocal music as a sort of barometer of civic well-being. Plato, be it remembered, lived at a time when the music of the poets was beginning to give way to the music of virtuosi and specialists. Partch’s contribution to this polemical tradition was his notion of Corporealism vs. Abstraction. By Abstraction he meant a certain drive to isolate the “pure” ingredients of an art, which brings specialization, overemphasis on technique, and suppression of the individual in favor of a collective, “timeless” spirit. This he saw as the overriding tendency of Western classical music. “Corporeal” art, on the other hand (the kind he favored), celebrates the individual and the here-and-now; it embraces the impure and the unspecialized, and strives to integrate into itself all possible means of expression. Abstraction had come finally to rule Western music through the early domination of the Church, through centuries of singing in a dead language, and through Christianity’s denial of the body, its exaltation of the spiritual and timeless at the expense of the corporeal. That was why words in Western music were never heard as words, or at least not as words coming from the mouths of human beings. Western singing was monotonously divine, pure, instrument-like, never down-to-earth and human, and the words it sang were rarely even intelligible.

When the Camerata and the early opera composers tried to reverse this, the weight of tradition proved too much for them. Instead, in a final irony, their invention created a vast new, secular field for “pure” voices, for unprecedented flights of vocal bravura, for “divine” singing and even greater distortion and neglect of words and poetry.

But the most original idea Partch brought to this old debate was a specific practical one. Others had recognized the vices of Western singing: excessively high ranges, generic “big” voices, long, sustained notes on single syllables, emphasis on vocal display, distortion of vowels, suppression of consonants, wide vibrato, mangling of verbal and poetic rhythm. But the one thing Partch was virtually alone in seeing as a defect of Western singing, from the standpoint of a sensitive, clear and realistic expression of the words, was its confinement to the twelve-tone tempered scale.

Knowing the history of that scale better than most (during the year of his meeting with Yeats he had spent some months in London researching the history of tuning systems at the British Museum, on a grant from the Carnegie Corporation), he was aware of how recently it had come to dominate Western musical practice, how it was really only the rise of keyboard music, and the piano in particular, that had made its dominance complete. As long as music remained vocally based, it was understood that twelve notes to the octave was merely a convenience for certain instruments, and as late as the eighteenth century keyboards were occasionally made with more, with some or all of the “black” keys split so that sharps could be tuned differently from flats, as was possible in the tuning systems then prevalent. With the rise of equal temperament and mass production (both manifestations of the Abstract spirit, as Partch saw it) custom layouts like this—which must have been difficult to play anyway—ceased to be made.

Clearly, thought Partch, if you want to faithfully represent speech in musical tones, the more tones the better. And he knew from his research that many musical traditions—including the ancient Greek—had used intervals smaller than the smallest in the Western tempered scale, and that some had also used more than twelve notes to the octave.

This was the humble, practical origin of his notorious 43-tone scale, though to call it “practical” would have seemed at the time, and still seems to many, a bit of a stretch. Until he was in his forties, the only instruments he had to accompany the all-important vocals in his music were his long-necked viola and some modified guitars. But by the time he wrote Oedipus, which culminates his early work, the balance in his music had already begun to shift toward the instrumental, percussive, and dance-based, taking advantage of the many new and often visually dramatic instruments he was continually building, modifying, and tuning to his scale, and many of his later works use words rarely, though his music always remained in some sense theatrical.


It would be idle to deny that opera, besides having produced a lot of great music, can also be great theater. Whether its theatricality really deserves the name of drama, however, is something on which opinions may differ.

When we see and hear an outstanding Don Giovanni, don’t we respond in the same way we would respond to a great Shakespearean role well played? Doesn’t Mozart create character through music in the same way that Shakespeare does through language?

Certainly Mozart’s music, so full of character itself, cannot but impart some of that character to the role and the singer embodying it. But it is also true that without Da Ponte’s comparatively colorless words, and the story they tell, the Don would not really be a character at all. Music achieves infinite suggestion at the cost of the kind of specificity that only words can give.

Many great characters in both spoken drama and in opera are really just embellished stock characters. Shakespeare’s Richard III, for instance, is the stock villain who glories in his own wickedness. But the striking things that Shakespeare puts in his mouth, his irony, the way his mind moves, all those little touches that give the reader or actor a handhold on him, are part and parcel of his being. He is stock, striking, original, all in one seamless package. Were you to try playing Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni without the music, the seams would become pretty obvious.

