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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Inspiration of Orpheus

The myths of ancient Greece and Rome have been the inspiration for countless works of art over the past two millennia. Just think of all the paintings and sculptures depicting events from classical mythology. Plays, poems, novels, pieces of music, operas, ballets...the list is endless.

For musicians, the legendary Greek figure of Orpheus has long held a special place, much like the somewhat mythical status given to St Cecilia in the Christian tradition. Orpheus’ association with music stems from the fact that he was the son of the muse Calliope, the use of epic poetry. Music in the ancient Greek sense includes concepts relating to poetry and declamation as much as singing and playing instruments.

Ancient legends disagree as to who Orpheus’ father was. Originally his father was said to be Oeagrus, but continued association with the god Apollo eventually led to many claims that Apollo was his father.

By the 5th century BC, many writers (including Pindar, Aeschylus and Euripides) had drawn strong connections between Orpheus and singing. Simonides writes of the birds and fish listening to Orpheus’ singing, and Pindar called him “the father of song”. One of the most famous testaments to Orpheus’ power as a singer is the incident in the Argonautica which tells of his singing saving the Argonauts from the seductive charms of the Sirens. His instrument was the lyre, or to give it its Greek name, the kithara. [listen]

Orpheus has been an inspiration to countless composers over the centuries. The development of opera in Florence in the late 16th century came about through an attempt to recreate Greek music drama, and the legend of Orpheus inspired the earliest operas, by Peri and Caccini in 1600 and 1602. The legend most frequently adapted for musical treatment tells of Orpheus and his beloved wife Eurydice. Eurydice dies of a snake bite and Orpheus follows her into the Underworld. His singing charms Charon, who ferries the souls of the dead across the river Styx, and he also braves the Furies and the monstrous dog Cerberus. Pluto allows Orpheus to take Eurydice back the world of the living provided he doesn’t look at her on the journey back. When he does look at her, she is lost to him forever. One version of the legend goes on to have Orpheus tormented and eventually torn apart by the Thracian Bacchantes (wild women in the service of Bacchus), with his severed head continuing to sing and prophesy until it is carried away to the island of Lesbos.

Operatic treatments have favoured a happier ending, such as in Monteverdi’s great opera on the Orpheus legend, Orfeo, dating from 1607. In this Eurydice is not returned to her husband, but at least Orpheus is comforted by his father Apollo, who at the end of the opera takes his unhappy son into heaven.

Strozzi: Claudio Monteverdi (c. 1630)

Here is how Monteverdi depicts Orpheus hearing of the death of his wife. This video comes from one of my favourite opera productions, mounted in the Liceu in Barcelona and conducted by Jordi Savall. [listen]

It's often forgotten that the happy ending in Monteverdi's Orfeo appears in the score, first published in 1609 (and again in 1615), but not in the text published for the 1607 premiere. On that occasion, the opera ended unhappily, with Orpheus reviled by the Bacchantes for his renunciation of women. Orpheus leaves the stage, his fate uncertain, while the opera ends with the Bacchantes indulging in wild singing and dancing in praise of their master, Bacchus. As the original performance materials from 1607 have been lost, we have no idea what music might have been composed for this ending. It's suggested that the happy ending with the descent of Apollo from heaven - in the published score - would have been difficult, if not impossible, to stage in the Gonzaga palace in Mantua, as the premiere took place in a large room and not a theatre. The ending with the Bacchantes would be easier to stage (as it wouldn't require a flying machine) and therefore might have been a short-term solution.

French composers were no less attracted to the Orpheus legend. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who lived from 1643 to 1704, composed a miniature opera around 1686 called The Descent of Orpheus into Hell. Scored for a group of voices and a handful of instruments, this work is a delicate, gentle masterpiece which deserves to be better-known. [listen]

One of my favourite composers, Georg Philipp Telemann, wrote an extraordinary operatic treatment of the Orpheus story in 1726. The text - in accordance with Hamburg tradition - is multi-lingual (in German, Italian and French) and retells the familiar Orpheus myth in a new way. It draws ideas from an earlier French version of the story set to music by Louis Lully, son of the famous Jean-Baptiste, reshaping the narrative into a tragic love triangle, In Telemann's opera, Eurdyice's death is arranged by Orasia, Queen of Thrace, because she too loves Orpheus. When Orpheus returns from the Underworld - without Eurydice - and refuses Orasia's love, the Queen takes revenge on him by having him killed by the Bacchantes. After his death she is overcome with remorse and takes her own life.

