The Orpehus Myth and the Powers of Music by Vladimir Marchenkov
(Interplay: Music in Interdisciplinary Dialogue: Pendragon)
examines the key turning points in the history of the
Orpheus myth as factors that shaped, and continues to shape, our
conceptions of music's powers. From its beginnings in archaic
Antiquity to the latest major opera based on it, the story of
Orpheus and Eurydice has been used by poets, philosophers, and
musicians to express an increasingly complex set of ideas about what
music can do. The study follows three threads in the myth's history:
changes in form, cultural status, and the resulting visions of the
powers of song.
The most spectacular change in form is the role played by Eurydice who evolves from a generic, voiceless type into a rich music-philosophical symbol. Equally fascinating is the entangled issue of Orpheus's success and failure. In terms of cultural status, the story remains a genuine myth—even alongside its non-mythical forms—until the early modern period. Modernity problematizes the existence of myth but its mythophobia becomes a symptom of its own profound irrationality. Accordingly, the powers of music evolve from mythic omnipotence to screaming contradictions that demand, but fail to achieve, resolution. From Monteverdi and Striggio-to Birtwistle and Zinovieff, composers and librettists turn to Orpheus and Eurydice to express their sense of music's place in human existence. The undulating tapestry of their strikingly diverse answers points to the need to rethink, once again, the fundamentals of our musical culture.
The subject of this book is the Orpheus myth as a factor in the history of beliefs about the powers of music. From its earliest appearances to this day the myth has been used by sculptors, painters, poets, musicians, and philosophers to express their ideas about what music can do. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice puts artistic creativity in the center of human experience and links it to such fundamentals as love, death, religion, and philosophy. It is artists' tale about themselves, their art, and their place in the universal order of things. The Orpheus myth is also the subject of a large scholarly literature. It has been examined by classical philologists, historians of religion, philosophers, ethnographers, and literary scholars—to name only the most obvious disciplines. In his study of the myth the classical scholar Charles Segal looked at Orpheus as a symbol of "the relation of art to life."' This book pursues, mutatis mutandis, a similar goal, with emphasis on music. No such investigation has been undertaken so far, although there is a considerable amount of commentary on Orpheus as a musician in all of the areas mentioned above.
The answer to the question about the powers of music at any given time is far from obvious or simple. Today it is presumed almost a priori, for example, that music's effects are confined to human psychology—at the broadest, to man as a political animal. Unlike earlier eras, we tend to think of the cosmic or mystical dimensions of music only in terms of quaint poetic license. Modernity has taken reality away from the beautifully ordered universe and from the touch of ineffable transcendence, and passed it to the human subject and society. One of the lessons taught by the study of myths, however, is that what is merely assumed is fraught with the greatest problems. Myths are stories about such things; they are the original articulations of that which is silently consented to, and precisely for this reason they are among the most problematic creations of the human mind. Today's subjectivist view of music, in other words, springs from yet another myth that implicitly contains a long history of insights, conflicts, and biases. To reflect on its genesis is necessary for grasping its strengths and limitations—and even, perhaps, for discerning the possibility of moving beyond it.
"The Orpheus Myth"
The astonishing diversity of Orpheuses and Eurydices in history makes one wonder whether they can each be brought under a single heading. Martin L. West, an authoritative writer on ancient Orphic poetry, points out the singer's evanescent identity when he remarks that over the centuries "Orpheus was all things to all men." This is a warning against hasty generalizations and it should be heeded—although not to the extent that Orpheus be denied his own unique voice, physiognomy, and history. But what is meant by "the Orpheus myth"?
Its ancient core consisted of several types of materials. There was a more or less stable cluster of traditional stories about the magical singer of that name. These included Orpheus' s participation in the journey of Argo and his descent to the underworld in order to rescue his wife. There were also cosmogonic and ritual texts that were attributed to Orpheus, most notably Orphic theogonies, hymns, and funerary inscriptions. Then there were theological commentaries on myths and mystical teachings attributed to Orpheus. The most famous of these is contained in the papyrus found at Derveni in 1963. In its subsequent history this core was built upon and transformed by artists in all genres, theologians, and philosophers. The phrase "the Orpheus myth" in the broadest sense encompasses the sum total of these metamorphoses. In fact, one of the things that this book attempts to show is that, baffling though this sum may be, there is a fundamental continuity of meaning that links together Orpheus the artist, lover, mystagogue, and mythopoet. In short, Orpheus is viewed below as a mythical figure that gives shape to the belief that music is of utmost importance to the life of the cosmos, civilized society, religious cult, and individual self-awareness.
In order to understand what ideas and beliefs this myth conveys at any given time one must ask three closely related questions: what does the story say, what kind of story is it, and, finally, what does it mean? The questions arise from the following considerations.