To be good, an opera needs a good libretto, everyone agrees. But not too good. Not so good that one needs to attend to a lot of verbal nuance, which will hardly be heard anyway. Which leads to the troubling conclusion—for those who care about words—that music’s job, in opera, is not just to enhance the words but, much of the time, to actively mask their ineptitude and lack of substance. Partch said that in opera we “pretend to present drama in words and music, when in reality we are presenting it in music only.” But that isn’t quite right. We are presenting it in words—clichés, mostly, which the music gussies up to sound like high poetry.

Auden once called Racine’s tragedies “opera for the unmusical.” Could we not just as well say that opera is a kind of poetic drama for those with no ear for language?

Of course, there have been librettos of high literary quality—Auden himself wrote a few—and some have made successful operas. But how many of the operas considered the most successful as operas have had truly poetic librettos? And does the music, in those rare cases, really bring out all the dramatic and poetic qualities of the libretto, or does it not more often insist, out of pure habit, on performing its beautifying magic even when it’s just in the way? Operatic music is too often a bucket of gilt paint that the imp of opera applies indiscriminately to all verbal material, whether tin, lead, or gold.

All this, of course, is only to say that there are things opera doesn’t do nearly so well as spoken drama. There are also things it does better, obviously. What it really excels at, besides atmosphere, is conveying what used to be called “the passions”: all those big generic emotions that are not individual, or whose individual aspect is not so compelling to us as their pure manifestation. There are scenes—Lear on the heath, for instance—that seem to approach the limit of what a character-driven, spoken drama can do; even the best actor can do little but shout his way through them; they almost cry out for music, which, in a Greek tragedy, they would surely have gotten. But an operatic Lear (one of Verdi’s abandoned projects)—would not be Lear at all: an embodiment of broken age, perhaps, but with all his specificity removed: a walking, singing passion rather than a character.

The problem is not the artificiality of opera per se. We often love most what is most artificial. But there is a sort of cost-benefit analysis for every kind of artifice, and it seems pretty clear that those who continue to produce and consume opera do so because they consider the operatic aura, the shimmer of continuous music over everything, worth any cost in terms of dramatic reality and integrity. Or could it be that they sincerely want an art form that combines great music and something like great drama, and simply don’t see any other way of doing it?


Partch’s Oedipus dissolves the operatic aura. The only real singing is wordless, by the female chorus, and there is relatively little of that. There is a good deal more “intoning”—speaking on precise tones—by the main characters and by the chorus Spokesman. But perhaps two-thirds of the dialogue is delivered as plain speech—sometimes over a musical background, but often not. Yet, as Partch says in his introduction, “there is nowhere a real cessation of music.” How can this be? Minutes pass without a single musical tone being sounded or sung. Or so it seems. And just then an instrument will take up or harmonize the precise tones of a character’s speech, and we’re no longer sure. The genius of Partch’s approach is that, given anything like an adequate performance—and the performance I attended at Montclair State was quite superb—he succeeds in totally obliterating the “bump” between speech and music. It’s impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. As he put it, “music enters almost insidiously, as tensions enter,” and it discreetly fades out as soon as it has nothing to contribute.

Such an approach could seem to amount to little more than “background music,” and in the recordings of both versions from the fifties, as I remember them, there are in fact one or two miscalculated moments that sound painfully like bits of radio melodrama. But that is not at all the effect it has when properly done, and on the same recordings there are many more moments when the cast, led by the splendid Allan Louw as Oedipus, show how subtle or hair-raising this seemingly simple procedure can be. Leading the hair-raising category is Oedipus’ “Oh, Oh, all come to pass!” on learning of his origin and fate, a Lear-on-the-heath moment if ever there was one, and one that also got its full resonance in the Montclair production in the opera-trained voice of Bob Osborne, accompanied by a harmonized crash of instruments, including the mammoth “Marimba Eroica,” a sub-bass marimba that Partch built specifically for this work. A powerful moment, but it is no aria, and just before it Osborne has been questioning the herdsman in the straight dialogue of a good dramatic actor, though already the “tensions” are such that the instruments are adding their comments to each twist and turn of the interrogation, up to the dreadful moment of truth.

