The inspiration of Orpheus, from Monteverdi to Nick Cave – a Raymond Deane Playlist

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Orpheus was an ancient Greek legendary hero endowed with superhuman musical skills. He loved Eurydice, but she was killed by a snakebite. Overcome with grief, Orpheus descended to Hades in an attempt to bring her back to life. His music and grief so moved the king of the underworld, that Orpheus was allowed to take Eurydice back to the world of life and light. There was one condition, however: both Orpheus and Eurydice were forbidden to look back. As they climbed upwards, Orpheus, seeing the Sun again, turned to share his delight with Eurydice. In that moment, she disappeared. Orpheus himself was later torn to pieces by the women of Thrace, at the jealous urging of Dionysus. His head, still singing, with his lyre, floated to Lesbos, where an oracle of Orpheus was established. The dismembered limbs of Orpheus were gathered up and buried by the Muses. His lyre was placed in the heavens as a constellation.

It’s not surprising that this myth has reverberated throughout the history of western music. Raymond Deane’s own first acknowledged composition was his Orphica, 1969-70. Here’s the composer playing Orphic Piece IV. []

(1) Monteverdi: Orfeo (1607). The first opera that survives was Euridice (1600) by Jacopo Peri. Monteverdi’s slightly later Orfeo was a far richer composition, from which the most beautiful extract is Orpheus’s famous lament for Eurydice.

(2)Telemann: The Wonderful Constancy of Love, or Orpheus (1726): Georg Philipp Telemann was one of the most prolific composers of the 18th century. His 3-act Orpheus, rediscovered in the 20th century, introduces a female villain called Queen Orasia whose machinations bring about the destruction of Orpheus and Euridice but who herself meets a sticky end.

(3) Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice (1762): Gluck was a German composer who wrote operas with French and Italian texts. Once again, the most beautiful and celebrated moment is Orpheus’s lament.

(4) Liszt: Orpheus (1853-4). Liszt is credited with inventing the “symphonic poem”, a purely orchestral piece depicting a narrative or a poetic/philosophical idea. This is the 4th of his 12 essays in the genre, and perhaps the most perfect. 

(5) Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld (1858). This is a merciless parody of Gluck’s opera, by another German composer based in Paris, and a satire on grand opera in general. The Overture culminates in the notorious “Can-Can”.

(6) Ernst Krenek: Orpheus und Eurydike (1923). This opera is based on a play that the Austrian painter Kokoschka wrote to commemorate his traumatic relationship with Mahler’s widow, Alma. This is also the theme of Raymond Deane’s opera The Alma Fetish, in which the Orpheus motif is referenced. Ironically, Krenek married Mahler’s daughter Anna.

(7) Stravinsky: Orpheus (1947). This is a ballet in three scenes composed by Stravinsky in Hollywood for the great choreographer Balanchine. Throughout, the harp takes on the role of Orpheus’s lyre, and once again the underworld is the main setting.

(8) Georges Auric: Suite from Orphée (1949). The French poet, playwright, visual artist and filmmaker Cocteau based three haunting films on the Orphic legend, Orphée being the longest. The film music by Georges Auric (a member of the group of French composers known as Les Six] captured its other-worldly atmosphere, and incorporated the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s opera. The suite extracted from it has 6 movements.

(9) Harrison Birtwistle: Nenia: The Death of Orpheus (1970). Birtwistle’s most ambitious exploration of the theme was his 3-hour opera The Mask of Orpheus (1986), to a libretto by Peter Zinovieff. This earlier work, for soprano, 3 bass clarinets, crotales (antique cymbals) and piano, also uses a text by Zinovieff and could be seen as a sketch for the opera.

(10) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: The Lyre of Orpheus (2004). A very different take on the legend! ‘”Look what I’ve made”, cried Orpheus/ And he plucked a gentle note/ Eurydices eyes popped from their sockets/ And her tongue burst through her throat/Oh mama, oh mama, oh mama, oh mama…’

Raymond Deane was born in Co Galway. From 1963 he lived in Dublin, where he studied music at University College Dublin, graduating in 1974. He subsequently studied composition in Switzerland and Germany with Gerald Bennett, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Isang Yun. His works have been commissioned by and for some of the world’s most celebrated musicians. His opera The Alma Fetish was performed by Wide Open Opera in Dublin’s NCH in 2013. He has also published a novel (Death of a Medium 1992) and a memoir (In my own Light, 2014), as well as many articles on music, politics, and their intersection. He has been a member of Aosdána, the government-sponsored academy of artists, since 1986. He is based in Dublin and Fürth (Bavaria).