The Kennedy Center

Recognition Scene from Elektra

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Peter Laki

In the fall of 1905, Richard Strauss went to see Hugo von Hofmannsthal's play Elektra in Berlin, in a production by the great stage director Max Reinhardt, with the magnificent Gertrude Eysoldt in the title role. He had only recently completed his opera Salome, which had originated in an earlier experience with the same performers: in 1903 he had seen Eysoldt in Oscar Wilde's play as directed by Reinhardt, and had immediately decided to write an opera based on that play. (It is possible that he also saw Elektra at the same time, because Hofmannsthal's drama opened on October 30, 1903.) There are numerous similarities between the two one-act operas. In both, antique subjects are reinterpreted with help from modern psychology. Each drama has a female protagonist who lives in a palace with her mother and the mother's new partner. Both Salome and Elektra are obsessed with a single idea to the point of becoming almost inhuman, and both heroines die after their wishes have been fulfilled. Moreover, both dramas are filled with gruesome, naturalistic details that call for an extremely harsh musical style (Elektra being by far the harsher of the two). Very significantly, both reach their culmination points in big dance scenes, which is another source of rich musical opportunities for the composer to exploit. Elektra is, in a way, the flipside of Salome: whereas Oscar Wilde's heroine is consumed by erotic passion, Hofmannsthal's Elektra represses her sexuality and channels all her energies into her plans of vengeance which she pursues with an obsession bordering on hysteria.

Musically, Salome and Elektra together represent the limits of Strauss's experimentation with modernism. It has often been claimed that, having come "dangerously" close to the atonality of his younger colleague Arnold Schoenberg, he beat a hasty retreat into a more traditional tonal world in his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier, which also abandoned mythological subject matters in favor of a more gemütlich (cozy) 18th-century Viennese setting. But it would be absurd to expect a composer to keep on doing the same thing over and over again. And in any case, the break between Elektra and Rosenkavalier is not total or absolute: after all, the culminating moment in Elektra is essentially a waltz, and while this waltz is much wilder than the one Baron Ochs sings in Rosenkavalier, the two definitely belong to the same musical family. That the two are in the same key, E major, already tells us something about a possible kinship. (As early as 1896, Strauss had represented the emotional climax by a waltz in the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra.)

The ancient myth of Elektra first appears in Homer, and was treated by all three great tragedians of ancient Greece: Aischylos, Sophocles, and Euripides. Hofmannsthal followed the Sophocles version (the play's original subtitle included the words "freely adapted from Sophocles"). But the story is retold at a much higher emotional pitch, and with a psychological sophistication befitting the era of Sigmund Freud.

The recognition scene between Elektra and her long-lost brother Orest is the sixth of the opera's seven scenes. Elektra has long been waiting for her brother to return; she wants him to carry out the double murder that has been occupying her thoughts every moment of her life. The siblings' mother Klytemnestra, with the help of her lover Aigisth, has killed her husband Agamemnon, and Elektra is determined to avenge her father's death. Having heard rumors that Orest is dead, Elektra has decided to take matters into her own hands. A frantic motion begins in the orchestra as she begins to dig in the ground to recover the ax. She doesn't notice at first that she is being watched. When she sees the stranger, she wants to send him away, but the man responds: Ich muss hier warten ("I must wait here"). He is accompanied by slow, solemn chords in the orchestra. Their dialog begins haltingly; throughout this section, the orchestra speaks more clearly than the characters. The stranger repeats to Elektra the story of Orest's death. Then Elektra pours out her grief in an intensely chromatic arioso, which is so full of pain that the stranger begins to wonder who this inconsolable woman is. When she reveals her name, the stranger reacts with sudden animation. He now reveals that the previous news was a lie: Orest is alive! It was necessary to spread the false rumor in order to protect him. (But he doesn't say yet that he is Orest.) Elektra doesn't recognize her brother until a group of servants come in and throw themselves down in front of him, kissing his hands and feet. Her scream "Orest!", with the subsequent ecstatic orchestral interlude, is possibly the most powerful of the opera's many dramatic climaxes.

At this point, Strauss expressly asked Hofmannsthal to insert a few extra lines into the libretto, to depict Elektra's supreme joy at being reunited with her brother. This is Elektra's most lyrical (perhaps her only lyrical) moment. "One of the great songs of the world," Norman Del Mar enthused in his three-volume Strauss monograph, and it is hard to disagree with him.

