Composing Herakles

By Tim Benjamin
April, 2017 (written for the DVD booklet and concert programme for the oratorio Herakles

Perhaps the first challenge in composing Herakles – after extensive collaboration with Emma Stafford and Anthony Peter produced a fascinating text – was the simple problem of how, exactly, one says “Herakles”. Is the stress on the first or last syllable? Or even on the middle syllable? It turns out that this caused even the ancient Greeks a not inconsiderable problem (being neither a dactyl nor a spondee, it fits awkwardly in Homeric Greek hexameter), but it served as inspiration for me: from the opening trumpet fanfare and throughout, you can hear a driving rhythm comprised of motifs which use every possible permutation of our hero’s syllables.

In the orchestration, too, I have endeavoured to conjure up a perhaps Romantic interpretation of sounds and images of ancient Greece and her mythology: the majestic brass, the prominent flutes and reeds, and the gentle harp, for example – blocks of sound, as if carved from stone.

It is always a pleasure to write for solo voices, especially for a treble (and what better way to subvert the expectation of a muscular Hollywood version of Herakles than to present him as a vulnerable young boy?), but the most important element in an oratorio, in my opinion, is the choir. I have used my Chorus as a cast of multitudes (Ghosts, the Righteous, the Enslaved) but also, in the tradition of Greek drama, as a character in its own right, providing commentary and interpretation of the narrative. In addition to several dramatic choral sections, I have given our adventurous Choral Society some more unusual sounds, from ghostly whispering in Part 1 to the chittering, murmuring and even shouting of Part 2.

Since composing Herakles, I have been asked many times why it is called an “oratorio”, when that implies a religious text. The flippant response is that it is a religious text, drawing from the religion of the ancient Greeks… but what people mean, of course, is the Christian religion. On the one hand, I see no reason why an oratorio (simply, a “large-scale, unstaged, choral-orchestral work”) needs a religious theme, and I can point my interlocutors to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex; but on the other, we have in Herakles a story in which a divine father sends his son (conceived with a mortal woman) into the world as a king for all humanity, but also to suffer, to face tests of faith, and to become immortal. You don’t get a much more Christian parable than that – but unfortunately the title “Messiah” was already taken!

Herakles in the works database
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