Music and the Myth of Orpheus
In other essays I have traced several myths and legends through their various musical settings, but none comes closer to the nature of music itself than does the myth of Orpheus. So it would certainly be worth devoting an article or two to this ever-fascinating subject.
By the name shall you know the meaning of the myth. For example, “Achilles” means “no lips,” an apt nickname for an angry man; while the meaning of “Oedipus” or “swollen foot” is actually mentioned in the first of his three plays. “Orpheus,” alas, is of unknown origin. Robert Graves thinks it might have something to do with a riverbank; and indeed the character had to wait at the banks of the Styx to gain entrance to Hades. But his story is well enough known, especially in the version given by Ovid in his “Metamorphoses.”
His parents were the muse Calliope (“fair eyes”) and a mortal, King Oeagras. However, some writers say Apollo was his father; but this seems like a later change when Orpheus became the central character of a religion and a human father was an embarrassment. Because of his marvelous talents for singing and playing the lyre, a gift from Apollo, Orpheus could make “the trees, And the mountain tops that freeze, Bow themselves when he sing” (as Shakespeare expresses it in “Henry VIII”). After sailing with Jason on the Argos, he married Eurydice (“wide justice”) whom he loved so dearly that when she was fatally stung by a snake, Orpheus determined to take her back from the very bowels of Hades. Like Lot’s wife, he could not look behind him as she followed him up the steep and narrow path. But when he came to the surface, he looked back too soon and lost her forever.
Naturally a religion sprang up around his name about the same time that a rival religion centered around Dionysus was entering Greece from Asia Minor. One story has it that the female followers of the Eastern deity stormed Orpheus’ temple and tore him to pieces. The resemblance to the dismemberment of Osiris in Egyptian tales is notable. Another story has him destroyed by a bolt from Zeus who was angry about his revealing certain secrets. At any rate, there is a good deal of mysticism upon which this story is based. Nevertheless, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a thumping good one and bound to attract many a librettist.
In fact, it formed the basis of the second opera as we use that term today. When Aristotle’s “Poetics” was rediscovered in 1498 by Europeans, it started a Hellenophile movement that has never really ended. After the success of the very first opera called “Dafne,” which tried very hard never to let the music intrude itself upon the audience’s attention, the same composer and librettist (Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini) created “Euridice.” Telling the basic story by way of much dry recite and some pastoral-type arias, the work is introduced by Tragedy who addresses the audience, after which things go according to the legend until the ascent to Earth upon which no prohibited backward look is imposed–and all ends happily.
Of course none of this was very dramatic and the lack of great melodic interest was threatening to stifle this new invention called Opera Seria in its infancy. At least it was so in Florence. In Rome, however, composers were experimenting with something that developed into the “aria.” In the nature of such things, there always seems to be a genius around at the right moment, and in this case he was named Claudio Monteverdi. It need not concern us here that we have no definitive score to his “Orfeo” (1607). What is important is that the titular hero became a symbol of what Tennyson was going to immortalize in his dramatic monologue “Ulysses”: the man who strives against all odds.
The pivotal scene of the work is the long, embellished aria Orfeo sings to Charon to beg the oarsman to take him over the Styx. As one commentator points out, the song has no effect but the singer’s plainspoken demand to the gods of the underworld does! The librettist wanted the work to end with Orfeo’s death by mutilation; but Monteverdi insisted on an ending that has Apollo resurrect the singer as stars in the sky. The theatrical effect of all of this is captured beautifully on a video of this opera issued by London in 1978.
Less familiar operatic versions are Landi’s “La morte d’Orfeo” (1619), Rossi’s “Orfeo” (1647), and Charpentier’s “La descente d’Orphee aux Enfers” (1687). The latter work is now available on the Erato label and shows how important melody has become by this stage. Here Apollo is the hero’s father and it is he who persuades him to rescue Euridice (a variant spelling). Once in Hades, Orpheus’ singing dissolves even the Furies to tears. A new twist is added by Pluto’s being persuaded that since the loving couple must die eventually and return to him The god consents and all ends happily. There might have been a third act, but that is conjectural. What is amusing here is the almost Gilbertian solution at the end that gives the happy ending so beloved of the courtiers of that time.
