Antigone (Antigonae in German), written by Carl Orff, was first presented in 1949 in Salzburg, Austria. Antigone is in Orff's words a "musical setting" for the Greek tragedy by Sophocles of the same name. However, it looks and feels like an opera.
The play / the words
Orff used the German translation of Sophocles' play by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). The original play was written in 442 BC and the German translation copies faithfully the mood and movement of Greek Tragedy.
The opera begins in the early morning following a battle in Thebes between the armies of the two sons of Oedipus: Eteocles and Polynices. King Creon, who ascended the throne of Thebes after both brothers are killed in battle, decrees that Polynices is not to be buried. Antigone, his sister, defies the order, but is caught. Creon decrees that she be buried alive in spite of the fact that she is betrothed to his son, Haemon. The gods, through the blind prophet Tiresias, express their disapproval of Creon's decision, which convinces him to rescind his order, and he goes to bury Polynices. However, Antigone has already hanged herself rather than be buried alive. When Creon arrives at the tomb where she was to be interred, his son, Haemon, attacks him and then kills himself. Now, when Creon's wife, Eurydice, is informed of their death she, too, takes her own life. At the end of the play, and the opera, Creon is the only principal left alive.
With this work Orff drew a line in his musical output, setting up a demarcation between pre-Antigone and post-Antigone style. Hölderlin's translation into lines of ecstatic German inspired the declamatory technique Orff uses for the first time in much of Antigone. It pre-dates a similar style of the minimalist school by about 50 years. In this way Orff creates unusual sound effects that captures both the dramatic and psychological setting of the original Greek tragedy with emotional color ranging from the ecstatic to the orgiastic.
Frequently an ostinato in the orchestra builds up an almost unbearable tension which is resolved only in the final bars of the piece. Orff frequently uses the technique called Singstimmen, which is half way between singing and speaking, somewhat like Schönberg's Sprechgesang, but still within the tonal language of work.
The sense of antiquity is often enhanced when the text is treated psalmodically in a manner resembling Gregorian Chant. Another early device found in Antigone is the melisma, where many notes are assigned to a single syllable, which is found as well in the music of other ancient and modern cultures.
The structure of the work, its heavy emotional content, its novel fabrics of sound, all demand more of the listener than required in the usual opera performance. While Antigone has never been as popular as, say, Rigoletto, it has set new standards for the orchestra, the singers and the committed listener.
Antigone is scored for 6 pianos (also played with drumstick and plectrum), 4 harps, 9 double basses, 6 flutes, 6 oboes, 6 trumpets with mutes, 7-8 timpani, and percussion (steinspiel [lithophone], xylophone, wood drum [i.e. log drum], 2 bells, 3 glockenspiels, 4 pairs of cymbals, 3 Turkish cymbals, 3 pairs Turkish cymbals [i.e. crash cymbals], small anvil, 3 triangles, 2 bass drums, 6 tambourines, 6 pairs of castanets, and 10 large Javanese gongs).