The lure of Orpheus

2 Orpheus and Eurydic -- WattsThe story of Orpheus, searching in the underworld for his beloved Eurydice, is music’s founding myth. It’s every musician’s justification and self-glorification and favorite bedtime story – and it’s also a cautionary tale. I’m drawn to it for the same reasons every composer and poet are drawn to it: it’s just true. Music can conquer death and stop time, but it can’t save us. It’s a tragic mistake to think that a musical achievement (like Orpheus’s) could somehow cancel out other flaws (like Orpheus’s) and translate to earthly immortality.

We will delve into this myth next month in PEM’s historic East India Marine Hall when I conduct  C.W. Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and premiere my own piece The Orphic Moment, written for solo violin, chamber ensemble and rising opera star, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.


The story of Orpheus has been explored in art, music, literature and film. Most people know the basic premise — that Orpheus could charm anyone with his music but could not retrieve his beloved from the underworld.I think that the loss of Eurydice is more deeply intentional than it’s usually understood to be.

Orpheus “loses” Eurydice by looking back at her, even though he knows that doing so will make her disappear forever. Well, what instinct – what temptation – precipitates that look back? Most versions claim that he’s impatient, he’s overprotective, he’s curious to make sure she’s still there. For me that’s not a satisfying answer. Orpheus is the ultimate aesthete, and the death of Eurydice has inspired him to write the greatest music ever (literally, since it charms Hades). If he had her back, what would he have to sing about?

If you look at all the Orpheus operas, they mostly follow one pattern:

1. Orpheus loses Eurydice, and weeps gorgeously for half an hour

2. He wins her back, only to lose her again.

3. He goes back to weeping gorgeously.

So, in short, losing Eurydice was the best thing that ever happened to Orpheus – and it was so much fun the first time that he does it again, in grand style! My new piece, The Orphic Moment, is a musical realization (for voice, solo violin, and chamber ensemble) of what runs through Orpheus’s mind in the instant before he turns around to face Eurydice. It’s this frightening, seductive dawning of the sensation that – oh my god, all the elements are aligned for the most tragic loss ever…and wouldn’t that be a colossal gain for music? The first thing he says is “It has been life to lose you…”

In my piece, the role of Eurydice is played by a solo violin. As in my Poem for Violin, which we did at PEM in March, the violinist’s music seems to be straining towards speech. But here, the reason Eurydice’s part must be wordless is that Orpheus is deaf to what she’s saying – or rather, he can appreciate her only as a musical presence.

Editor’s Note:

The 10-minute film clip below is a stylized French film from 1950 that offers a fun twist on the tale. As described by the Criterion Collection: “Jean Cocteau’s update of the Orpheus myth depicts a famous poet (Jean Marais), scorned by the Left Bank youth, and his love for both his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa), and a mysterious princess (Maria Casarès). Seeking inspiration, the poet follows the princess from the world of the living to the land of the dead, through Cocteau’s famous mirrored portal.”

Enjoy some more things we’ve been scanning for Orphic inspiration:

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Guest contributor: Matthew Aucoin is PEM’s composer-in-residence.  A composer, conductor, poet and pianist, he is also a 2012 graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude) and the youngest assistant conductor in the history of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.  Music director of the Encounters Ensemble, Aucoin is currently composing his third opera, commissioned by the American Repertory Theater, which will be premiered in Boston in the 2014-15 season. Aucoin recently won the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Solti Conducting Apprenticeship.

One Comment

  1. gail spilsbury says:

    Can’t wait to attend the concert after reading this description; it adds to the richness of the music we’ll experience.

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