In this recording of the complete opera on YouTube, the scene where Orasia greets Orpheus on his return from the Underworld begins at 2h2'00. It pretty amazing stuff. [listen]

Lichtensteger: Georg Philipp Telemann (c. 1745)

A popular form of vocal writing in the Baroque period was the secular cantata. We are accustomed these days to using the word cantata in the context of a sacred work, but secular cantatas, designed for private performance, were extremely popular throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. These are what we might think of as vocal chamber music - one or two voices with a continuo accompaniment and possibly one or two solo instruments. The French composer Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (who lived from 1676 to 1749) wrote a cantata on the Orpheus legend. This was published in 1710 when the cantata form was a fairly recent import into France from Italy. There is only one singer, so there’s no operatic allocation of character. Rather, the soprano describes the various emotional states of the story in a sequence of recitatives and arias. This is the first part of this beautiful piece: [listen]

One rather less-stuffy view of the Orpheus legend is found in a song by the 18th century English composer, William Boyce (who died in 1778). I can imagine this song being sung at the local tavern, and the intent is clearly ironic. The powers of Hell are astonished, not at Orpheus’ singing, but at the fact that he risked life and limb just to get his wife back! [listen]

Chamberlin (attr.): William Boyce (c. 1765-70)

The most famous 18th century representation of Orpheus, though, is in the opera written in Vienna in 1762 by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Orfeo ed Euridice is one of the pivotal works in music history, marking a major shift away from the perceived excesses of Baroque opera seria towards a simpler, more direct form of expression. The original version Gluck’s opera was in Italian with the role of Orpheus composed for a castrato (and today sung either by a countertenor or a mezzo soprano). In Paris in 1774 Gluck adapted the work into a French version which is sometimes heard today.

Duplessis: Christoph Willibald Gluck (1775)

In Gluck’s opera, on the journey back from the underworld, Orpheus is so tormented he looks back at Eurydice, whereupon she dies. At this point Orpheus sings the most famous aria in the piece, Che farò senza Euridice, lamenting his tragic loss. [listen]

Gluck’s opera gives the hapless couple the ultimate second chance. The gods take pity on Orpheus after hearing that lament and Eurydice is restored to life and to her husband. Not every treatment of the story ended so happily, though. In 1791, Haydn wrote an opera on the story during his first visit to London. This incredible and almost completely-unknown work was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. In fact it wasn’t given a complete performance until the 1950s.

The ending of Haydn’s opera is bleak in the extreme; no happy endings here. Upon looking back on the return to earth, Eurydice is lost to Orpheus for ever. Not only is he poisoned by the Bacchantes in the final scene, the Bacchantes themselves are destroyed by a violent storm, and the opera ends in total desolation. Here’s the conclusion of Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice. [listen]

Another composer who didn’t shy away from the unhappy ending of the Orpheus legend was Berlioz. In 1827, at the age of 24, Berlioz competed for the Prix de Rome, an annual award to young artists which offered a period of study in Rome as the prize. He didn’t win it until 1830, but his first entry was a cantata for tenor, female chorus and orchestra called The Death of Orpheus. As might be gathered from the title, there’s no happy ending here, either. His last words are, “Eurydice, wait for me! I am dying...farewell...I will join you...Eurydice...” It’s pretty amazing writing for such a young and - at the time - almost unknown composer. [listen]

A rare example of non-vocal music inspired by the Orpheus legend came from the pen of Franz Liszt. In 1854, Liszt composed an orchestral introduction to Gluck’s Orpheus opera for performance in Weimar and this was first performed in February of that year. In the following October it was presented as a concert work, and it thus became one of Liszt’s symphonic poems. The piece is not particularly programmatic; that is, it doesn’t seek to tell the Orpheus story in music. It seems to focus more on the general idea of Orpheus’ reputation as an exquisite singer, with long, rapturous melodies. The opening makes use of the harp, an obvious reference to the legendary singer’s lyre. [listen]

Franz Liszt (1858)

Gluck’s opera was well-known in the 19th century, as Liszt’s orchestral tribute shows. However in 1858, one of the most famous and original of all French operettas not only took aim at the Orpheus legend and sent it up mercilessly, but even did so with quotes from Gluck’s opera. Jacques Offenbach scored a hit with Orpheus in the Underworld, where Orpheus and Eurydice can’t stand each other, where Orpheus only goes to Olympus to get Eurydice back when pressured to do so by Public Opinion, and where the gods are so bored with their idyllic life that they can’t wait to visit Hell for a bit of a change of scenery. Here’s the conclusion of the first act of Offenbach’s sparkling operetta. [listen]

Jacques Offenbach (1860s)

And this is just the beginning. CDs with music by Luigi Rossi, Milhaud, Stravinsky, Dominic Argento, Alan Hovhaness and Nick Cave remained on my desk when I first wrote this…

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in January, 2006.

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