Brian set JS Blackie’s (1809-1895) translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (1906) in April 1957. The work was completed in two months, apparently inspired by his previous exploration of tragedy in Symphony No 12, completed the previous February. Agamemnon was the only opera Brian set using Greek tragedy, although David J Brown observes that in 1967 Brian abandoned a setting of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus because of copyright problems. It may very well have been because Blackie’s translation did not have any copyright problems that Brian chose his translation for this one act opera. The choice could also simply have been that Brian was familiar with the text, as suggested by Malcolm MacDonald in his introduction to the 1971 concert performance.
Brian’s own knowledge of Greek tragedy is apparent throughout the work in his use of the text, understanding of the drama, and the use of voice and orchestra.
It is interesting that Brian used much of Blackie’s translation of the Chorus for his Old Man, which seems to make the comments of this character subjective, as opposed to the objectiveness of the comments of Brian’s own chorus. In the light of this one begins to wonder if the Old Man is an autobiographical stance. However, another explanation can be found by looking at the difference in the Dramatis Personae in Blackie’s translation and Brian’s opera:
Chorus of Argive Elders/Chorus (citizens of Argos) SATB
The Watchman is the first character to be heard (bars 7-69), as he sets the scene and atmosphere for what is to follow. The whole of his speech is used to introduce the listener to the art of Greek epic poetry. There is a short orchestral interlude (bars 36-39) which is a continuation of the Watchman’s speech rather than a break in the drama, as the orchestra continues in the same vein as the Watchman.
The first chorus is omitted completely by Brian, so presupposing the listeners’ knowledge of previous events. Clytemnestra’s first speech is also absent, so breaking with the form of Aeschylus’ Tragedy, which has a stichomythic passage between Clytemnestra and the chorus of Argive Elders. Lloyd-Jones describes stichomythia as passages in which two speakers take one or two lines each in quick succession; the Greek meaning ‘stiff speech’. A further choral ode is missed out. These passages include material that recurs elsewhere, though not as full explanations, for instance the death of Iphigenia, discussion of the Trojan wars, and the importance of Priam’s daughter, Cassandra. Again this assumes the listeners’ knowledge of events but is used by Brian to heighten the sense of drama, as Malcolm MacDonald states: ‘the characters are subordinated to the onward sweep of events… our attention is directed away from the characters to the events in which they take part.’
The Citizens of Argos, Brian’s chorus, enter at bar 78, using an addition to the text by Brian. After staggered entries, it continues in harmony from bar 92 to the end of a speech, made up of comments on the events that have, or will soon, take place. The passage ends with the only use here of Blackie’s text: ‘Hail Clytemnestra!’ (bar 103) spoken by the chorus in a rhythm specified by Brian, and the first real break in the drama.
Leslie Head, who conducted the 1971 concert performance of Agamemnon, stated: ‘it is worth mentioning the spoken central pivot of the opera caused much merriment among the orchestra. I feel it is a mistake and that Brian would probably have changed it.’
Brian rarely revised a work once it had been completed, so it is doubtful if it would have been altered. It is also questionable whether the spoken words were a mistake; this is the first, and one of the only obvious breaks, not only in the drama of the opera, but also in the music. As Lewis Foreman says, it acts as a central pivot to the opera.
Clytemnestra enters the stage at bar 101, and sings from bar 103. Her speech uses much of Blackie’s text as she tells of her anxious waiting for the news that the Herald will bring. Brian omits two lines of the chorus before the Herald arrives at bar 123. Further choral speeches, and one of Clytemnestra’s, are omitted during the Herald’s epic-like speech which only uses part of the translation. His long speech, which continues until bar 185, is instead interrupted by comments (added by Brian) from the chorus (bars l70-176). The chorus continues the drama after the Herald’s speech with staggered entries ending with a passage in harmony from bar 232. The words they sing comment first on what the Herald has told, and then at bar 197; the entry of Agamemnon, on Agamemnon the hero.
Agamemnon’s first epic-like speech, as he greets his people and tells of heroic adventures in the wars of Troy (bars 236-309), and which omits only a few lines from the translation, is then heard after an orchestral interlude of just two bars (234-5). Again the orchestra seems to carry the dramatic events forward rather than acting as a break in the drama. Clytemnestra continues in the same epic-like vein (310-340) with no orchestral break between the two speeches. Brian used only part of the translation in Clytemnestra’s aria, omitting a long paragraph of prolonged praise of her husband. The aria is interrupted by Agamemnon singing chosen lines of the translated drama. By reducing the text and avoiding breaks in the orchestral or vocal structure, Brian reaffirms the quest for dramatic intensity which is evident from the start of the work in his selective use of the spoken word.