At different times in its history different narratives belonging to the Orpheus myth were favored, while others withdrew into the background or were dissociated from the main body of the myth altogether. The most vivid example is the singer's wife, Eurydice, who is absent from the voyage of Argo, appears as a nameless, generic character in other early sources, but then, as the myth evolves, grows into a richly suggestive symbol and intricate, powerful personality. Another example is the outcome of Orpheus's expedition to the underworld. His success and failure are two contrapuntal themes in the web of widely varying interpretations. One must therefore follow the historical changes in the form of the myth. Secondly, the same story about Orpheus could belong to different cultural genera depending on how it was intended and perceived. By a cultural genus is meant, roughly, a distinct area of culture as a whole. It is close to Ernst Cassirer's (18741945) symbolic form that refers to such things as language, myth, science, religion, and art. Helpful as it is, Cassirer's term bears, nonetheless, neoKantian connotations that the more neutral, if admittedly vague, "cultural genus" should help avoid. The genera that are of key importance in the chapters that follow include myth in the technical sense, art, and philosophy. The Orpheus myth has been widely used in all three of these domains but in each of them its import varies.
Paraphrasing Theodor Adorno' s (1903-1969) opening statement in Aesthetic Theory, one could say that the only thing that goes without saying in myth theory today is that nothing goes without saying.' The category of myth has been thoroughly problematized to the extent that the very existence —or at least the universal nature—of the object that it denotes is now suspect. "It is entirely possible," remarks Fritz Graf as he surveys the existing theories of myth, "that in speaking of 'myths' in non-European societies we are projecting our own conceptions, which go back to fifth-century Athens, onto those societies."4 No one writing on myth can any longer automatically presume that his or her readers will have shared assumptions. The field is strewn with old theories over whose remains new ones wrestle with one another. It has become necessary to display one's own colors before venturing into interpretation; one must explain what one means by "myth." To a mythologist this presents a dilemma.
There is an inherent weakness in merely explaining the theory that one has decided to rely on, for the choice must be defended rather than simply declared. To require a full defense, however, seems unreasonable: given the vast discourse engendered by the problem of myth, such a defense can easily take up the whole book and still remain unconvincing. Perhaps this is why Roland Barthes in his Mythologies offers theoretical observations mostly in the course of interpreting examples of contemporary myths, summarizing them eventually into a coherent whole. A somewhat similar strategy is adopted in the present study. The argument about what constitutes myth and how it interacts with art and philosophy is spread over the entire book. Specific aspects of myth are addressed in conjunction with specific instances of the Orpheus myth throughout its history. To give only four examples, the miraculous element in myth is dealt with in the next chapter, as part of the explanation of how myth is related to mysticism. Another basic element, namely myth's immediate relation to reality, is the focus of chapter 3, that addresses Plato's treatment of Orphic ideas. A detailed discussion of the question of myth is-a-vis allegory is delayed until the chapters on Orpheus in Baroque and Enlightenment opera. And the analysis of the effect of modern infinitism, i.e., acceptance of infinite regress as rational spans the chapters from Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) to Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934).5 It concludes with a critique of Adorno' s negative dialectic and of Jacques Derrida's theory of philosophical language as circularly metaphorical.
The theory of myth that the book advances is derived from many sources, among which Ernst Cassirer' s and Aleksei Losev' s doctrines provide the dual guiding thread.6 Briefly, myth is taken to be a tale about miraculous reality, i.e., a narrative that describes miraculous events and is considered to be true. Perhaps the most novel feature of the theory is an analysis, in conjunction with the miraculous, of the concept of mystery that leads, in turn, to the dialectic of immediacy and mediation. For this part of my argument I draw heavily on G. W. F. Hegel's (1770-1831) analyses of this dialectic.' The relation between these two aspects of thinking illuminates the logic of the Orpheus myth's evolution from myth proper to an artistic image to a philosophically charged symbol. It casts a particularly helpful light on the problem of myth in modernity and allows to avoid both the uncritical veneration and the hypercritical dismissal of myth.
To put it in preliminary and unavoidably simplistic terms, as a myth proper the story of Orpheus is taken to be literally true; as a work of art it is presumed to be fiction; and in philosophical discourse it can fulfil a variety of functions ranging from allegorical illustration to figurative hypothesis to a symbolic closing of an argument. If the story about Orpheus singing to rocks, plants, and animals is a myth, then the magical effects of his music are accepted in earnest. If this story is a poetic account, then these effects are seen as a hyperbole, metaphor, or some other such figure but neither the author nor his or her audience think of them as literally real. When used allegorically, as in Horace's Ars poetica, it is a mere illustration of music's civilizing effect on human nature. And, finally, a philosopher may crown his argument with an Orphic myth, such as the vision of Er in Plato's Republic, where it becomes mythosophy. The matter is vastly complicated by the fact that one and the same image can be multi-layered and belong to several, perhaps even all of these genera at once. Thus, thirdly, the meaning of the myth (in the broad sense) is determined both by its form and cultural genus.
