Bibliotherapy

Hugo von Hofmannsthal- The Genesis Of The Opera ‘The Egyptian Helen’

Neo-classical Greek woman, De Young Museum, San Francisco, California, USA.

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are excerpts from an article written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1929, where he is recalling his collaboration with composer Richard Strauss and the ideas that were at the origin of the opera, ‘Die ägyptische Helena’ (The Egyptian Helen). Our working translation from the French (itself a translation from the original German). ‘Collected Essays’, Editions Gallimard. 1980.

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…/…’Since 1920, a group of mythological characters started to haunt my imagination, shimmering and elusive, like half-concealed running water. It was exactly the very subject, now born, of the notorious home coming to Sparta of king Menelaus and queen Helen.


A sort of curiosity took over my imagination, focused upon these mythical figures as if they were living people that we happen to know parts of their lives, but for some other we are left with conjectures. The night the Greeks entered Troy in flames (it is easier for us to imagine but less for people before 1914)-That night, it is said that Menelaus found his wife in one of the burning palaces and brought her outside of the crumbling walls. He carried her away, this beloved wife of his, who was once taken; incidentally the most beautiful woman of the world and cause of this war, of these ten long frightful years, of these plains scattered with dead men and the reasons for this expiatory fire; incidentally, again, the still-remaining widow of prince Paris and the friend of the ten or twelve other sons of king Priam who were now all lying dead or dying-What an awkward situation for a husband! it is beyond imagination and even the mighty dramaturges could not match such a plot. No text, not even by Shakespeare, can excel it; I am certain that Menelaus was silent when he went down out of the city towards the sea and his ship, bringing back this woman, who, even in this situation, was still the most beautiful in the world.

Of what happened after, we have no clues. Only that a few years later, we learn that Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, is travelling the entire Greek kingdoms to gather news about his missing father. He arrives in Sparta and of what he finds there, we have in the fourth chapter of ‘the Odyssey’ a clearer image, as fresh as if it would have been painted yesterday. He meets Menelaus in his palace, lordly and hospitable, ‘handsome like a god’ and Helen in her duties of ruler of the palace, more beautiful than ever-apparently happy-celebrating the coming of age of their two children, a boy and a girl. He finds them talking a bout the Trojan War, like it was something of the past: Menelaus with a calm dignity of a great event in his life and Helen with the sovereign manner that Homer always uses when he describe her; with such lightness and elegance does she touch upon the events and also upon her own culpability, when she says ‘that the war (only to indicate the period) was before, when the Achaeans came right under the walls of Troy for my bitchy winks’. She says this lightly, ‘It was before, caused by my ill-fated infatuation, this story became too famous and too unpleasant for me to dwell more on it.’

It is remarkable to treat with such lightness an event so famous and so horrible, and the word rushes to the lips, how ‘modern’ this manner is, so close to the modes of expression of our contemporary epoch but so foreign to the pompous and uncertain modes of expression of the intermediate ages! But we cannot help but ask, what happened in between? What do we have between the memorable night of by gone times and the peaceful atmosphere Telemachus is welcomed into? What may have happened so that the marriage could survive and could get the second chance of a peaceful sunny common life? It is extraordinary-even if we grant the gods and the heroes a certain margin of maneuver in life. Curiosity, can also become inspiration, if it is strong enough. There was there a subject, if we could succeed in changing the curiosity into productive activity-perhaps even a lyrical subject, needing a setting in music (even though I did not see its necessity immediately).

This subject does haunts my imagination since 1920. By chance, there is Euripides’ play, ‘Helen’, the only ancient poem set exactly in that time frame: The return from Troy of Helen and Menelaus. It is there that appears out of nowhere the idea of Helen’s ‘ghost’. Idea that literally haunted Goethe for so long-this second Helen; not the Helen of Troy, but the Helen of Egypt.

We find ourselves in Egypt, in the island of Pharos, in front of a royal castle. Menelaus appears, alone, in the trip that brings him back from Troy. For months his ship, having wandered here and there, is tossed from one shore to another, always denied a homecoming. In a hidden cove, having left Helen-his re-conquered wife entrusted to his warriors-on board. He seeks an advice, a counsel, an oracle that would tell him how to find his way home. This is then when, from the peristyle of the castle on the hill above, Helen comes towards him, not the overly famous or overly beautiful he left behind in the ship, but another and at the same time identical. She pretends to be his wife, implying that the other in the ship is nobody, or nothing; it is a ghost, a replica, put in the past by Hera into the arms of Paris to mystify the Greeks. For this ghost, war was waged for ten years, ten thousand of the best men fell, a flourishing Asian city was reduced to rubbles and ashes. As for her, Helen, the one and only true Helen, carried by Hermes beyond the sea, she lived there in the royal castle, respected and protected by King Proteus. But now that his son is on the throne, his only desire is to marry her. So, It is about the right time for Menelaus to take his faithful wife away, in a discreet manner. In fact, the preparations of this escape, its execution and finally the apparition of the Dioscuri who appease the angry king, all this is the very frame of Euripides’ drama.

We can understand that Menelaus does at once believe this person who came pretending to be his wife and that for ten years, he waged war for a celestial apparition, that he burned down a great city and that then he went home with this divine replica. For quite some time, they oppose each other with sharp arguments which display Euripides ‘best craftmanship. And from Menelaus’ lips come out these incredible words: ‘Among the crushing weight of the suffering I endured, I only trust but you.’ Indeed, this solution to put an end to his terrible guilt may appear to him too easy. At this moment, a messenger arrives and tells him that the being on board everybody took for the real Helen dissolved onto thin air! What is left for Menelaus, if not to rely on this remaining woman, and most importantly, who remained pure and innocent? And to escape with her, before the king of Egypt makes his move and takes her also away! So far, this is where Euripides stands. But if for the sake of a ghost the war of Troy was waged and if this Helen, the Helen of Egypt, was the only true one, then the war of Troy was a bad dream and the whole plot divides in two: A ghost story and a idyllic story, both having nothing to do with each other and all of this, I am afraid then, becomes not so interesting.

So, I forgot for some time Euripides, (or it would be more accurate to say that I have read him many years ago and he led an autonomous life inside of me, this half-efficient life of things neither completely forgotten, neither really remembered.) but my imagination did not stop to obsess me about this episode of the homecoming spouses; and it was eagerly curious about what terrible things may have happened between them; it wanted so badly to know what expiatory events may have occurred. The whole setting was too opaque and enigmatic and could only be resolved by spells or trickeries but I believe that neither spells nor trickeries hardly resolve anything. The forces of Nature must have their part: a setting of natural beings busying themselves, acting either indifferent or either providential. Less to heal Helen, the half-goddess, than him, Menelaus. How his soul must have been in rags! To carry such a heavy fate, so much implication, so much guilt-and he was only a mortal! What was noble and tragic, in Menelaus, this often-ridiculed character, appeared to me immediately. He was the incarnation of the genius of the West, and held within him the inextinguishable strength of the West. He was the guardian of the established rule, of marriage and paternity. On the other side, Helen, unsettling and bewitching like a goddess that couldn’t be bound, was way above all of these matters.

Two or three years later, I asked Strauss to meet me at his office at the opera…’ …/…

End of quote.

(Left) Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Austrian poet and playwright. Photographed at Hoffmansthal’s home at Rodaun (since incorporated into Vienna), Austria, in 1912 with composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949).
Listen to the opera here

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More about Hugo von Hofmannsthal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugo_von_Hofmannsthal 🌿More about Richard Strauss: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Strauss 🌿More about the opera: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_ägyptische_Helena
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