Orpheus - The Continued Love Affair - Classical Music History - Research Paper

1624 words - 7 pages

Orpheus - The Continued Love Affair
Kathryn M. Vickous
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs 

This paper explores the opera world’s fascination with the Greek myth Orpheus. To this date,
there have been seventy-one operas, the first originating in the 16th century in 1600 and the last
in the 21st century in 2015. In fact, because there have been so many operas depicting his story,
Orpheus has his own genre - Orphean operas. It is this paper’s ambition to attempt to uncover the
truth as to why the tale of Orpheus has transfixed the musical world after all this time.
Orpheus - The Continued Love Affair
There are countless versions of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, not only in the
literature of the world, but in the music of the world as well. The appeal of a story about a mortal
being brought back from death is obvious. However, the myth of Orpheus puts an interesting
twist on the fantasy of life after death. When his wife, Eurydice, is fatally bitten by a poisonous
snake Orpheus, a poet and singer, dares to travel to the underworld to reclaim her. Facing the
ruler of the underworld, he demands her release, and Hades gives in. There are more than
seventy known operatic versions of the tale, from the first work that can properly be called an
opera, Peri's Euridice (1600), and the first truly great opera, Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607), to the
most recent Orpheus (2015). What is it that makes this story so fascinating to the musical world?
The answer to the aforementioned question is what this paper is seeking to discover.
The Myth Behind the Legend
Orpheus was widely known as the most talented music player of the age. It is said that he
was the son of Apollo, the god of music, and Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. From the two of
which he took his extreme talent in music and verse. Gifted with a most sublime voice, Orpheus
could charm everyone who heard him. When he was given a lyre as a young boy, he had it
mastered in no time at all. Legend says that no god, mortal, or object could resist his music. Even
the rocks and trees would uproot themselves to be close to him.
Love at First Song
In his early years, Orpheus spent much of his time perfecting his music and poetry. His
talent had eclipsed the fame and respect his music had garnered him. His superb lyre playing and
euphonious voice accumulated him audiences from near and far. It was at one of these events
that his eyes first fell on a wood nymph named Eurydice. A powerful spell was woven that day
for both Eurydice and Orpheus both became enchanted with each other - Eurydice by his music
and Orpheus by her beauty. The two soon fell madly in love and became unable to spend a single
moment apart. After a while, the decided to get married.
The Snake Bite
Their wedding day was a joyous occasion. Hymenaios, the god of marriage, had blessed
their marriage and a grand feast followed. As night drew near, the newlyweds and their guests
parted ways. Unbeknownst to the star struck lovers, someone was waiting to intercept them on
their way home. Aristaeus, a shepherd, had plotted to conquer the beautiful nymph for his own.
In the bushes, he waited for the young couple to pass by, for he planned to jump and kill Orpheus
out of jealously and as the shepherd made his move, Orpheus grabbed Eurydice’s hand and
together they start running away. On and on they ran until suddenly, Orpheus felt Eurydice fall.
He quickly doubled back to her side, but she was beyond his help for Eurydice had stepped on a
nest of snakes and was fatally bitten.
There and Back Again
Orpheus was overcome with torment over the death of his beloved wife and he played
such sad, sorrowful music that all the nymphs and gods wept and grieved with him. It was on
their advice that he travelled to the underworld to try to get his wife back. Armed with only his
lyre and voice, Orpheus was able to charm Charon, ferryman of the dead, to allow him passage
across the river Styx. Orpheus traveled further on to the gates of the underworld and where he
played his melancholy music to Cerberus, the giant three-headed dog who guards the gates of the
underworld, who howled in despair and covered his many ears with his paws. After he was
granted entrance, Orpheus took up his lyre once more and sang out to Hades and his wife
Persephone both of whose hearts melted and they openly wept. Not even the most stone-hearted
of people or gods could have neglected the hurt in his voice. Orpheus’ song was so powerful and
moving that Hades promised the desperate man that Eurydice could follow him back to the world
of the living. However, there was a condition. Orpheus must not look back at his wife while she
was in the dark, only until they had both reached the light of the upper world could he see his
With immense relief and a song in his heart, Orpheus took Eurydice’s hand and together
they started their journey home. Many times he wanted to look back at her, to make sure she was
really there, but he controlled himself and together they ventured on. As they approached the exit
and saw the light from outside, his heart started beating faster and faster. Finally he stepped out
into the light and turned to look at his wife, but his joyous expression was not returned. Orpheus
had turned too early, he was in the light, but Eurydice was still in the dark - on the threshold
between the underworld and the upper world. With a look of horror on his face, he watched his
wife Eurydice vanish for a second time, but now forever.
The Death of Orpheus
From then on, Orpheus wandered disoriented, day after day, night after night, in total
despair. He could find no consolation in anything, not even music. He was so overcome with
grief and sorrow that he rebuked contact with any other woman. However, Orpheus’ refusal of a
group of women took a turn for the worst. Orpheus dismissed a group of maenads who grew
furious with him for his scorn towards them. The women killed him, cut his body into pieces and
threw them and his lyre into the river. Legend says that the head and lyre continued to sing and
play all the way out to sea. To honor him, Apollo and the Muses placed his lyre amongst the
Changes from Myth to Stage
Many of the great opera composers had their librettists change the ending of Orpheus’
tale to a more happy ending. In the very first opera, Peri’s Euridice, both Orpheus and Eurydice
return to the upper world, safe and sound, and together they rejoice. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo,
Apollo comes down from the heavens and convinces Orpheus to leave the world he knows
behind and join him in the heavens. In Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Orpheus is so overcome with
grief that he decides to kill himself, so he will be able to join his love in death. However, Cupid,
the god of desire, stops him and rewards Orpheus’ continued love by bringing Eurydice back to
The Verdict
The myth of Orpheus has intrigued many great artists for hundreds of years. But, what is
it about this myth that fascinates us so much? Yong notes that perhaps Orpheus’ popularity is
partially due to the fact that he survived at the end of his story (n.d., p. 12). Opera is a tradition
inherited by the tragedians, so to have a story with a happy ending was strange when this genre
was just beginning. Buller states that “a primary reason for the popularity of this story was its
sheer theatricality” (1995, p. 57). The myth contained everything a good show could want such
as a wedding, a tragic death, a journey to a forbidden land, and the second parting of two lovers.
Orpheus’ tale proved to be very easy to adapt onto the stage. Buller goes on to further say that
“even more importantly, the central theme of the myth - that music is able to temper any heart
and overcome any obstacle - was especially well suited to an age that saw music as possessing a
mysterious, almost supernatural power” (1995, p. 57-58). It is the power of music, the musician
as the hero: these are the ideas that have made the myth of Orpheus the most popular subject for
opera. Kimbell deduced that “Orpheus was the glorious example of an artist operating upon the
world in which he lived, raising up his fellow men to a state of civilization, and shaping destiny
itself by the eloquence and beauty of his art” (1991, p. 65).
Buller, J. (1995). Looking Backwards: Baroque Opera and the Ending of the Orpheus Myth.
International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 1(3), 57-79. Retrieved from http://
Kimbell, D. (1991). Italian Opera. Cambridgeshire, England: Cambridge University Press.
Yong, E. (n.d.). The Orpheus Myth in Baroque Opera. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/

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