Reconstructing ‘Oedipus the King’

Mike George explains how he went about recreating a lost incidental score

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Reconstructing ‘Oedipus the King’
BBC Philharmonic Oedipus recording (Credit: Graham Hardy)
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Later this month, the first performance of Anthony Burgess's translation and adaptation of Sophocles's play Oedipus in over forty years will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, with a cast including Fiona Shaw and Christopher Eccleston. The incidental music written for the play's first performance will accompany the broadcast, after some fierce detective work from the production team. BBC Philharmonic producer Mike George tells us how they went about reconstructing the lost score...

Though Anthony Burgess famously said that he’d prefer to be remembered primarily as a musician who also writes novels rather than vice versa, he is better known today for his dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange than for his symphonies or sonatas.

When I was asked to reconstruct the incidental music for his play Oedipus the King, I assumed that he had composed the music too. The title page was missing and some of the pages also had portions of script pasted over them, obliterating parts of the music, so in addition to assessing the music, some forensic detective work was going to be needed - or so I thought.

Colleagues from Naked Productions were keen to record the play and include the music for BBC Radio 3’s Drama on 3, as part of the celebrations marking the centenary of Manchester-born Burgess this month. Polly Thomas, who directed the play, had a title page revealing that the music was not by Burgess but by Stanley Silverman, a name then unknown to me.

I soon found out that Silverman was just as prolific as Burgess, with credits stretching from relationships with the New York Philharmonic during Boulez’s tenure as Music Director in the 1970s via scores for Broadway and the silver screen to collaborations with Paul Simon, Elton John and Sting.


Stanley Silverman and Anthony Burgess rehearse Oedipus in 1972 (Credit: International Anthony Burgess Foundation)

What’s more, though Burgess wasn’t around to ask about this production, Silverman was still very much alive and kicking in New York and was coming to London to meet the drama team. His own material provided some of the clues hidden in the photocopy I had, but not all, and he could recall little about the original production.

The music is permeated by a minuet by Bach, included in the notebook for his wife, Anna Magdelena, that many of us will have murdered for our grade exams on piano. It provides a real earworm and Silverman asks for it to be played at the start ‘simply, like a child practising,’ always a challenge for someone who could play it standing on his head with his back to the keys!  

The rest of Silverman’s music uses many of the tricks common in the ‘70s. ‘Tricks’ might imply the musical equivalent of throwing paint on a blank canvas, but tricks of the trade is perhaps better, Silverman knowing his sound world and using his effects stunningly to underline the descent from innocence to knowledge, and to take us on Oedipus’ emotional journey.  

Until we were rehearsing it, it was difficult to get a grip on how this music would sound. A great deal of it is hypnotic and there are few clues as to the tempo of the various cues. Much of the singing uses a language invented by Burgess. ‘Indo-European’ comes close as it does to some of the musical sounds, free and yet hypnotic at the same time. Some of the effects are staggeringly apposite. One of the final cues, reserved for the moment where the riddle is laid bare: as a bright new dawn warms the skies over Thebes, a shepherd’s pipe is heard against a telling trilled drone by the men of the chorus, symbolising Oedipus’s loneliness and blindness.  

Synchronising pre-recorded speech to the score was perhaps our most taxing problem, creatively solved by Eloise Whitmore, who painstakingly and seamlessly has produced a thrilling and involving soundstage.   The timing of this is something that in the theatre would have evolved as the production was in rehearsal, but with trial and error, we have, I believe successfully married the two elements to bring Oedipus the King alive for our own time.

‘Oedipus the King’, starring Christopher Eccleston and Fiona Shaw, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 February, at 9pm, and available to listen again on BBC iPlayer. 

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