Such goals dictate an interdisciplinary approach. The material for the history of the Orpheus myth is drawn from literature, visual arts, history of religion, folklore, music history, and philosophy. Since the myth has been repeatedly interpreted by artists and thinkers this material requires an initial hermeneutic perusal which constitutes the first phase of the method. Analysis of the cultural genus to which this material belongs is necessary to determine whether the story should be read as a myth proper or some other type. The use of philosophy of myth is crucial here and, since myth must be defined in relation to art and philosophical thought itself, such an examination perforce becomes also a study in aesthetics, as well as a reflection on basic problems in philosophy. And, finally, this analysis should yield a philosophical grasp of what the Orpheus myth means in terms of a particular conception of music's powers.
From what has been said it is clear that the book is to a large extent an exercise in the history of ideas. Yet it is not undertaken solely with the archivist's purpose in mind. The motivating belief behind it is that knowledge of history is necessary for any attempt to "get to the truth" of any matter. This is true of philosophy even more than of historiography. What may seem at one time or another to be an immediate effect of music is in fact mediated by a complex history of prior beliefs about its powers. The philosopher's task is to know what the powers of music are—which means also knowing what powers it has been endowed with in the past.
The argument presented in this book can be divided into three mutually connected planes, corresponding to the three questions posed above. The first plane has to do with the external history of the Orpheus myth—primarily its manifestations in the history of music. The second plane goes deeper into this history and shows how the myth evolved qua myth. The third plane spells out the joint music-philosophical implications of the first two.
The title of the next chapter, "Shaman, Mystagogue, Hero," encapsulates the trajectory of the Orpheus myth from the archaic to early classical period in Greek culture. During this time Orpheus becomes a symbol of the universal powers of music. His image evolves from a syncretic shamanic figure into the leader of a mystery cult and then into a character in the artistic renditions of the myth. Rather than being imposed from without, this evolution is driven by the inner dynamics of mythical thinking itself. Beliefs about the powers of music are increasingly subjectivized and aestheticized but their evolution is not successive: once Orpheus's new hypostases appear they become active factors alongside, rather than instead of, older ones. Without losing their universal nature, these beliefs are gradually specialized into cosmogonic, mystical, and aesthetic ones—all closely intertwined with one another.
The rise of philosophical thinking manifests itself in the emergence of intellectual reflection as an independent organizing principle of being. Mythical imagery is now transformed into a speculative doctrine of the musical-mathematical structure of the cosmos, i.e., the famous "harmony of the spheres." Just as in shamanism and mystical cult Orpheus's song connected different worlds, in Pythagorean cosmology and psychology music, too, is an harmonizing principle. This principle becomes, in turn, the object of intense mathematical, cosmological, and mystical speculation which lays the basis for further transformations of the Orpheus myth in Platonism.
Even as he ridicules and chastises its popular forms, Plato accepts and further develops the speculative thrust of Orphism. The main themes of the Orpheus myth become the foundation of Plato's own philosophy of music that connects psychology with politics and cosmology. At the same time Plato's mythopoeia is not simply one of his modes of expression but is fundamentally rooted in his philosophy. His dialectic culminates in mysticism, as will also be the case—openly so acknowledged—in both pagan and Christian Neoplatonism. As with miracle in myth, mystery in Bacchic cult, and reality in art, by highlighting the enigma of the world's simultaneous unity and multiplicity Plato makes its resolution the first priority for philosophical thought. Plato's mythopoeia is a way of disclosing the content, otherwise cloaked in mystery, of the hypemoetic realm. His myth-making neither reproduces traditional myth nor completely dissolves the latter in rationalistic allegorizing, but rather creates a hybrid form that can be called mythosophy. Music, now explicitly divided into an intellectual and practical aspect, links myth with philosophy, as well as the individual with the polis, the cosmos, and divinity.
The medieval history of the Orpheus myth unfolds in the space defined by interactions among three main elements: local mythopoeia, classical heritage, and Christian mythical and theological thought.' The story of the magical musician Sadko is an example of local mythology coming into initial contact with Christian myth. The Middle English poem Sir Orfeo is a product of assimilating the classical Orpheus to Celtic mythology. The third line pursued in this chapter has to do with the anonymous treatise Musica enchiriadis (ca. mid-tenth century) that invokes Orpheus and Eurydice in order to lend metaphysical weight to the newly emerging art of polyphony. The mysticism that underlies the medieval outlook as a whole and is consciously affirmed by such thinkers as Johannes Scottus Eriugena (ca. 810-ca. 877), serves as the soil for myth's continued existence. This mysticism is the root of the medieval penchant for miracles; the miraculous nature of Orpheus's musical powers—whether as a shamanic trickster, courtly knight, or metaphysical allegory—reinforces the medieval mind's faith in the veracity of the ideas that his stories communicate. Music retains the powers that it had in late Antiquity but in medieval polyphony it also transforms itself into the sonic expression of the Trinitarian view of the world. Polyphony is both the result of and a vehicle for the intensifying self-awareness of the human person who revels in her at once mysterious and rational relationship with the triune Absolute.
