The story of Orpheus is a sort of foundational myth for Western musicians and the hero's exploits as a master songsmith whose gifts could “tame the savage breast” (or beasts, depending on which version one follows), his ill-fated love for Euridice and his subsequent travels to the underworld to secure her return to life have inspired composers from Peri to Stravinsky. The version of the story most familiar to music lovers, however, ends with Orpheus' tragic return from Hades after failing to keep his bargain
with Pluto to not look back as he leads Eurydice back to the world of the living (which usually ends well for Orpheus anyway through the theatrical convention of the deus-ex-machina, which sets everything
right in the end anyway). The original myth, however, is far more tragic and it is this less often told part of the story that interested me when I set out to write my cello concerto, Orfei Mors.
Orfei Mors (“The Death of Orpheus”) is cast in two movements (performed without pause) each
itself a kind of nesting doll enclosing several shorter pieces within its structure. The narrative is
described through quotations from J.B. Greenough's translation of Virgil's Georgics, which includes the best known version of the Orphic myth.
The first movement, “Clutching vain shadows, yearning,”
begins with a cadenza (labeled “...a crash was heard three times in the seas of hell...”) depicting Orpheus' anguish at the second loss of Eurydice which leads way to a song (“Clutching vain shadows, yearning sore to speak...”) in which Orpheus struggles to give his grief a voice and once again convince the Furies to let him into Hades to claim the soul of Eurydice. The Furies, however, remain unmoved, their apathy represented by the cold, sharp chords performed by the piano, harp and percussion over which the cello weaves a lamenting passacaglia (“Move with what tears the Manes, with what voice the powers of darkness?”). At this point the movement turns back in on itself and the interrupted song is once again taken up, although this time taking on the character of a lost memory rather than a plea (“She
indeed even now Death-cold was floating on the Stygian barge!”).
As the song fades into oblivion the sounds of a volta (a relatively quick dance popular in the high Renaissance) waft through the air as a group of “Bacchantes” (the Bassarids, female followers of Bacchus/Dyonisus were known for their “raves” induced through dancing and intoxication) make their way onto our imagined stage (“...Ciconian dames, amid their awful bacchanalian rites...”). This dance music is the lightest, sunniest music in all of Orfei Mors and offers Orpheus a chance at respite and delight, one which he refuses as he remembers his beloved Eurydice (“...lost Eurydice lamenting and the
gifts of Dis ungiven...”). For this refusal of the “gifts of Dis” (essentially sacrifice to Venus through remarriage) the Bassarids “tore him limb from limb and strewed his fragments over the wide fields.” Virgil states, then, that as his soul left him, Opheus' “death-chilled tongue found yet a voice to cry 'Eurydice! Ah! Poor Eurydice!'” Orfei Mors fades to a conclusion as the cello, Orpheus' voice, intones the first few notes of the first movement's song.
Orfei Mors was commissioned by the Western Piedmont Symphony, John Gordon Ross, Music
Director and the Syracuse Society for New Music, Neva Pilgrim, Artistic Director for Cellist Philip von Maltzahnn. It was written in the winter and spring, 2009 in Alexandria, Virginia.
This performance is by Philip von Maltzahnn, cello, and Great Noise Ensemble under the composer's direction. Recorded in March, 2011 at Ward Hall of the Catholic University of America.
- Contemporary Classical