The Myth of Orpheus
April 13, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
When we think of the powers that superheroes possess, we think of flying, heat vision, super strength, speed, shape-shifting, or invisibility. Rarely do we consider excellent musicianship to be a super power, unless we’re talking about Orpheus. Orpheus was a legendary musician and poet who appears in the literature of ancient Greece. Orpheus was supposedly the son of one of the Muses—the nine goddesses of the arts and creativity—and Oeagrus, a king. In some versions of his story, he is the son of Apollo. Whether he is Apollo’s son, or just someone that Apollo takes a shine to, the two figures are often linked. It was said that Orpheus could charm all creatures, and even inanimate objects, with his music. In one of his adventures, he helped Jason and the Argonauts avoid the Sirens, beautiful creatures who lured sailors into shipwrecks with their lovely songs. When Orpheus heard the music, the myth says that he pulled out his lyre and drowned out their siren song with louder and more beautiful music of his own.
The story we associate most closely with Orpheus is his attempted rescue of his lost love, Eurydice. On Orpheus and Eurydice’s wedding day, she is bitten by a snake. Orpheus, devastated by her death, vows to enter the Underworld and bring her back. He takes his trusty lyre with him, and it’s a good thing too, because he has a lot of charming to do once he enters the Underworld. In some versions of the myth, Orpheus has to use his musical powers to charm the ferryman Charon and the three-headed dog, Cerberus, while in others, he plays to soften the will of the Furies, Persephone, and Hades himself. Orpheus is allowed to take Eurydice with him to the upper world on one condition: he must not look back at her until they are both safely out of the Underworld. In a moment of weakness, very close to their goal, he looks back, and Eurydice slips away once again.
As you might imagine, a myth like this—one in which music is a super power—would inspire composers. In fact, Orpheus has been the subject of a few major works. One of the earliest operas, Euridice (1600) by Jacopo Peri, deals with the myth. Peri divided Ottavio Rinuccini’s libretto into five scenes with solo songs, separated by choral pieces. In the Prolougue of the opera, the character of Tragedy “dismisses fear, bloodshed and sorrow and then calls for sweeter emotions to be evoked through the forces of music.” In Peri’s version, Orpheus is successful in his attempt to get Eurydice back. Just a few years later, Claudio Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo (1607), which sets the myth even more skillfully. The libretto, by Alessandro Striggio stays faithful to the myth, and Orpheus and Eurydice are indeed separated forever. Monteverdi’s talent for expressive and emotional vocal music had been honed in the composition of dozens of madrigals, and it is evident in this very sophisticated example of early opera.
More than a hundred fifty years later, Christoph Willibald Gluck revisited Orpheus in the 1760s with the opera, Orphée et Eurydice. This work has been categorized as a “reform” opera, because it puts into practice some of the ideals Gluck had in simplifying opera—which had in the previous century and a half become overly complicated and needlessly virtuosic. After his second “reform” opera, Alceste, Gluck (and his librettist Ranieri Calzabigi) set down these ideals. This is an excerpt from them:
“…my greatest labor should consist in the search for a beautiful simplicity; and I have avoided making a display of difficulties at the expense of clarity; I have not underrated the discovery of certain innovations, provided they were offered naturally by the situation and the expression; nor is there a hallowed rule I have not willingly sacrificed for the sake of the intended effect.”
Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice absolutely achieves this “beautiful simplicity,” and yet still allows for incredibly dramatic and moving scenes. A particular moment at the beginning of Act 2 comes to mind, as Orpheus stands at the gate of the Underworld. The Furies refuse his entrance, singing of Cerberus—whose barks are represented in the orchestra. Orpheus, unperturbed, sings to them as he plays his lyre (the harp in the orchestra), and the Furies, who begin by shouting “No!” are soon charmed by Orpheus’ music. Their stern tone softens, and they grant Orpheus passage. In Gluck’s opera, Orpheus finds Eurydice, but she begs him to look back at her. In his desire to reassure her, he tragically loses her for a second time. But that is not the end of the opera. Once back in the upper world, Orpheus decides to commit suicide so that he can be reunited with his love in the Underworld. A character named Amore convinces him otherwise. As a reward, Amore brings Eurydice back, and she returns to Orpheus in the realm of the living.
In the nineteenth century, Franz Liszt used the Orpheus myth as the basis for his symphonic poem Orpheus. As Liszt’s developed the symphonic poem—a one-movement instrumental work inspired by a non-musical narrative—he often composed works that would act as an overture or prologue to works that told the same story. His Orpheus piece was written as a prelude to a production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice in Weimar in 1854. (A few years later, Liszt composed the symphonic poem Hamlet to be performed before a production of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.) In 1858, Jacques Offenbach composed what is considered to be the first full-length operetta, Orphée aux Enfers, Orpheus in the Underworld. This is a satirical work, which seeks to lambast Gluck’s serious rendering of the mythological subject. It is from this work that we get the musical excerpt known as the “can-can.”
In the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky composed a short chamber ballet called Orpheus (1947). George Balanchine choreographed the ballet, which premiered in New York in 1948. Over three scenes, the ballet portrays Eurydice’s death, Orpheus’ run-in with the Furies, and the final apotheosis of Orpheus. In this version, Orpheus loses Eurydice for the second time, and is then torn apart by the Bacchantes. The story of Orpheus continues to inspire artists of all kinds. Modern operas have been composed on the subject including Harrison Birtwistle’s 2009 work, The Corridor. Film director Baz Luhrmann has stated that the Orpheus myth was at the heart of his 2001 film Moulin Rouge. Neil Gaiman has touched on aspects of the myth in the comic series The Sandman. The love story of Orpheus and Eurydice has seeped into the music of Arcade Fire and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It seems we are not finished telling and retelling this classic story in drama, art, or literature. Music especially will never let this myth go, because the power of music lies at its core, still mystifying and compelling as ever.