The musical thought of the Renaissance aims to replicate the legendary effects of ancient music that Orpheus epitomized. In the hands of sixteenth-century theorists like Girolamo Mei (1519-1594) and Vincenzo Galilei (1533-1591) this project becomes increasingly aesthetic in nature. The longing for magic that was characteristic of Marsilio Ficino' s Orphism remains but it is now almost entirely subsumed under the desire to enchant the audience. This is the context in which the Orpheus myth appears in Claudio Monteverdi and Alessandro Striggio's (1573-1630) opera L'Orfeo (1607). The main theme of L'Orfeo is man's desire to vanquish nature in her cruellest aspect, death. In terms of cultural genus Monteverdi and Striggio's Orpheus still partly belongs to the project of the Renaissance and thus retains, if only residually, the features of the Ficinian magus.9 But he is about to become a Baroque allegory, a mere phenomenal manifestation of the world's underlying rational mechanism.
The dissolution of Renaissance magical symbolism into the rationalistic allegorizing of the early modern period retroactively casts light on a fundamental trait that was shared by both Antiquity and the Middle Ages but is now beginning to recede into the past: an inherently holistic view of the world. Early modern thought replaces this vision with the infinite regress of immanent universes. In contrast to Aristotle and Aquinas, the endless alternation of causes and effects is now perceived as legitimate and even more rational than their sublation in a causa sui. This precludes the immediate oneness of a mundane phenomenon with its ultimate design, and as a result miracles become impossible. A miracle turns into a sign of falsehood rather than truth and myth, into a fable rather than a tale about the surest reality. Another process that undermines the possibility of myth is the closely related replacement of an immediate response to reality with scientific hypothesis.
René Descartes's (1596-1650) treatise Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) is evidence, however, that this new course is quite problematic. A dramatic soliloquy, the Meditations culminate in reinstating God as both the most immediate content of consciousness ("clear and distinct concept") and the sole guarantor of the unity of human experience. God's at once indispensable and fortuitous appearance in Descartes's argument is, however, that of an operatic deus ex machina; far from recultivating the soil for myth Descartes only emphasizes the precarious nature of the connection between the thinking subject and objective reality in modernity. Not only is Orpheus an allegory now but the very conception of music's powers that he conveys in Baroque opera is allegorical in nature. The theory of affects rests on the vision of a human being that is ruled by universal emotions no less certainly than nature is ruled by universal laws. In both cases a concrete phenomenon merely exemplifies these laws and can be replaced by an endless series of similar examples. The emerging modern scientist replaces the Renaissance magus while retaining the aim of control over these sprawling phenomena.
The initial overcoming of this allegorism is evident in Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) and Ranieri Calzabigi' s (1714-1794) opera Orfeo ed Eurydice (1762). The opera is driven by the psychological drama between Orpheus and Eurydice. The world of nature metaphysics and royal politics, the twin hothouses of Baroque allegory, is left behind and the story unfolds within the human psyche. Orpheus and Eurydice (who finally begins to speak with a full voice) are now purely aesthetic phenomena; there are no traces of their mythical and magical past. Nor are Gluck and Calzabigi' s hero and heroine allegories but images of concrete human persons that evince the most poignant dilemma faced by the Enlightenment subject—that between faith and reason. The anthropocentric tendency that began in the Renaissance now culminates in subjective aestheticism. The powers of music shift accordingly from vanquishing nature toward expressing subjective psychology. Touched ever so lightly by moralizing, art finally becomes pure play—the standing it could not fully attain either in Antiquity or in the Middle Ages. Implicit in this treatment of the Orpheus myth are the ideas that are soon to be elaborated in the aesthetics of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and to serve as a source of inspiration for romanticism.
It would seem, then, that no room is left for myth in the culture of the mature Enlightenment but this is not so. Despite its rationalistic bias, Kant's thought contains the germ of myth. In his epistemology one finds two opposite and unreconciled moves that justify, one explicitly and the other implicitly, immediacy as a necessary moment in thinking and experience. The explicit justification comes from Kant's argument for the unity of knowledge and phenomena; the implicit one is his immediate, faith-like acceptance of infinite regress in nature metaphysics. But, above all, Kant openly preaches naturalistic mysticism in his doctrine of artistic genius. The recognition and conscious elaboration of the dialectic of immediacy and mediation occurs later, in the work of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel's unique conception of art in general and powers of music in particular at once fulfils the promise and reaches beyond the boundaries of modern thinking. As such it was and, apparently, still remains without its own artistic equivalent.
In the opera Sadko (1895) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and Vladimir Belskii ( 1 8 6 6 - 1 946 ) Orpheus is required by romantic nationalism to wear a local costume and by current realism to serve the good of the society. The use of the newly rediscovered medieval legend in it is inspired by the idea that a nation's age-old wisdom is sedimented in its traditional lore. Romanticism leans heavily on this tenet for its claim that the powers of art stem from that lore. But the opera simultaneously advances a vision of society's progressive march into the future. The musician Sadko is now almost outshone by the romantic sea-princess Volkhova, while the other, earthly Eurydice of the opera serves to ground him in the "real" world. Colorful though she may be, the fantastical Eurydice is nonetheless sacrificed for the sake of the mercantile city of Novgorod.