The interchange between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon concludes with a short stychomythic passage (bars 354-378), in keeping with much of the translation, and an important part of a Greek tragedy. Two further speeches by these characters follow; Agamemnon presumably exiting as he sings ‘I tread the purple to my father’s hall’ (bar 393), although Brian gives no stage direction at any time for Agamemnon’s exit. In contrast, he does give stage directions for Clytemnestra’s exit after her speech at bar 419.
Unusually in this work, the chorus that follows (bars 420-455) uses, not Brian’s text commenting on the drama, but a complete strophe of the choral hymn that continues the action of the drama, again ending with a section in harmony after beginning with staggered entries. Three further verses of the choral hymn are omitted. Clytemnestra re-enters the stage during an orchestral passage (446-8); again, only a part of the source translation is heard in this speech as she addresses Cassandra, continuously interrupted by the Old Man, at the end of which (bar 485) Brian gives her directions to exit the stage. The Old Man takes the lines of the chorus from the translation, not commenting objectively on Clytemnestra’s words, but rather giving a subjective view of the drama that surrounds him.
Cassandra descends from her chariot at bar 492, and delivers part of the prophecy which is important for the continuation of the tragedy. Cassandra is directed to leave the stage at the end of her speech, bar 452, but the Old Man is given no such direction. The orchestra continues but is dramatically interrupted by Agamemnon, crying out twice as he is murdered. This is the second and final break in the music and drama, making the initial entrance of Clytemnestra and her murderous act the most significant points of the work. The orchestra continues as Clytemnestra emerges from a doorway holding an axe, this addition to the plot being original to Brian’s interpretation, as the translation never shows or tells of the murder weapon. She is standing over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra; neither the translation nor Brian includes a death cry from Cassandra.
Blackie’s translation follows this scene with individual comments from the chorus; Brian replaces these by the words ‘Horror! Murder!’ sung in harmony by his chorus at bars 554 and 556. Clytemnestra’s next passage is one of explanation for her deeds (bars 558-579), in which she says ‘For him thou hast no course, the bloody man who sacrificed my child’. This refers to Agamemnon’s sacrificing of their daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods, an event that is only mention at the point in the drama, reference to this occurrence being omitted from Clytemnestra’s first speech. The Old Man interrupts her (bars 564-570 and 577-587) with a personal interpretation of the deed, which is part of a choral passage in the translation. Brian’s chorus comments objectively, using his own text with forceful harmony, on the drama that has passed (bars 588-593).
At the end of Clytemnestra’s final speech (594-619), which is a faithful reproduction of this part of the translation, Aegisthus is presented to the people as ‘Your new master’ (619). Clytemnestra does not enlarge on who Aegisthus is; Brian omits the part of the translation that deals with this. Brian’s Aegisthus is given no words, his speeches of the translation being absent. Brian’s chorus brings the opera to a dramatic end; rising Brian’s text they sing in harmony ‘Orestes shall avenge his father, and hunt you out’ (621-2). Again, this phrase has no explanation and this demands, as previous phrases have, a substantial knowledge of the story on the part of the listener. The last pages of the translation are omitted completely. They include speeches by Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and the Chorus, that are meant as a realisation of their fate and destiny in the style of a Greek tragedy. The opera ends with two orchestral bars, thus ending the work in a style that Brian has been using throughout; one of swift and inevitable dramatic tragedy.
One of the most important elements of Greek tragedy is the idea of inevitability. The selective use of Blackie’s translation results in the failure of this sense of inevitability to retain clear presence. In order to re-emphasise this, Brian’s drama, unlike Aeschylus’, occurs in the real-time forty minutes the work takes to perform. This explains the lack of interludes throughout the drama, there being only two of any significance (bar 100 and bars 547 and 551). Events that have occurred outside the time period are brought to notice by Brian’s use of reminiscence in a manner akin to ‘stream of consciousness’. Events and thoughts relevant to the drama are sung by a character when they are remembered due to circumstances extant to the plot. Thus Brian remains true to many of the factors of Greek tragedy, while making the opera fast-moving and succinct. It may have been Brian’s intention to provide a preface to Agamemnon (as he had done for The Tigers) had it been performed during his lifetime, removing the problem of the listener needing previous knowledge of the story.
Newsletter, NL 130, 1997