After Monteverdi, opera seria fell into a fatal formula that was imposed by egocentric singers. Each “star” expected 5 or six arias to herself and those had to come at the end of each act so they could be followed by a dramatic exit. Never mind that arias were not expected to advance the plot one bit. Each was expected to be composed in such a way as to best show up the vocal pyrotechnics of the soloist, even if that meant letting four lines of lyrics take over five minutes to be sung. Should a rare duet be allowed, the two singers were never to sing at the same time. Only during the finale were all the singers called upon to blend their voices–a tactful way, I would guess, of avoiding bloodshed over whose voice should be the last heard.
This is the sort of nonsense that composers like Gluck were determined to eradicate, along with its long ballets, divertissements, and undramatic devices. Let the situation shape the aria, was his method, and not let the situation simply be an excuse for the aria. Thus we have in his “Orfeo ed Euridice” (1762) a true collaboration between composer and librettist (Calzabigi), rather than the composer being handed a ready text that could not be changed.
Although there are three versions of this work, the plot is pretty much the same in each. Euridice is already dead when the curtain goes up, and Orfeo is so distraught that Amore takes pity on him (today “him” is a mezzo in the Italian score, a tenor in the French) and tells the husband that he can regain his wife only if he does not look back until they are over the Styx. The second scene has Orfeo persuade the Spirits of Tartarus to allow him into the Elysian Fields, where he finds but does not look upon his beloved. In the final scene, she follows but is convinced he no longer loves her since he will not even look at her. Since he is bound by his agreement with Amore not to explain (a bit silly but necessary for this version), she thinks he no longer loves her. He is moved to look back and lose her. His famous lament, “Che faro senza Euridice,” so saddens Amore that the deity restores Euridice to life and all ends happily.
Now this ending is not an arbitrary decision on the part of librettist and composer. The work was written to help celebrate the name day of Emperor Francis I of Austria. Therefore it could not possibly have a tragic ending and it could not be too long. Simple as that.
But it took the operatic world by storm and was so popular that Offenbach thought it could use a good cold splash of satire and parody. Hence “Orphee aux Enfers” (1858) and a great success by scandal, as the French put it. When the scholars attacked the work as a disgrace to classical education and a desecration of a venerable myth, the public needed no more to rush to where it was playing. In fact, the Can-can at the end (for the Furies had become indistinguishable from the Moulin Rouge you-know-whats) proved so physically demanding that legend has it that the cast had to discontinue the run out of sheer exhaustion.
There is a two and a three act version of this wonderful spoof, but the plot is very much the same. Pluton is in love with Euridice and woos her disguised as a shepherd. For her part, she cannot stand her cello-playing husband, who tortures her with his new concerto (actually quite lovely) and then is delighted to find that she has been taken below. However a character called Public Opinion (mezzo) decrees that at least one husband has to show enough devotion to go to Hell for his wife; and the two go to Mount Olympus to obtain permission.
Up there, the gods and goddesses are quite bored with their steady diet of nectar and ambrosia and to the strains of La Marseillaise revolt against Jupiter. When the latter turns all moral about the rape of Euridice, his family reminds him of all the young women he took by force or deceit. Then they all insist on having a vacation down in the Underworld where (pre-echoes of G. B. Shaw!) life is so much more interesting.
Meanwhile, like Manon in her own opera, Euridice is not entirely content with her lot, but is fascinated by a strange fly that is buzzing around and can sing his half of a duet–Jupiter in one of his disguises. When Orpheus shows up to claim his spouse, the usual condition is imposed, but it is a thunderclap from Jupiter that makes him turn around and lose her. He is quite happy to let things stand as is, while the wife is very happy to remain where she is as a Bacchante. And all ends with a reprise of the Can-can.
(I can almost picture a American Vaudeville version in which the hero returns to the surface and finds success with his lyre act on the Orpheum Circuit!)
There was a cartoon in a contemporary French paper in which a couple asks a coachman to take them to the theater to see “Orpheus”; and he asks if they mean the boring one or the funny one. Poor Gluck! At any rate, there is a new recording on the EMI label of the shorter version that might prove interesting hearing beside the Monteverdi, Charpentier and Gluck interpretations, all of which are easily found on records. And be sure to catch the direct quote from Gluck’s famous lament that Offenbach slips in.
At least two versions of this legend can be seen on film. “Black Orpheus” and the French fantasy directed by Cocteau. In the latter, Death is a woman who falls in love with the poet Orpheus and Hell a place where one simply keeps on doing what one did in life for all eternity.
But is that not the very nature of a fine myth? Every age can find meanings undreamed of by the creators of the original. And (no pun intended) the Orpheus story seems to strike very deep chords in all of us.