The status of myth in romanticism poses some of the most difficult problems both for myth theory and aesthetics.'° On the one hand, romantics are acutely aware that myth is rooted in the immediate operation of consciousness. On the other hand, they propose to revive myth through art, i.e., in a highly mediated manner. Furthermore, along with immediacy the key element of myth, miracle, was expelled from the precinct of reality by the Enlightenment. It is now consigned to the fairy tale, i.e., the genre that flaunts the unreality of its subject-matter. Rimsky-Korsakov' s opera belongs precisely to this genre. Romantic imagination is, however, irresistibly drawn to the miraculous. Its difference from Antiquity and the Middle Ages in this regard consists in the fact that reality is now confined to the subjective realm and the type of the human subject that is asserted most forcefully is not a hero, knight, or saint, but artistic genius. The inscrutable nature of this genius forms the core of romanticism's aesthetic mysticism. The only way for this genius, however, to bring the world and human experience, fragmented as they are by the instrumental reason of the Enlightenment, into a unified whole is to place this ultimate synthesis in the ludic realm of art.
Somewhat eclectically, Rimsky-Korsakov' s Sadko is informed by both fantastical romanticism and critical realism. It may seem, therefore, that the romantic view of art is counterbalanced by the realist one that helps restore the artwork's connection with reality. But just as in romanticism reality is aestheticized, in realism it is entirely hypothetical. There is a deep affinity, as Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) notes, between rationalistic epistemology and the realist aesthetic outlook." Thus both in romanticism and realism objective reality is dissolved and turned into an object of uninhibited manipulation by the artistic genius and the scientist, respectively. The former collapses reality into a ludic fairy tale, while the latter reduces artistic creation to technological production.
Vladimir Solov'ëv (1853-1900), by contrast, advances the view of art as theurgy. As part of his overall project to reconcile mysticism and rationalism, theurgy was Solov'ëv's attempt to sublate (in the sense of the Hegelian aufheben) both romantic aestheticism and realist pragmatism. His theurgy was a post-romantic Christian-Neoplatonist revival of Orphic theosis: as it continues the cause of divine creation, Solov'ëv believed, humanity becomes one with God. The composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) draws inspiration from Solov'ëv but at the same time brings to the ultimate pitch romanticism's subjectivist implications in his design for the Mysterium—a grand synaesthetic ritual that will supposedly lift the world into a free, spiritual state. Scriabin brings romantic Orphism to its culmination but as he does so he finds himself facing the limits of art. He begins as a hyper-romantic and, despite some subsequent sobering-up, remains to the end in the grip of extreme subjectivism and aestheticism. The imagery of divine play is prominent in Scriabin's music, poetry, and mystical speculation but the place of divinity is now defiantly usurped by the human artist. The trans-figurative cosmic powers of music rest, in Scriabin's view, solely on artistic genius.
An attempt to break beyond the aesthetic subjectivism to which romanticism confines art is made in Russian symbolism. This attempt receives an especially articulate form in the work of the poet and theorist, Viacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949). Orphic roots are consciously affirmed in his version of theurgy. From Solov'ëv Ivanov takes veneration of the religious-philosophical tradition; from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the emphasis on art combined with an eager anticipation of a new era. The result is at once traditionalist and modernist. Ivanov' s ideas about the powers of music are as exalted as Scriabin' s but, in contrast to the composer's extreme self-reliance, the poet invokes religious, humanistic, and artistic tradition as his ally and inspiration.
The most conspicuous musical rendition of the Orpheus myth in the late twentieth century, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff's opera The Mask of Orpheus (1986), is also an attempt to summarize the Orphic tradition. The form that the Orpheus myth assumes in this opera is a collection of virtually all classical hypostases of the magical singer and his wife; the extent to which the opera is shaped by scholarship is quite remarkable. Inspiration wears here, as it were, both Apollo's wreath and the white coat of a research scientist. In a striking contrast to Ivanov' s holistic vision of tradition, however, Birtwistle and Zinovieff bring out the multiplicity of the myth's variants. At the same time the opera is structured in a palpably rigid manner and in this sense is far from chaotic. Armed with charts, drawings, and other quasi-scientific paraphernalia the ostensibly rigorous libretto battles with the unruly proliferation of Orpheuses and Eurydices. Birtwistle' s music evokes the atmosphere of a mystical rite but the opera's characters now wander in an irrevocably fragmented world.