Yet this exceptional moment, where time seems to stand still, has to pass. Elektra doesn't let her brother embrace her; she calls herself "only the corpse of your sister," bereft of life and beauty. In an exquisitely orchestrated passage, she recounts how she has been undone by her situation as an outcast. The only purpose of her existence now is hatred and murder. But Orest assures his sister that he has come to carry out the act that she has been yearning for. Ecstatically, Elektra praises her brother, counting herself happy to have lived to see this day.


Recognition Scene from Elektra

ELEKTRA: Was willst du hier, fremder
Mensch? Was treibst du dich
zur dunklen Stunde dich herum, belauerst,
was andre tun! Ich hab'
hier ein Geschäft. Was kümmert's dich?
Lass mich in Ruh'!

OREST: Ich muss hier warten.

ELEKTRA: Warten?

OREST: Doch du bist
hier aus dem Haus? bist eine von den
dieses Hauses?

ELEKTRA: Ja, ich diene hier im Haus.
Du aber hast hier nichts zu schaffen.
Freu' dich und geh.

OREST: Ich sagte dir, ich muss hier warten,
bis sie mich rufen.

ELEKTRA: Die da drinnen?
Du lügst. Weiss ich doch gut, der Herr ist
nicht zu Haus'.
Und sie, was sollte sie
mit dir?

OREST: Ich und noch einer,
der mit mir ist, wir haben einen Auftrag
an die Frau.
Wir sind an sie geschickt,
weil wir bezeugen können, dass ihr Sohn
Orest gestorben ist vor unsren Augen.
Denn ihn erschlugen seine eignen Pferde.
Ich war so alt wie er und sein Gefährte
bei Tag und Nacht.

ELEKTRA: Muss ich dich
noch sehn? schleppst du dich hierher
in meinen traurigen Winkel,
Herold des Unglücks! Kannst du nicht
die Botschaft
austrompeten dort, wo sie sich freu'n!
Dein Aug' da starrt mich an und sein's
ist Gallert.
Dein Mund geht auf und zu und seiner
mit Erde vollgepfropft.
Du lebst, und er, der besser war als du
und edler tausendmal, und tausendmal so
dass er lebte, er ist hin.

OREST: Lass den Orest. Er freute sich zu sehr
an seinem Leben. Die Götter droben
vertragen nicht den allzu hellen Laut
der Lust. So musste er denn sterben.

ELEKTRA: Doch ich! doch ich! Da
liegen und
zu wissen, dass das Kind nie wieder kommt,
nie wieder kommt,
dass das Kind da drunten in den Klüften
des Grausens lungert, dass die da
leben und sich freuen,
dass dies Gezücht in seiner Höhle lebt
und isst und trinkt und schläft-
und ich hier droben, wie nicht das Tier
des Waldes
einsam und grässlich lebt,
ich hier droben allein.

OREST: Wer bist denn du?

ELEKTRA: Was kümmert's
dich, wer ich bin?

OREST: Du musst verwandtes Blut zu
denen sein,
die starben, Agamemnon und Orest.

ELEKTRA: Verwandt? ich bin dies
ich bin das hündisch
vergossene Blut des Königs Agamemnon!
Elektra heiss' ich.

OREST: Nein!

ELEKTRA: Er leugnet's ab.
Er bläst auf mich und nimmt mir meinen

OREST: Elektra!

ELEKTRA: Weil ich nicht Vater hab'...

OREST: Elektra!

ELEKTRA: ...noch Bruder, bin ich der
Spott der Buben!

OREST: Elektra! Elektra!
So seh' ich sie? ich seh' sie wirklich? Du?
So haben sie dich darben lassen oder-
sie haben dich geschlagen?

ELEKTRA: Lass mein Kleid, wühl'
nicht mit deinem Blick daran.

OREST: Was haben sie gemacht mit
deinen Nächten?
Furchtbar sind deine Augen.

ELEKTRA: Lass mich!

OREST: Hohl sind deine Wangen!

ELEKTRA: Geh' ins Haus,
drin hab ich eine Schwester, die bewahrt
für Freudensfeste auf!

OREST: Elektra, hör mich!

ELEKTRA: Ich will nicht wissen,
wer du bist.
Ich will niemand sehn.

OREST: Hör' mich an, ich hab' nicht Zeit.
Hör' zu: Orestes lebt!
Wenn du dich regst, verrätst du ihn.

