Trachis

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HarpingOn

My resolution for 2018 is “pay a bit more attention to the blog.” With any luck, I’ll be posting more frequently, and with less laborious prose.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve kind of been getting into Sciarrino. I’ve got a piece of his in the oven for an audition tape, L’addio a Trachis (1980). It’s remarkably difficult to find much out about the work itself. Even when scouring Classical sources, the city of Trachis doesn’t come up all that often. That said, Sciarrino did compose an 18-minute work for female voices based on the tragic play of Sophocles, The Trachinae. Deianeira, wife of Heracles, finds that her husband has laid siege to Oechalia for the purpose of taking another woman, Iole, as his wife. Deianeira sends Heracles a garment dipped in a potion meant to rekindle his love for her. But Deianeira has been fooled; the garb has in fact been laced with a poison which burns and tortures Heracles as he returns to Trachis. To end his suffering, he is taken to be burned alive.

Sciarrino’s solo for harp uses tremolos and harmonic effects, evocative of dying embers. While Heracles is sometimes seen as either heroic (as in the case of Sophocles) or comic (in the case of Ovid), it’s rare for the Heraclean prototype to cast a real sense of hopelessness or resignation. Heracles isn’t killed by his wife, but the by the centaur Nessus, who he killed to save Deianeira and take her as his bride. As Nessus lay dying, he told Deianeira that a mixture of his own blood with the poison of the Hydra would act as a love potion. Nessus lied, helping to fulfill the prophecy that Heracles would be killed by those who were already dead.

Heracles dies full of regrets, despite a life of achievement and glory. Ezra Pound’s adaptation captures the mood rather better than some of the more literal translations, essentially devising a scene in which Hyllos assists Heracles in his own suicide.

HER:
Fine… Get me to that fire, before this pain
starts again. Hey, you there, hoist me up
for the last trouble.
The last rest.

HYL:
Nothing to stop us now. You’re the driver.

HER:
Come ere the pain awake,
O stubborn mind.

[To Hyllos]
And put some cement in your face,
reinforced concrete, make a cheerful finish
even if you don’t want to.

People tend to give Ezra Pound a hard time about his “translation” (I use the term loosely). The probability that he knew ancient Greek with any sense of fluency is very slight. But his adaptation of the Greek χάλυβος λιθοκόλλητον στόμιον (chalubos lithokolleton stomion—a bit of steel cast with stones) here is rather appropriate; he uses the term “reinforced concrete,” a simultaneous nod towards the age of American technological progress and the birth of a different strand of stoic masculinity. At the very least, it’s an interesting example of the ways in which updating ancient texts with modern imagery works almost perfectly.

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