The opera is not a myth in any sense of the word; it is a purely aesthetic event. In fact, it takes demythologizing to the limit. Even "The Children's Story," the outline upon which Zinovieff builds his libretto, refuses to be a fairy tale. In a Jungian reduction, Orpheus' s catabasis is explained as a trivial, if vivid and even horrifying, dream. Previously the possibility of miracles, no matter how tenuous, was still preserved thanks to the residual unity of modern consciousness. By the late twentieth century, however, the constructed nature of the thoroughly mediated underpinnings of the Cartesian-Kantian subject became too obvious to serve as ground for any immediate synthesis. Kant spoke of genius as an inexhaustible life-giving force; Roland Barthes (1915-1980) diagnoses its death. The only memory of mystery and myth in this fractured world is a futile longing for them. The mystery of life is hidden in the folds of a forbiddingly complex artwork. As in chaos theory, the unknown acquires now the shape of impenetrable complexity. Such a consequence logically flows from accepting infinite mediation, which Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) articulates as "negative dialectics" and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), as the vicious circle of the metaphoricity of language.
The dissatisfying nature of this rationalistic infinitism makes itself felt in the hopelessness that hovers over the events of the plot. One realizes that only mysticism can underlie an optimistic view of Orpheus' s powers; the enlightened rationalist inevitably feels that they can be nothing but a delusion. Replacing reality entirely with play—which is the characteristic gesture of poststructuralism—is but a helpless attempt to conceal the self-inflicted defeat of modern aestheticism. Birtwistle and Zinovieff' s opera longs to be magic but its detachment from real life is even more glaring than that of Scriabin's Mysterium which at least sprang from a fervent hope to transfigure the world. Adorno' s despair seems justified: music is a messenger from a utopian realm, a melancholy choir of fleshless specters over a reality that has been consumed by mass-produced simulacra. This ghostly picture only underscores, however, the need to learn once again to hear music as a truly transfigurative praxis—a vision that can no longer be sustained either by a reversion to myth and mysticism or by adherence to abstract rationalism. The solution must be sought in surmounting these one-sided views and in discerning the mutual necessity of both immediacy and mediation in thinking.
Thus in terms of its form the Orpheus myth projects the images of music's omnipotence, the unity of psychology and cosmology, mystical nature of song, and its eschatological import. The combined themes of music, love, and theosis are the unifying factors in its proliferation.
The specific meanings that these themes acquire are defined by their status in culture. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages the myth is still preserved as a myth proper—even alongside the unceasing elaboration of its aesthetic and philosophical versions. The status of the story as a myth is first seriously threatened in the modern period, with the decline of the medieval holistic and teleological view of reality. The progressing subjectivism of the modern period, combined with the dissolution of objective reality into an aesthetic, hypothetical phenomenon, undermine the status of myth in culture. The underlying causes of this process have to do with the dialectic of immediacy and mediation in thinking: the former provides the soil for myth, whereas the latter is responsible for abstract rationalism. But this rationalism itself contains the germ of myth and mysticism because it inevitably makes immediate leaps to absolute claims. Thus the denial of the unity of the world and human experience is at once the cause of modern mythophobia and the source of its own closet mythology. At the end of the modern period, in postmodernism, the irrational nature of this denial becomes fully apparent. The impossibility of myth thus turns into a symptom of enlightened reason's own fatal flaw.
And, finally, ideas about the powers of music evolve from a syncretic omnipotence in early Antiquity to mournful impotence in the late avant-garde. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice highlights the deficiency of both mystical and aesthetic views of music. The former is optimistic about transfiguring the cosmos and the human psyche but the constantly shifting, living reality slips away from its hasty grip. The latter is locked into a ludic space and ultimately confesses its inability to transform reality. The Orpheus myth has now become a reminder of the mystic's unfulfilled promises, but also of the losses caused by mythophobic rationalism. The story poses the demand for overcoming the equal one-sidedness of both views of music, and for surmounting their limitations. The Orphic voice sings today of the need for a dialectical metanoia. The full significance of its message, however, can present itself only in the light of the myth's long and rich history.
Beethoven's Orpheus Concerto: The Fourth Piano Concerto in Its Cultural Context by Owen Jander (North American Beethoven Studies: Pendragon) Beethoven composed his Fourth Piano Concerto in Vienna in the years 1803-06. In that period there was an unusually keen interest in the Orpheus legend; and so it is not surprising to learn that all three movements ... were undeclaredly—or better described, secretly—based on that famous story." So begins Owen Jander's Beethoven's "Orpheus" Concerto: The Fourth Piano Concerto in its Cultural Context. In this fascinating and controversial book, the author maintains—echoing the interpretation first suggested by Adolph Berhard Marx in 1859—that the three movements are based on the Classical versions of the Orpheus legend by Virgil and Ovid. Jander tells us the full story—from the opening phrase of the first movement to the last measure of the finale—of how the Orpheus legend informs every note of Beethoven's music.
This investigation launches with a few brief remarks about the early history of printing and the concomitant role of censorship. The technique of printing books using movable type was invented in the 1430s; the first printed book, of course, was the Gutenberg Bible. One might expect that the Gutenberg Bible would have been followed by a great array of further publications of the Bible. Such was not the case, however, and for the simple reason that for several centuries the Roman Catholic Church strictly forbade the publication of the Bible in vernacular translations. (Their ban was lifted in the nineteenth century; with that reversal of policy, the Bible became the world's most frequently published book.)