ELEKTRA: So ist er frei? wo ist er?

OREST: Er ist unversehrt
wie ich.

ELEKTRA: So rett' ihn doch, bevor sie
ihn erwürgen.

OREST: Bei meines Vaters Leichnam!
dazu kam ich hier!

ELEKTRA: Wer bist denn du?
Wer bist du denn? Ich fürchte mich.

OREST: Die Hunde auf dem Hof erkennen
und meine Schwester nicht?

Orest! Orest! Orest!
Es rührt sich niemand. O lass meine Augen
dich sehn, Traumbild, mir geschenktes
Traumbild, schöner als alle Träume!
Hehres, unbegreifliches, erhabenes Gesicht,
o bleib' bei mir! Lös' nicht
in Luft dich auf, vergeh' mir nicht,
es sei denn, dass ich jetzt gleich
sterben muss und du dich anzeigst
und mich holen kommst: dann sterbe ich
seliger, als ich gelebt! Orest! Orest!
Nein, du sollst mich nicht umarmen!
Tritt weg, ich schäme mich vor dir. Ich
weiss nicht,
wie du mich ansiehst. Ich bin
nur mehr der Leichnam deiner Schwester,
mein armes Kind! Ich weiss,
es schaudert dich
vor mir, und war doch eines Königs
Ich glaube, ich war schön: wenn ich die Lampe
ausblies vor meinem Spiegel, fühlt' ich es
mit keuschem Schauer. Ich fühlt' es,
wie der dünne Strahl des Mondes
in meines Körpers weisser Nacktheit badete,
so wie in einem Weiher, und mein Haar war
solches Haar, vor dem die Männer zittern,
dies Haar, versträhnt, beschmutzt,
Verstehst du's, Bruder? Ich habe alles,
was ich war, hingeben müssen. Meine Scham
hab' ich geopfert, die Scham, die süsser
als alles ist, die Scham, die wie der
der milchige, des Monds um jedes Weib
herum ist und das Grässliche von ihr
und ihrer Seele weghält.
Verstehst du's, Bruder?
Warum schaust du ängstlich um dich?
sprich zu mir! Sprich doch!
Du zitterst ja am ganzen Leib!

OREST: Lass zittern diesen Leib! Er ahnt,
welchen Weg ich ihn führe.

ELEKTRA: Du wirst es tun? Allein?
Du armes Kind?

OREST: Die diese Tat mir
die Götter werden da sein, mir zu helfen.

ELEKTRA: Du wirst es tun!
Der ist selig, der tun

OREST: Ich will es tun,
Ich will es eilig tun!

ELEKTRA: Die Tat ist wie ein Bette,
auf dem die Seele ausruht...

OREST: Ich werde es tun!

ELEKTRA: ...wie ein Bett von Balsam,
drauf die Seele ruhen kann,
die eine Wunde ist, ein Brand,
ein Eiter, eine Flamme!

OREST: Ich werde es tun!

ELEKTRA: Der ist selig, der seine Tat
zu tun kommt,
selig der, der ihn ersehnt,
selig, der ihn erschaut.
Selig, wer ihn erkennt,
selig, wer ihn berührt.
Selig, wer ihm das Beil aus der Erde
selig, wer ihm die Fackel hält,
selig, selig, wer ihm öffnet
die Tür.


English Language Translation:

ELEKTRA: What do you want,
stranger? Why are you
wandering around here as darkness falls,
watching what others are doing?
I have business here. What is it to you?
Leave me in peace.

OREST: I must wait here.


OREST: You must
belong to the household. Are you one
of the
maids from the house?

ELEKTRA: Yes, I serve in this house.
But there is nothing here that concerns you.
Rejoice, and go on your way.

OREST: I told you, I must wait here,
until they call me.

ELEKTRA: The people inside?
You are lying. I know full well that the
master is not at home.
And that woman, what has she to do
with you?

OREST: I and another man
who is with me have a message
for the lady.
We have been sent to her
because we can bear witness that her son
Orest died before our eyes.
He was killed by his own horses.
I was the same age as he, and his companion
day and night.

ELEKTRA: Must I see you?
Must you come creeping
into my sad corner,
you herald of misfortune? Can you not
blare your message out in there, where it
will please them?
Your eyes stare at me, and his are mouldering
Your mouth opens and shuts, and his is
stopped with earth.
You are alive and he, who was better
than you,
a thousand times more noble, a thousand
times more important
that he should live, he is dead.

