“Saturn Devouring his Son” (c. 1820-23) by Francisco Goya. Image: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy

Classical notes: Filial slaughter

I seem to have spent a lot of time singing pieces that fixate on the father’s killing of a child...
March 27, 2024

The Oedipus complex is probably Sigmund Freud’s signature contribution to 20th-century psychology—debated by a host of successor theorists, from Carl Jung to Jacques Lacan—and to 20th-century culture more generally. In its shadow, the Oedipus myth inspired at least three extraordinary 20th-century operas: Igor Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927) with its Latin text, and alienated affekt; George Enescu’s expressionistic Oedipe (1931), only now achieving the attention it deserves (it reached the Salzburg Festival in 2019); and Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek (1988), based on Steven Berkoff’s scabrous play of the same name.

Although I have performed Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, I seem to have spent an awful lot of my time singing pieces that fixate not on the child’s murderous assault upon the father, but on the father’s killing of a child. Handel’s oratorio Jephtha (1751), for one, which I sang at the Opéra Garnier in Paris in 2018. Although originally a concert piece, it works fabulously as an opera—not surprising, given Handel’s operatic genius and the fact that he only turned to unstaged oratorio in order to provide Lenten fare to a drama-starved London public. The story, from the biblical Book of Judges, tells of an Israelite general, Jephtha himself, who wins a victory by promising to sacrifice the life of the first living being to greet him on his return home. In the Book of Judges, his daughter pays the price, while Handel’s oratorio has a happier ending. Along the way, as Jephtha prepares the sacrifice, we get to hear him serenade his daughter with one of the most beautiful of all baroque arias, “Waft her angels”. Beautiful, yes; creepy too.


I spent a week in Krakow this February singing one of Jephtha’s relatives, Mozart’s Idomeneo. A Greek hero on his way home from the Trojan wars, Idomeneo escapes Neptune’s stormy wrath by promising to sacrifice the first living being, etc, etc. It turns out to be his son Idamante, and the rest of the opera works out the consequences, the tragic dénouement replaced by the 18th-century’s preferred lieto fine—when Idamante’s lover, the Trojan princess Ilia, offers herself in his place and Neptune relents. Idomeneo abdicates in favour of his son and all live happily ever after, except for the Princess Electra, spurned by Idamante, who—in a seething rage-aria worthy of her murderous mother, Clytemnestra—seems to have stepped out of another opera altogether.

My summary may be glib, but Idomeneo is an extraordinary and radical masterpiece, premiered two days after Mozart’s 25th birthday in Munich in 1781. The process of its composition is unusually—and, as it happens, ironically—well documented because, while Mozart was putting it together, he was corresponding with his father who was, up until then, also his principal musical adviser. Oedipal/Idomeneic complexes notwithstanding, the letters are priceless father-son exchanges, full of considerate paternal underlining:

Leopold: “I advise you when composing to consider not only the musical, but also the unmusical public. Remember, for every ten true connoisseurs there are a hundred ignoramuses. So do not neglect the so-called popular style, which tickles long ears.”

Wolfgang Amadeus: “There is music in my opera for all kinds of people, though not for the long-eared.”

The jewels of the opera are many— that last aria of Electra’s (actually cut from the first performances) or Idomeneo’s bravura aria “Fuor del mar”. The first Idomeneo, the 66-year-old Anton Raaf, adored it. “He is excited by it,” Mozart wrote, “as a passionate young man with his beloved, for he sings it at night before he goes to sleep and again in the morning when he wakes up.” This time, I was particularly struck by the Act Three chorus leading up to the ceremony of sacrifice, “O voto tremendo”. The darkness as they sing “già regna la morte”—death already reigns—has an almost Verdian colour.

The other child sacrifice story that I return to over and over is what one might call the ur-narrative: the “Akedah”, or “Binding of Isaac”. Benjamin Britten set the Chester Mystery version of the story as his second canticle, Abraham and Isaac, for piano and two voices, in 1952. He reused some of the musical material in his War Requiem 10 years later, in a setting of Wilfred Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, which ends with Abraham refusing to obey God, and slaying Isaac and “half the seed of Europe, one by one”, a proxy for the statesmen who refused to bring the slaughter of the First World War to an end.


I’m in Paris now to sing the ultimate father-son-slaughter piece, Bach’s St John Passion, in which it is God himself who offers up his offspring. On my day off, I went to the Mark Rothko exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton—Rothko, for whom Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, with its engagement with the mysteries of the Akedah, was a key text—and thought how great it would be to perform the Passion in one of those rooms, surrounded by the mysterious, metaphysical darkness and light of those paintings.