Klemperer and Oedipus Rex: A Concert That Never Took Place

‘It was agreed that a programme of ‘classical and modern works’ should be proposed to Klemperer, together with a fee of £80.’

In the summer of 1927 the Society’s Council of Management were planning the concerts for January 1928. In recent seasons they had already invited Furtwängler and Walter to conduct their orchestra; now they asked Otto Klemperer. The minutes of their meetings (all written in the almost impenetrable longhand of the Hon. Secretary J Mewburn Levien) record some details of what were to be protracted and difficult negotiations.

In early July, before any discussion of a programme, Klemperer stipulated that he would need three rehearsals. A telegram agreeing was sent, though the managers perhaps anticipated possible difficulties, for suggestions of alternative artists were made at this and the next meeting. At that next meeting it was agreed that a programme of ‘classical and modern works’ should be proposed to Klemperer, together with a fee of £80. Once again he agreed. At this point Frederic Austin urged that the programme should include Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. (In addition to an RPS member Austin had been a distinguished singer and was a composer and artistic director of the British National Opera Company.)

This suggestion showed commendable knowledge of new music: the first performance of Oedipus - in concert - had been given in Paris only the previous January. And the meeting was in favour: two choirs were to be sounded out, and if either of them agreed, the proposal was to be put to Klemperer. At a remarkable meeting two days later, on 13 September, it was reported that the tenors and basses of the Philharmonic Choir, with their conductor Charles Kennedy Scott, would ask a fee of at least £200, ‘due to the difficulty of the work’. The Hon. Secretary was directed to try to reduce this, but to agree it if that should prove impossible. The meeting then turned to discussing singers in detail. A complete line-up was agreed on, including Walter Hyde in the title-role, Constance Willis as Jocasta and Norman Allin as Tiresias. The Secretary was to issue invitations to them all, and begin negotiations to find an actor to take the role of the speaker. He was given the names of three prominent actors, to be approached in order.

Enthusiasm seemed to running high. And that, of course, was the signal for Klemperer to begin to have doubts. No letters from him at this period survive in the Philharmonic archive, but he had been in contact by the meeting of 19 September, when he was to be assured ‘that he need be under no apprehension with regard to the complete competence of the choir’. A few days later the soloists’ agent asked on their behalf for 15 rather than the 10 guineas offered by the Society. The Managers had not given up yet: an offer of 12 guineas was to be tried.

It is not clear whether Klemperer had asked for more than the originally agreed rehearsals; this was indeed a new and difficult work, so he may well have done. At all events, on 27 September it was reported that he had written to say that ‘he would not undertake to conduct Oedipus Rex as the opportunities of preparation would be too short’. (He may equally simply have meant that he himself would be unable to be in London for long enough before the concert.) Instead, he proposed a Beethoven programme of the overture King Stephen and the First and Third Symphonies.

Klemperer had been at the first performance of Oedipus in Paris, and at the remarkable ‘rehearsal’ beforehand at which Stravinsky and Prokofiev had together played a piano reduction of the score. (Can Frederick Austin have known this?) At the beginning of September he had begun active preparations for a stage performance of the piece at his Berlin Krolloper: perhaps the difficulties were becoming all to evident to him.

In the mean time the BBC had approached the Society about broadcasting most of the concerts in the winter season. Klemperer was among those who had to be consulted. He was, he said, uncertain about broadcasting, and asked if there was an extra fee. It was decided to offer him an additional 10 guineas. Now he expressed a wish to change the Beethoven programme to one consisting of the Third and Fifth symphonies alone. The Managers were not amused. He was to be informed that their members would not like ‘so monumental a programme’ and asked to consider withdrawing his acceptance. Then they learned that Klemperer had expressed to an intermediary the view that he found proposed broadcasting fee ‘quite inadequate’. This was reported at the meeting of 27 October, which was also given the advice of the Society’s Hon. Solicitor that Klemperer’s refusal to play the Beethoven overture would on its own constitute sufficient grounds to cancel the contract. With this the matter came to an end; he was to be told that the committee could not negotiate further with him and would make other arrangements.

Klemperer’s famous staging of Oedipus Rex opened in Berlin on 25 February 1928 - two days after the stage premiere in Vienna. The RPS concert for which Klemperer had originally been contracted was given under Basil Cameron on 26 January. The first British performances of Oedipus took place early in March at two BBC studio concerts conducted by the composer.

Arthur Searle
RPS Honorary Librarian (1983-2019)

Related pages