Throughout the first four centuries of the history of printing the most frequently published book was Ovid' s Metamorphoses. The reason was simple: Metamorphoses was not only the most elaborate and entertainingly written source of Classical mythology, but was also the best-selling textbook of all time. By the end of the eighteenth century, this monumental work had been published more than a hundred times in London, a hundred times in the French-publishing cities of Europe, and several hundred times in Italy.
In Vienna, however, Ovid's Metamorphoses was never published because the work had always been banned. Vienna, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, was notorious for its extremely conservative and suppressive censorship, which was in the hands of a commission of Jesuit professors at the university. To the Jesuit mind, Ovid, author of the Ars amatoria and the Remedia amores, wrote salacious books, and so all of his works were strictly banned. In Vienna, furthermore, any printer who published a book that had been banned by the Jesuit censors was thrown into prison, his shop closed, and his printing presses destroyed.'
The Jesuits banned Ovid's Metamorphoses because this book frequently dealt with the subject of sex in ways they deemed offensive. Initially offensive were Ovid's many stories having to do with seduction and rape. More offensive were those stories having to do with aberrant sex: incest (e.g., Myrrha, who enlists her nurse in a plot to seduce her own father) and bestiality (e.g., Jupiter, who transforms himself into a bull in order to abduct Europa or into a swan in order to rape Leda). Most offensive to the Jesuit mind, however, were this poet's stories about homosexual love (e.g., Jupiter and Ganymede, Apollo and Hyacinth).
The most abhorrent of all passages in Ovid's Metamorphoses was his story about the heroic musician Orpheus, who, having lost his bride Euridice a second time, forswears the love of women, expresses contempt for the sex-obsessed Bacchantes, and goes about singing songs in praise of boys beloved by the gods (again, Ganymede and Hyacinth). Orpheus, according to Ovid, was "the author of Greek love." To the Jesuit mind, no story in Ovid's Metamorphoses was more deserving of censorship.
The determined ban of Ovid's Metamorphoses by Vienna's Jesuit censors was finally relaxed in 1791 during a period of liberalization.2 In that year, a society (Gesellschaft) founded for this purpose sponsored the publication of a handsome, extensively illustrated, three-volume edition of Ovid in German translation (Fig. 1). The publisher was Ignaz Alberti, who assured the reader that this edition was "provided with necessary explanations" (mit nöthigen Erläuterungen versehen). These "necessary explanations" were alterations of Ovid's text required by the censors—and they always involved passages dealing with the subject of sex.
The names of the more than four hundred subscribers to this "Gesellschaft Edition" of 1791 are listed at the beginning of the first volume; this list includes over a dozen people who, over the years, would figure in Beethoven's life. Among the subscribers was Cajetan Giannatasio del Rio, the schoolmaster to whom Beethoven would entrust the education of his nephew. Also listed was Josef Sonnleithner, whom Beethoven would call upon to write the libretto for his opera Fidelio. Most important was the young Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz, in whose palace in Vienna Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto was first performed in 1807.
(Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz's dates are 1772-1816. When he sponsored the first performance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, he was thirty-five years old. He was only nineteen when he subscribed to the Viennese Gesellschaft edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses in 1791.)
It is clear that Beethoven knew many people in Vienna who not only owned Ovid's Metamorphoses but had strong convictions about the value of this work. The introduction in the Gesellschaft edition noted that the German-speaking communities of Europe had long been remiss in their attention to Ovid and expressed the hope that the present publication might serve to correct that problem.
And it did—at least as far as Vienna was concerned. The luxurious Gesellschaft edition was printed simultaneously in an inexpensive version distributed by the publisher Joseph Schalbacher. (At this stage the plates from which the many elegant illustrations in the book were produced were beginning to deteriorate.) Then in the next fifteen years—up to the time Beethoven completed his Fourth Piano Concerto—Ovid's Metamorphoses was published in Vienna, in various editions in the original Latin and / or German, six more times.' By 1804, the year of the first concert sketches for the concerto, the tales were so well known that a satirical version could be published."
In the years when Beethoven was working on his Fourth Piano Concerto, therefore, he had ready access to Ovid's original Latin text as well as several German translations. These could be purchased in bookshops in Vienna and were found in the private libraries of his patrons.
The year after the Viennese Gesellschaft Edition was published, the twenty-one-year-old Beethoven moved from Bonn to Vienna. By 1792, however, he was already well acquainted with the Orpheus legend and some of the most important music that had been inspired by that legend.
The first performance of C. W. Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice took place at the Court Theater in Vienna in 1762—and in the following three decades it would become the most frequently and widely performed opera in Europe.
In 1785 Gluck's Orfeo was presented at the Court Theater in Bonn. Beethoven, who was only fourteen years old at the time, would doubtless have experienced this production. It is very likely, in fact, that he was involved in some way with this performance of Gluck's most popular opera.