OREST: Let Orest be. He enjoyed
his life too much. The gods above
do not tolerate such an uproar
of merriment. So he had to die.

ELEKTRA: But what of me? Me! To
be there and
know that the boy will never come again,
never again,
that the child abides down there
in the abyss of horror, that those inside
are alive and enjoying themselves,
that this foul brood lives in its lair,
eats and drinks and sleeps,
while I, in such loneliness
and horror as
even the beast of the forest does not know,
I am here alone.

OREST: Who are you then?

ELEKTRA: What does it matter
to you, who I am?

OREST: You must be of the same
blood as the two
who died, Agamemnon and Orest.

ELEKTRA: Of the same blood! I am
that blood!
I am the shamefully
outpoured blood of King Agamemnon!
Elektra is my name.


ELEKTRA: He denies it!
He disdains me and takes away my

OREST: Elektra!

ELEKTRA: Because I have no father...

OREST: Elektra!

ELEKTRA: ...nor brother. I am a
laughing-stock for boys!

OREST: Elektra! Elektra!
Is it you I see? Is it really you I see?
Have they let you starve,
or have they beaten you?

ELEKTRA: Never mind my dress, do
not stare at it so.

OREST: What horrors have they filled
your nights with?
Your eyes look ghastly.

ELEKTRA: Let me be!

OREST: Your cheeks are hollow!

ELEKTRA: Go into the house,
I have a sister there, who is saving
herself up
for festivities!

OREST: Elektra, listen to me!

ELEKTRA: I do not want to know
who you are.
I do not want to see anybody.

OREST: Listen to me. I have no time.
Listen: Orest is alive!
If you move you will betray him.

ELEKTRA: Is he free then? Where is he?

OREST: He is safe and sound
as I am.
they kill him.

OREST: By my father's body! That is
why I came here!

ELEKTRA: Who are you then?
Who are you then? I am frightened.

OREST: The dogs in the yard recognize
but my sister does not?

Orest! Orest! Orest!
No one is stirring! Oh let my eyes
gaze at you, a vision in a dream, a vision
granted to me, fairer than any dream!
Noble, ineffable, sublime features,
oh, stay by me! Do not melt
into air, do not vanish from my sight.
Even if now I have to die,
and you have revealed yourself to me
and come to fetch me, then I will die
happier than I have lived! Orest! Orest!
No, you must not embrace me!
Go away, I am ashamed in your sight. I
not know how I must appear to you.
I am only the corpse of your sister,
my poor child! I know
you are horrified at the
sight of me, and yet I was a king's
I think I was beautiful: when I blew out
the lamp before my mirror, I felt it
with innocent awe. I felt it
when the thin rays of the moon
bathed in my body's white nakedness
as in a pool, and my hair
was such that men tremble at,
this hair, dishevelled, dirty and
Do you understand, brother? I have had
to abandon all that I was. I have
sacrificed modesty,
the modesty that is sweeter
than anything; the modesty that, like the
milky, silvery vapor of the moon, surrounds
every woman and keeps horrors away from
her body and her soul.
Do you understand, brother?
Why do you look round so anxiously?
Speak to me! Speak!
But your whole body is trembling!

OREST: Let it tremble. It foresees
the path along which I shall lead it.

ELEKTRA: You will do it? Alone?
You, poor child?

OREST: They who imposed this task
on me,
the gods, they will be there to help me.

ELEKTRA: You will do it!
Happy is the man who may perform the

OREST: I will do it.
I will do it quickly!

ELEKTRA: The deed is like a bed
on which the soul reposes...

OREST: I shall do it!

ELEKTRA: a bed of balsam,
on which the soul can rest,
when it is like a wound, a firebrand,
an ulcer, a flame!

OREST: I shall do it!

ELEKTRA: Happy is the man who
goes to his deed,
happy is the one who yearns for him,
happy the one who beholds him,
happy the one who recognizes him,
happy the one who touches him,
happy the one who digs the axe out of
the ground for him,
happy the one who holds the torch for him,
happy, happy the one who opens the
door for him.

(Translation by G. M. Holland and Ken Chalmers, © 1986 Decca Record Company Ltd.)
[from DG recording conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli]
[Editor's Note: Spellings of names have been slightly altered for consistency.]