The choral interludes, with the chorus Spokesman intoning over the female chorus’s wordless background, provide most of what in usual terms we would consider the lyrical high points, in precisely those places where they must have occurred in Sophocles’ own production, and their motifs radiate backward and forward through the whole work. Far from being a patchwork, Partch’s music, with all its long silences, does add up to a substantial, unified score, with development, climaxes, returning themes, and its own meditative soul that stands somewhat aloof from the action, pondering the mysteries of fate.

The musical style represents a midpoint between the sparse, single-vocal-line orientation of Partch’s early work and the percussive, coloristic character of the later works written to take full advantage of his famous hand-built instrumentarium. The seventeen instruments in the revised score include most of his larger creations, not only the aforementioned Marimba Eroica (his largest), but the somewhat smaller Bass Marimba and Diamond Marimba, the Cloud Chamber Bowls (cut from pyrex carboys, suspended from a frame and stuck with mallets), the seven-foot Kithara, the Gourd Tree and Cone Gongs, and Harmonic Canon (a sort of large zither) as well as adapted viola and guitars, Chromelodeon (retuned reed organ), and a number of conventional instruments (cello, double bass, clarinet, bass clarinet). The effect of these instruments, all tuned to or playing in Partch’s scale, can range from eerie and atmospheric, with many unfamiliar intervals, to a pure, beatless diatonicism, to dissonances much harsher than anything in 12-tone serial music.

At the end of the play Partch cuts many lines from Sophocles’ text, relying instead on music, movement, and pantomime to wrap up the drama. By that time he has gotten so much of the Sophoclean spirit on stage, and given such a faithful account of the drama’s core, that it is hard to complain. As he says in his book, Genesis of a Music, the “anguished analyses and explanations” that conclude this and other Greek dramas can seem “unnecessary, even tedious” to a modern audience. Eschewing the musical saturation of opera, Partch was still enough of a composer to want to give music the final word.


Many of those in the Montclair audience, particularly if they didn’t know the work, were doubtless struck by the conflation of the Sophoclean with the Freudian Oedipus: the chorus Spokesman was a sort of stand-in for Freud himself, and the exchanges between him and Oedipus were often staged with the king, in vaguely Edwardian dress, reclining on an analyst’s couch. In fact, this owed no more to Partch than it did to Sophocles: it was purely a directorial concept, of a type we are quite—I’m tempted to say all too—familiar with. Other “updatings” in the production included a gravelly-voiced, Ray Charles-like Tiresias sporting sunglasses, and a female Chorus Complement whose costumes and gyrations suggested exotic dancers.

Now, Partch himself worried over how to make ancient drama relevant to a modern audience. He is even on record as having felt some misgivings about his Oedipus in this regard, and his second Greek-inspired music drama, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, based on the Bacchae of Euripides, was much more of an adaptation, with a good deal of modern content added directly into the script. most notably in the character of Dion, a fifties pop star incarnation of Dionysus. And perhaps he wouldn’t have entirely minded a Freudian aspect to the staging of Oedipus: in his writings about the work he seems to take the Freudian interpretation of the Oedipus story for granted, simply as part of the larger cultural meaning it has acquired. His own comments on the story often lean towards a psychological, though far from orthodox Freudian interpretation.

What he might have objected to more was the upstaging of his instruments and their players—clearly visible in the shallow pit but hardly dominating the stage as intended—by a busy montage of enormous images projected onto the backdrop, evoking early 20th century Vienna and Germany mostly, with an admixture of the ancient and generically primitive. That, and the absence of any really significant dance element—Oedipus was, after all, originally subtitled A Music-Dance Drama, and in this final version, simply Dance-Drama—would likely have bothered him.

But the Montclair production’s un-Partchian lack of physicality was paradoxically what rescued its directorial concept from banality and made it work dramatically, after its own fashion. When this immobile, couch-bound Oedipus, who seemed to play out the story in his own mind, felt some revelation at hand, or was overcome by anger at some fresh obstacle thrown in the way of his relentless search, the simple act of rising to his feet—accompanied, as often as not, by a crash of percussion—could carry tremendous force, as a sort of corporeal “return of the repressed.” The music, probably composed with something very different in mind, seemed to fit quite well this sense of claustrophobic interiority punctuated by sudden intrusions of the visceral. And the projected images, overwhelming as they could become, did help give the sense that what we were dealing with here was neither just private neurosis nor quaint old myth, but the quintessential tragedy of self-knowledge, where the role of chorus could plausibly be taken by the Viennese doctor who saw mirrored in its relentlessly seeking hero not only himself but all human civilization.