By this time the prodigiously talented young musician was serving as assistant organist for the court chapel in Bonn. At the same time he was also "cembalist" (i.e., harpsichordist) in the court orchestra. Although it cannot be documented that Beethoven participated in that 1785 production of Gluck's Orfeo in Bonn, it is clear that he closely studied both the score and libretto. (In Chapter Two we shall observe how the Andante con moto of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto was at several points inspired by the universally-admired Infernal Scene of Gluck's Orfeo.)
In keeping with the elaborate vocabulary of eighteenth-century conventions for mythological and historical paintings, Mähler's 1805 portrait of Beethoven and Radoux's 1773 portrait of Beethoven's grandfather are sophisticated and richly-coded examples of the "historische Porträt."
Radoux's painting was constructed around an autobiographical plan that contains symbolic references to Beethoven's grandmother in the form of a flower-decorated band, the dilemma faced by his grandfather concerning his wife's alcoholism and the disastrous marriage that resulted, and his grandfather's resolve to rescue himself by devoting his energies to his activities as a musician.
Mähler's portrait of Beethoven—through the symbols of the fading flower of the "knotweed" plant, the uniquely-shaped lyre-guitar, the red lining of the composer's cape, his posture, and his extended right arm with uplifted hand—alludes to the composer's gradual loss of hearing (especially his inability to hear the high notes of instruments and voices), his contemplation of suicide, and his heroic rejection of that possibility.
These same subjects are ones that the composer symbolized in the "Scene by the Brook" of the Pastoral Scymphony, all four movements of the Symphony in C Minor, and the Eroica. Just as the Radoux portrayal of the composer's grandfather literally includes pages of music from Pergolesi's La Serva padrona, Mähler's depiction of Beethoven also symbolically references the Fourth Piano Concerto through the inclusion of the lyre-guitar (Orpheus's instrument), the temple grove and ruddy glow on the horizon (suggesting the memory of the dead and Hades), and the anthropomorphic tree (the punishing transformation of the Bacchantes into writhing oak trees).
The concerto is thus also both a "historische Porträt" and an autobiographical narrative that relies on extensive and elaborate musical symbolic devices and references rather than visual clues or text. Its complex composition and history are retraced in the following chronology, which summarizees the artistic transformation of this most popular—and censored—myth from the Calzabigi / Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice of 1762 to the Marx's 1859 identification of the Andante con moto of the Fourth Piano Concerto as a depiction of the "Infernal Scene" of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice answered our question of which "antique tragic scene" Czerny had alluded to in 1846. Czerny—Beethoven's pupil—had also explicitly connected the outer movements to the work's narrative "design. " Beethoven's own interest in cyclic organization across entire works, which came to a peak in a group of important compositions written during the years 1804-08, helps support Czerny's assertion that all of the movements are unified by a single "idea." Whereas the finale of the Eroica has been shown to be the generative movement of that symphony, as convincingly demonstrated by Lewis Lockwood, so the movement that later fascinated Fanny Mendelssohn, Marx, and Liszt—"Orpheus in Hades"—generated the outer movements of the concerto.
As we have seen, in the middle movement Beethoven's approach to the Classical accounts of the Orpheus legend was to compose an event-by-event musical narrative. In the first and third movements—"The Song of Orpheus" and "Orpheus and the Bacchantes"—Beethoven worked quite differently. In these two chapters on Ovid's text, one rarely encounters passages that invite or permit narrative treatment in music. What is more important, the elaborate conventions of the first and last movements of the Classical concerto forbade such an approach.
In the opening pages of the first and third movements Beethoven presents a sequence of musical ideas reflecting a sequence of thoughts that occur at the outset of these two episodes in Ovid's narrative. Important subordinate themes reflect important subsequent events in Ovid's stories. The developmental sections of both movements are based on the central conflicts in the stories found in these two chapters of the Orpheus legend. Finally, the closing pages of the outer movements bring each chapter to its appropriate conclusion. At the end of the first movement, Beethoven lingers on the three most important concerns of "The Song of Orpheus." At the finale's end he creates an elaborate string of events that provide a denouement not only for that movement but for the whole adventure with the Orpheus legend. Of all Beethoven's music, the Fourth Piano Concerto is his most intensely poetic invention because it is so densely and consistently inspired by poetic imagery.
The process of transformation that is one of the central themes of Ovid's Metamorphoses became the governing process of the Fourth Piano Concerto in a great variety of ingenious musical ways. Beethoven's most elaborate application of transformation appears in the many different uses of the A theme of the finale. As the movement progresses, we discover that, although Orpheus is destroyed by the Bacchantes, his lyre is rescued and transfigured as a statement of the triumph of virtue over wickedness. Indeed, over the course of the entire concerto, an Ovidian morality play unfolds in which victory is ultimately granted to the lyre, the symbol of music itself. As the lyre comes to represent Orpheus' companion protagonist, music itself became Beethoven's companion protagonist in the years following the Heiligenstadt Testament:
I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to leave this world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.
That resolution—that victory would ultimately be granted to music—became richly symbolized in the narrative of one of his "finest and most poetical creations," the Fourth Piano Concerto.
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