Oedipus and Revelation in the Courthouse Park: Harry Partch's Two Music-Dramas on Classical Greek Themes

By John Chalmers
E-mail: non12@deltanet.com

The late Harry Partch was an American experimental composer best known for his advocacy of microtonal Just Intonation [1] and the invention of an orchestra of special instruments on which to play his music. Two decades after his death he is finally receiving the recognition that generally evaded him during his lifetime [2]. Among his most celebrated works are the two music-dramas he wrote on ancient Greek themes: Oedipus (1951, rewritten 1952-54, 1967), based on Sophocles' tragedy, and Revelation in the Courthouse Park , After the Bacchae of Euripides (1960). These works not only contain some of his most interesting music [3], but exemplify to a great degree his highly personal musical and theatrical philosophy. Although recordings are still somewhat difficult to obtain, experimentalists in both drama and music will find these works intriguing and worthy of study.

Partch's music and dramatic works are based on two fundamental philosophical concepts. The first of these is 'Monophony,' the sound of a single voice, speaking, intoning or singing, but always comprehensible and always faithful to the natural rhythm and intonation of the language. Partch's melodies thus grew out of the intensified inflections of speech and his harmony developed from the tonal expansion of the single tone (1/1) into a matrix of small integer ratios [4]. Though his music is replete with unusual intervals and chords, it is the marked (poly)rhythms and the novel percussive and plucked string timbres that strike the hearer initially with greatest force. Then one becomes aware of the delicate, ultrachromatic motion of his melodic lines and the great range of expressive intervals in his tonal fabric.

The second basic concept is 'Corporeality,' an idea that includes 'magical sounds, visual form and beauty, (and) experience-ritual' [5]. This Partch believed could be realized as a unified theatrical art incorporating music, dance, speech, stagecraft, etc. A negative and simplistic definition of Corporeality is that it is the opposite of 'Abstraction,' a characteristic Partch attributed to Western opera, symphonic music, and most popular styles. Abstraction is 'absolute music,' 'bel canto' singing, 12-tone equal temperament, and the separation of the arts. Admittedly, these are not entirely original concepts and Partch freely acknowledged his debt to Greece, China, Japan and elsewhere. What is original in Partch is the manner in which he expressed them in a series of works from the 1930s until his death in San Diego, California, in 1974.

Of his two Greek dramas, Oedipus is the earlier work. Its roots extend back to 1933 when Partch read William Butler Yeats's translation of Sophocles' tragedy and decided to set it to music. He discussed the project with Yeats in 1934 when a grant from the Carnegie Corporation allowed him to visit Europe and meet with the poet and with Kathleen Schlesinger, whose heterodox theories on Greek scales [6] also greatly interested him. Yeats was apparently very enthusiastic about Partch's proposal, but in 1952, after the first performance of the completed drama at Mills College in Oakland, California, Yeats's executor refused Partch permission to distribute recordings of the text. Partch then rewrote the score using his own translation, and it is this version, with larger orchestral forces, that was produced twice in 1954 in Sausalito, California and released on recordings. In 1967, Partch reworked the score again, though this final version has yet to be performed.

I recently had the opportunity to hear an archival recording of the original version and compare it to the 1954 performance. While Yeats' translation may be superior to Partch's as literature, the revised score is musically stronger than the original. Unfortunately, it seems that no recording of Oedipus is currently in print, though there are rumors of a re-release of the 1954 recording on CD or even of a new performance. Many music libraries do have the excerpted Gate Five LP recording [7] and I strongly recommend searching for it. While no audio recording can convey more than a fraction of Partch's conception of a unified theatrical art, both the power of the drama and the beauty of Partch's music are apparent on the recording.

The structure of Partch's Oedipus follows Sophocles' drama quite closely, though he chose to delete certain explanatory material near the end and to add some instrumental passages for dramatic effect. Partch's translation is more concise and spare than Yeats' and gives the drama an austere, concentrated quality . His treatment of the chorus, however, is unusual, although consistent with the tenets of Monophony. A chorus of six women vocalizes meaningless syllables, while a single male spokesman intones the text. Partch did not believe that unison singing can be artistically effective.

The music of Oedipus is some of the most beautiful that Partch wrote, though it is less complex than that in his later works such as 'The Bewitched' and 'Delusion of the Fury.' Many of the melodies the chorus sings are little more than sections of the harmonic or subharmonic series. Especially noteworthy, however, is the scene in which Oedipus recalls the crossroads where he encountered and unknowingly killed his father, Laius. Partch harmonized this scene largely with 7:9:11 triads mixed with common chords.