Still, given that this was the first production of the work’s final version, and may well be the last for years to come, one is perhaps permitted to wonder whether the decision to go with a “concept” of this sort was really the right one. Partch’s own ideas about staging need not be taken as sacrosanct. But they—or something more in line with his general philosophy—should, at some future time at least, be given another hearing. I for one would like to see a production staged by a real choreographer. That might achieve more of the corporeality Partch was always after, and with minimal sets and costumes, the range of reference of a dance-based production could be at least as great, much more fluid and suggestive, and much less heavy-handed than one based on visual montage and explicit anachronism. But then, high tech visuals come cheap compared to a well-rehearsed dance troupe. Add the expense of using and maintaining the Partch instruments, and training musicians to play them, and the general costs of any large-scale stage production involving actors as well, and you quickly outrun any sort of modest budget. Even Mark Morris, who had an early affinity for Partch, has choreographed a number of his pieces, and does not lack for resources, has never undertaken any of the larger stage works. Maybe no one has asked him.

So let’s remain thankful for what we got at Montclair: a musically impeccable production, well-acted by a strong cast, in an effective staging somewhat but not fatally encumbered by concept. For those, like the present writer, who had long known the work and believed it to be great theater but had never seen it fully staged, it was a real milestone, and many others, both long-time Partch fans and those who had never heard a note of his music, will not forget it soon.


In a century dominated artistically by various avant-gardes, Harry Partch was a radical in the most basic sense: he wanted not so much to jettison the Western tradition as to go back to its oldest roots. If those roots proved irrecoverable except by an act (or many acts) of creative invention, so much the better. As he said in a 1959 article, “I care a great deal about contemplating an age or ages that have been discovered through digging and presuming and learning. But I care even more for the divination of an ancient spirit of which I know nothing.”

This “divination” was mostly a matter of trusting his instincts, to the point of naivety, as many would have seen it, and questioning every narrowing of the role of art, every boundary between the “separate” arts, that others assumed to be entailed by history and modern conditions. To put it simply, he saw that specialization, which most took to be the sine qua non of cultural and artistic development, could be a kind of mutilation. A whole, unmutilated person (“ancient” or “primitive man” in the shorthand he used) would always want to sing and dance, make up verses and tunes, tell stories, draw and paint and sculpt and build instruments. To deny him any of these natural outlets or discourage him from pursuing and combining them in any way he pleased and was able, whether in the name of realism, professionalism, tradition, or talent, was nothing short of criminal.

This attitude, though it made him, in his later years, a sort of grand old man of the hippies, was far from the thoughtless and carefree thing it was among the flower children. He was a serious, meticulous person, given to brooding, with a truly Greek sense of fate and mortality. That he believed in his ideal of corporeal art with every ounce of his being did not mean that he sold its difficulties short or imagined himself an expert at everything he tried. Besides music, he mastered instrument-building, carpentry, and the written word to a considerable degree, and was not a bad actor. He would not have claimed to be a great poet or dancer. Personal limitations were a given; all the more reason not to set up further barriers of expectation or rigidly map the boundary lines between arts. The crucial thing was not that art be “accomplished,” or even new or revolutionary, but that it satisfy the whole person. Neither a narrowly reverent, virtuosic tradition, nor the ascetic, purely oppositional avant-garde that was its negative image held any real appeal for him.

With such a bent, it was natural and inevitable that he should, from early on, be captivated by the example of the Greek poets and dramatists. It was one thing to imagine generic “primitive” man carving an instrument to accompany himself singing and dancing a poem or story he had made up himself, or even to know of such things in modern indigenous or popular traditions, as Partch certainly did. It was quite another to realize that in the ancient poetic, dramatic, and musical traditions that are regarded as the very foundation of our own, poets were apparently composers, dancers, choreographers, lyre-players, actors, directors and stage designers as a matter of course. Not that all of them always did all of these things (Sophocles was said to have given up acting in his own plays because of a weak voice). But doing a number of them, and doing them well, does not seem to have been a matter for astonishment.

