In 1841, Sophocles's Antigone was performed at the Prussian court theater with staging by Ludwig Tieck and music by Felix Mendelssohn. Commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, this production aimed to re-create aspects of Greek tragedy by, among other things, using J. J. Donner's 1839 metrical translation and having an all-male chorus sing the odes. Mendelssohn initially experimented with imitating the purported sound of ancient music by composing primarily unison choral recitative and limiting the accompaniment to flutes, tubas, and harps; but he quickly abandoned this approach in favor of a more traditional one. Yet despite his overall adherence to modern convention, he did employ several strategies to evoke ancient Greek practice and thus to meet the unique demands of the Prussian court production.
Highlighting important distinctions between verse-types in the original poetry, Mendelssohn retained a vestige of his initial approach by composing unison choral recitative to indicate the presence of anapestic verse while turning to melodrama for the lyric verse of the play's two main characters. In addition, he reproduced the poetic meter by shaping the rhythm of the vocal line to reflect both the accentual pattern of Donner's translation and, in some cases, the long and short syllables of Sophocles's Greek verse. Owing largely to the irregular line lengths characteristic of Donner's text, the music is marked by conspicuously asymmetrical phrases, which serve to defamiliarize the otherwise straightforward choral styles being employed to convey the various moods of Sophocles's choruses. In the opening chorus, Mendelssohn alludes to the familiar sound of a Mäännerchor accompanied by a wind band, thereby suggesting the ode's celebratory and martial associations while recalling his own Festgesang written for the 1840 Leipzig festival commemorating the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's printing press. The listener is thus presented with a thoroughly recognizable musical idiom and yet simultaneously distanced from it in a way that underscores the historical remoteness of ancient Greek tragedy.
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