The stage setting for the Mills performance was abstract, stylized, and geometrical with the instruments in full view on the stage and the performers dressed in simple gowns and robes. For the later Sausalito performances, the instruments were the stage setting and the performers as well as the musicians wore headdresses and partial masks.

His other thematically Greek drama, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, is a considerably more ambitious work and a more self- conscious reflection of Partch's personality and aesthetic ideas. It is a strange half-transposition, half-translation of Euripides' tragedy from ancient Thebes to a midwestern American town on the occasion of a visit by a Hollywood media idol, perhaps Elvis Presley. I have long felt that it is less successful musically than Oedipus, but this opinion may only be my personal taste. The music is too often a rather raucous parody of marching band and other popular musics of the 1950's era. The choruses sing allusive and aphoristic texts composed mostly of brief phrases and nonsense syllables. While this practice is perhaps required by the principles of Monophony, I find it excessively restrictive and dramatically weak, at least in this context.

Structurally Revelation consists of alternating scenes set in a stylized ancient Thebes and a 1950s midwestern American town. Criticizing American society by comparing the eroticism of popular culture to the cult of Dionysus is an intriguing idea, but it seems rather forced. The psychological and cultural gulf is so vast as to make the classical references, i.e., the hymn 'Glory to the Male Womb,' appear anachronistic and out of place in the American scenes.

Partch is contemptuous and misogynistic rather than sympathetic towards the townspeople and these attitudes make the mood somewhat sour. The emptiness and incomprehensibility of the 'Hollywood cult of Ishbu Kubu' deprives the drama of much of the emotional and spiritual depth of Euripides' original. The climax, however, where Mom/Agave mistakenly kills Sonny/Pentheus, is genuinely powerful and moving, and as a whole, the drama is compelling theater.

The staging of the two performances at the University of Illinois in 1961 was complex, with a brass band, clog dancers, tumblers, a trampoline, large masks, a fountain, and projected backgrounds as well as Partch's instruments and conventional scenery. In the Greek scenes the performers wore masks and poncho-like costumes that left the legs of men, but not the women, bare. The actors in the American scenes wore costumes appropriate for the period and location.

My ambivalence toward this work is not shared by other Partch admirers and scholars. Revelation has been revived recently under the direction of Partch's long-time collaborator Danlee Mitchell and a CD of this highly regarded performance is now available on the Tomato label (Tomato 70390). I sincerely hope that a videotape of this performance will be available sometime soon as I have seen only a poor quality black and white film made of the 1961 performance [8] and have listened only to the excerpted Gate Five recording. I might feel very differently towards Revelation if I were to experience it, as it was meant, as a complete and Corporeal whole.

Paradoxically, although Partch was deeply influenced by Greek musical thought, he did not incorporate actual Greek scales to any great extent into his music. Neither Oedipus nor Revelation makes any use of them or of Schlesinger's 'harmoniai' [6] despite the prominence of such scales in his book, 'Genesis of a Music' (Partch, 1949). There appear to be only three places where Greek scales other than the familiar diatonic, which Partch called the 'Ptolemaic Sequence' (Partch 1949), are used. These are Ptolemy's equable diatonic in the soundtrack of the film 'Windsong,' a reworking of the myth of Daphne and Apollo, and Archytas' enharmonic along with the non- microtonal pentatonic version historically attributed to Olympos in the two 'Studies on Ancient Greek Scales' [9].

While few, if any, dramatists have yet accepted the concepts of Monophony and Corporeality, Partch's intonational ideas have stimulated a number of composers and performers to explore tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament. Experimental intonation has now become active field of inquiry and research. Innovative and inquisitive musicians have designed and constructed many types of new instruments and have also adapted various conventional instruments to new tuning systems. In recent years, an increasing number of 'xenharmonists' have turned to electronic means as retunable synthesizers and programs such as HMSL, Max, and Csound have become available on personal computers. While purists may object to performing Partch's music on anything but his own original instruments, the tradition he began continues [10].


The author would like to thank Roger Merrick, John Bischoff, Allen Strange, Scott Gresham-Lancaster, Tom Erbe, and Johnny Reinhardt for information about recordings and performances.