Were the Greeks simply a superior people? Or was it their culture that was superior? Or to put it negatively, was there something wrong with modern Western culture that stifled or discouraged this kind of versatility and creativity?

Partch believed there was. Nor was he the first. Blake, poet, prophet, and engraver, could have seen his own resistance to the “dark satanic mills” in Partch’s attack on specialization, and his own “lineaments of gratified desire” in his corporealism. In relation to theater and music, the unhealthy fragmentation of Western European artistic culture had been implied or explicitly discussed by reformers from Rousseau to Gluck to Wagner, as it had been among the originators of opera themselves, heirs as they were to a Renaissance ideal that took the Greeks as model.

Opera has had a peculiar place in Western music. Bach never wrote an opera, nor did Brahms, Chopin, or many other important composers. And yet most of the major stylistic shifts in music since 1600 have been in some way tied to developments in opera. If it has not been the central form of classical music for the last five hundred years, it has been its principal engine of change. At times its significance has even gone beyond the world of art and seemed to point to a larger crisis in civilization, as in the case of Wagner.

Partch’s dialectic of Corporealism and Abstraction provides one way of sorting all this out. He was himself inclined to blame the repeated failure of opera, despite all its “revolutions,” to achieve real integration of its constituent arts, on the fatal Western addiction to the Abstract, which to him encompassed all ideas of the Absolute, purity, timelessness, or transcendence of the here-and-now. Composers might talk of restoring real drama and poetry to the operatic stage, but in the end it was the ravishing “purity” of the soprano’s high C, holding its single vowel for an eternity, that claimed their allegiance. He saw in Wagner, in particular, a kind of schizophrenia that was blind to the contradiction between his desire for vital storytelling and sensitive word-setting on the one hand, and the grandiosity of his orchestration and singing voices on the other. Wagner the poet might engender Tristans and Brünnhildes and Flying Dutchmen to his heart’s content, but in the end the music, like Chronos, devoured them all.

But there is a less tendentious way of viewing these matters, as Partch, aware of his own oppositional nature, would surely have recognized. The two tendencies that he labeled corporealism and abstraction could be seen as alternate responses to the unwieldy-rich heritage of Western art. So many streams, ancient, medieval, modern, and non-Western, had poured into, and continued to pour into it, that some sort of selectivity and simplification was needed in order to do anything further at all. Some artists would have a drive to purify, to relieve their chosen art of “extraneous” elements; others would try to be all-embracing, which would itself entail drastic choices, pruning, and eliding of boundaries. The first, if they failed, would risk bloodless rarefaction, the second, grandiosity and bloat. Most artists, of course, would show some of both tendencies. Partch himself was markedly purist in some areas, particularly in regard to tuning.

Rarefied and artificial as it seems to those who hate it, in a musical tradition that was historically purist, intent on achieving an “absolute” music independent of words or anything “extramusical,” opera has played the role of Mother Earth to music’s Antaeus, replenishing it when it has been on the point of evaporating into its own pure ether. And opera remains, and in some ways is more than ever, a fertile and contentious ground for both musical and dramatic ideas, though it has lost some of its centrality to other forms of musical theater, both popular and experimental. That, for some of us, is all to the good. It is in those other forms that one might still find a bit more receptiveness to the spoken word and to ideas from the non-musical theater, and might also be a little more likely to find the kind of performer Partch envisioned: one who could act, sing, dance, and play instruments as needed, as they do in some of the theatrical traditions of China and Japan.

Still, one can concede to opera a certain primacy in maintaining one part of the Greek legacy, the part that embodies high passion and tragedy in musical tones. There are moments in the great operas that can hardly be approached for pathos by any other art. Even Partch, as artist, would have admitted as much, though as advocate for what he saw as a truer type of music drama—truer to the word, to life, and to the ancient spirit—he might occasionally have felt called upon to slay the progenitor.

The final version of Oedipus was premiered in Montclair, New Jersey, at Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater, March 30–April 3, 2005. Director: Bob McGrath. Music Director: Dean Drummond. All the surviving Partch instruments are housed at the Harry Partch Institute in the Kasser Theater, under the care of Dean Drummond. The only recording of Oedipus currently available is of the 1952 Mills College production (Innova 405). This is the first version, with text by W.B. Yeats, now in the public domain.


© 2007 Alan Shaw

Harry Partch’s Oedipus (excerpts) from Bill Morrison on Vimeo.