In the blockade of Thebes, Eteocles is fighting on the side of King Creon, the ruler of the city; Eteocles’ twin brother Polynices is however supporting the besiegers. During the progress of the battles, they succeed in killing each other. Creon orders a state funeral for Eteocles, but decrees under penalty of death that the corpse of the other brother is to remain outside the walls of Thebes to be eaten by vultures.
Antigone, the sister of the twin brothers, sees it as her duty to provide Polynices with a worthy funeral and asks her sister Ismene to help with the burial, but Ismene is afraid and refuses to help. Antigone therefore buries her brother on her own in defiance to Creon’s decree. She is observed by a watchman who reports her deed to the king.
Creon summons the young woman and impatiently takes her to task. Antigone however refuses to see any error in her actions and defends herself with consummate self-confidence. Creon is furious and sentences her to death. Ismene’s attempt to shoulder part of the guilt is proudly refused by Antigone.
Creon’s son Haemon, betrothed to Antigone, attempts to have the death sentence revoked, but Creon remains unmoved, even ignoring the warning issued by the council of elders. Antigone is to be interred alive behind walls.
The blind seer Tiresias appears on the scene during this fateful situation and warns the king of possible consequences of his stubbornness. Creon hesitates and decides to revoke his decision. It is however too late: a messenger brings the news that Antigone has hanged herself in her cell and, in consequence, Haemon has committed suicide. What is more: Eurydice, Creon’s wife and Haemon’s mother cannot get over the death of her son and also kills herself. Creon, completely shattered by the consequences of his misjudgement, only wishes to die.
His initial encounter with Hölderlin’s translation of Antigonae convinced Orff that the spoken word would be insufficient for an authentic performance and music and gesture would form an integral part of the drama as in the tradition of Greek tragedies. The composer therefore developed a completely new style of declamation: a musically enhanced affective manner of speaking spanning the entire spectrum of expressive possibilities provided by the human voice, even extending to arioso upswings. This new vocally based form of expression also required a new type of instrumentation: Orff created a multi-facetted percussive orchestra which provided highly innovative options for the utilisation of the spoken and singing voice. Through the reduction of the orchestra and the shift of expressivity to the human voice, Orff placed the actors and their performance at the centre of dramatic action.
In his score, each scene was allotted a distinctive timbre, strongly characterised by percussion – all based on the tonal foundation of the pianos. In his music, his objective was to make visible everything audible and make audible everything visible. By the time he had completed the work, Orff had taken a decisive step forwards in his compositional development. Although his earlier works had provided a glimpse of his aim to combine language, music and movement, it was the language of Hölderlin which had helped to bring Orff’s lifelong endeavours to maturity.