[1] Just Intonation (JI) is a tuning system in which all of the intervals are defined by ratios of small integers. JI may be contrasted with the 12-tone equal temperament of nearly all contemporary European serious and popular music. In equal temperament, all intervals other than the unison (1/1) and the octave (2/1) are defined by irrational numbers, the various powers of the 12th root of 2.

[2] The British Harry Partch Society was recently founded by Brian Apter and Roger Merrick ( 100550.2266@compuserve.com) The BHPS has a WWW site at http://www.ftech.co.uk/~rainbow. San Jose State University in California also has a Partch Web page under construction.

[3] Some might prefer the music of 'The Bewitched', 'Petals', 'Delusion of the Fury', or the early 'U.S. Highball', etc. De gustibus...

[4] The largest prime number used to define the frequency ratios of Partch's music is 11, and hence his system is described technically as '11-limit extended JI.' His tuning system nominally has 43 tones per octave, but this is an oversimplification as most of his instruments have fewer pitches and he went outside the scale whenever musical requirements demanded other intervals.

[5] 'A Quarter-Saw Section of Motivations and Intonations,' in Partch, 1991, p. 196. See also pp. 7-9 in Partch, 1974, 1979.

[6] Schlesinger's harmoniai involve the prime number 13, which exceeds Partch's self-imposed limit. Although Schlesinger's theories are considered incorrect by most scholars of classical Greek music, her scales form a fascinating musical system in their own right (Schlesinger, 1939; Chalmers, 1993).

[7] Gate Five Records was a private label under which Partch distributed his music in the 1950's and 1960's. It was named after a location in Sausalito, although it also had a metaphorical meaning as the intangible fifth gate of a city, the gate of illusion. Some previously unobtainable recordings, films, etc., are being released by the Minnesota Composers Forum under the title of 'Enclosures.' Send inquiries to compfrm@maroon.tc.umn.edu.

[8] Partch withdrew this film of 'Revelation,' and no film of 'Oedipus' seems to have been made. Partch reused some portions of the score of 'Revelation' in the film 'Rotate the Body in All Its Planes' in 1961.

[9] These tunings are Ptolemy's diatonon homalon: 1/1 12/11 6/5 4/3 3/2 18/11 9/5 2/1, Archytas' enharmonion: 1/1 28/27 16/15 4/3 3/2 14/9 8/5 2/1, and Olympos' pentatonic: 1/1 9/8 6/5 3/2 8/5 2/1. The score of 'Windsong' was composed in 1958 and revised as a ballet under the name 'Daphne of the Dunes' in 1967. The 'Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales' were written in 1946 and revised in 1950.

[10] Evidence for this includes the Alternative Tuning Internet mailing list To subscribe send the one line message 'subscribe tuning ' in the body of the message to listproc@eartha.mills.edu without the <> or '' and leave the Subject line blank. Bart Hopkin publishes Experimental Musical Instruments in Nicasio, CA and may be reached by email at ExpMusInst@aol.com and on the WWW at http://www.thecombine.com/emi. David Doty of the Just Intonation Network ( jinetwk@hopf.dnai.com) edits the journal 1/1. Gayle Young publishes the magazine MusicWorks at 1087 Queen St. West, Toronto, Canada M6J 1H3. Frog Peak Music, Box 1052, Lebanon, NH 03766 is an excellent source for books, scores, recordings, etc. Their web page is http://music.dartmouth.edu/~larry/fpfront.html. Frog Peak also distributes Xenharmonikon, a microtonal music journal published by me since the 1970's.

Literature Cited:

Chalmers, John. 1993. Divisions of the Tetrachord. Frog Peak Music, Hanover, NH.

Partch, Harry. 1949. Genesis of a Music. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison. 2nd. revised edition, Da Capo 1974, 1979. New York.

Partch, Harry. 1991. Bitter Music: Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions and Librettos, edited with an Introduction by Thomas McGeary. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.

Partch, Harry. 1951, 1952-1954, 1967. Oedipus. Unpublished scores.

Partch, Harry. 1960. Revelation in the Courthouse Park -- After the Bacchae of Euripides. Unpublished score.

Schlesinger, Kathleen. 1939. The Greek Aulos. Methuen & Company, London.

John H. Chalmers
Houston, TX
E-mail: non12@deltanet.com

(John Chalmers is an independent scholar of experimental music from Houston, TX.)