Agamemnon’s Tomb

Agamemnon’s Tomb sets sections of Sacheverell Sitwell’s poem of the same name, written in 1933. It is a kind of Requiem, though not in any sense a religious work; instead it is a meditation on mortality and the memorialising of the dead.

The title refers to the tomb at Mycenae, dating from around the twelfth century B.C. and once reputed to contain the remains of King Agamemnon. Sitwell, who was an architectural historian as well as a poet, described the tomb as:

‘an immense domed chamber of stone. Its solemnity and simplicity are deeply impressive, and although so early in date it is a work of real architecture. Out of this chamber a small dark cell, also hollowed out of the rock, held the body of Agamemnon. His relatives were buried in the large outer chamber, though burial is not the correct term, for the bodies were simply laid out to rest, uncoffined, as though asleep.’

Descriptions of the tomb, the dead king and his golden death mask occupy much of Part Two of this work. Part One is concerned more generally with images of death and entombment. In particular, it concentrates on the physical experience of dying, and the terrors of dying while asleep or alone. The tomb is seen as essentially concealing the terrible reality of death, its agonies and indignities and the ultimate degradation of human remains.

Part Two is more positive in mood. The simple splendour of Agamemnon’s Tomb, alive with its colony of bees high in the domed roof, endures long after its occupant’s remains have crumbled to dust (though even this appeal to posterity is exposed as illusion towards the close). The concluding chorus sums up the work’s argument (‘We are the world and it will end with us…’). At the close however, it seemed both dramatically and musically appropriate to challenge this bleak assertion with a tentative reference to the renewing power of nature as expressed in the poem a few lines earlier (‘Listen, listen, listen to the voice of the water…’).

Throughout the work, the chorus fulfils the central function of setting the scene and conveying the text’s broader themes. The soloists have more specific and personal roles, the soprano representing the voice of compassion, the tenor that of the poet encountering the tomb for the first time, the bass the embodiment of harsh reality. The orchestra is of crucial importance throughout, projecting the work’s musical argument across a symphonic canvass.

Agamemnon’s Tomb is dedicated to the memory of my father.

©John Pickard 2007