‘I shall sing of Herakles’: writing a Hercules oratorio for the twenty-first century
Emma Stafford and Tim Benjamin
This chapter documents the process of composing and producing a new dramatic musical work based on the Greek hero Herakles and reflects upon the reception of the work to date.
Tim Benjamin’s Herakles was composed in consultation with a classical advisor and premiered by Todmorden Choral Society and Orchestra, with a number of professional soloists, in April 2017. The setting for this premiere was the magnificent Neoclassical town hall of Todmorden, a small Pennine mill town on the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire in the north of England. The performance was filmed, an edited version receiving its first public screening at the University of Leeds in July 2017, and being subsequently made available on DVD.
Of particular interest from an academic point of view is the composer’s decision to set the Prodikean ‘Choice’ story, rather than any of the other Heraklean themes available, and then to follow the relatively unfamiliar version by Dio Chrysostom, in his Discourse on Kingship, which makes Virtue and Vice into the specifically political ‘virtue’ of Royalty and ‘vice’ of Tyranny. The chapter will consider this decision, and the ways in which Benjamin went on to adapt the story for a twenty-first century audience, and to incorporate other ancient texts – including quotations for the Odyssey and the Homeric Hymn to Herakles – in the light of the history of dramatic musical treatments of Heraklean stories.
While various episodes of the classical hero’s life can be found – in works such as Francesco Cavalli’s opera Ercole amante (Paris 1662), Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera Alceste ou le Triomphe d’Alcide (Paris 1674) and Handel’s oratorio Hercules (London 1745) – there are a number of treatments particularly of the ‘Choice’ – notably Bach’s cantata Hercules auf dem Scheidewege (Leipzig 1733), Handel’s oratorio Choice of Hercules (London 1751) and Schweitzer’s opera Die Wahl des Herkules (Weimar 1773). Such historical comparanda, alongside consideration of Benjamin’s own earlier works, will also be brought to bear on the issue of musical genre – is Herakles an oratorio, a dramma per musica, or what? – and on such artistic decisions as the use of a Narrator, the role of the chorus, and the casting of Herakles himself as a treble.
Finally, the chapter will consider the work’s reception. Feedback was sought from the performers as well as from the audiences of the premiere and from the film’s release. What was the response of these different constituencies to this new work? And what are the prospects for its legacy?
Provisional content for Hercules Performed