SE Transcript: Orpheus Revisited

[00:00:00] Debra Nagy: You’re tuning into SalonEra, a series from Les Delices that brings together musicians from around the world to share music, stories and scholarship with a global audience of music lovers. I’m your host, Debra Nagy, and this is the fourth episode of our fourth season, Orpheus Revisited.

In this episode, we feature beautifully recorded performances of music by Rameau, Courbois and Jonathan Woody that Les Delices first recorded in August 2021 for an online concert called Song of Orpheus. We’ll pair this original content and commentary from our digital catalog with fresh interviews.

No myth is more foundational to musicians than that of Orpheus. He is the archetype of the inspired singer, whose song can at once elicit feelings of love or move us to tears. His music was said to be so powerful that trees and mountains bowed in his presence, and he could charm the birds, the fish, and wild beasts.

Perhaps most famously, Orpheus’s song had the power to convince the ruler of the underworld to let him bring back his wife, Eurydice, from the dead, on one condition, that Orpheus should not set eyes on her until they could see the sky above.

In a moment of weakness, all is lost.

Composers and audiences have long been fascinated by the extraordinary musician Orpheus, his trip to the underworld, and the human foibles that ensure that his story ends in tragedy.

In this episode, Orpheus Revisited, we will hear from soprano Hannah De Priest, bass baritone and composer Jonathan Woody, and from acclaimed scholar and friend of Les Delices, Susan McClary. We’ll talk first with Susan.

DN: We’re here to talk about Orpheus in the underworld, and I thought we might start by actually reviewing the basics of that story before we start to understand all the different lenses that we’re going to view it through. And I wondered if you could introduce that for us? Susan.


[00:02:17] Susan McClary: Sure.

We first have references to Orpheus in the 6th century BC in Greek sources, and he is first just identified as a musician, as a very powerful musician, as a prophet, as an oracle.

About 100 years later, the story of his descent into the underworld begins to enter into sources, and about 100 years after that, the layer is added that he has gone there in search of his wife. It’s only 100 BC that the name Eurydice comes up. Before that, it’s just a wife.

So there are many, many layers of this. The version that we all follow is the one that was written by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, which was from 9 AD.

And he gives us the story begins with the wedding.

Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies on her wedding day. Orpheus laments, goes to the underworld, where he convinces Pluto that he should be allowed to bring his bride back. Pluto. Finally, after all of the lamentation and convincing that Orpheus does, and by the way, Ovid spends almost his entire story on that lament, he wants us to see this as a model of rhetoric.

He says, yes, you may take her back, but you cannot turn back and look until you’re both up in the upper world.

Right at the last minute, Orpheus turns around and Eurydice is pulled back into hell.

He then laments for the rest of his life.

[00:04:19] DN: The musical portrayal of lament is at the emotional and dramatic heart of any staged representation from Monteverdi’s 1607 opera Orfeo onwards. In this next segment, Susan McClary discusses the historical and cultural associations of musical laments and explains how laments from Monteverde to Purcell and Bach share a common musical language.

[00:04:44] SM: This becomes a standard procedure in around the 1630s, and the standard lament pattern is just four descending notes, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, which is repeated over and over and over again. This actually comes from North Africa and from the south of Spain. We still hear this as the foundation of flamenco.

What Monteverdi does when he writes the first of these standardized laments in the lament of the nymph is that he continues to repeat it over and over, but he loops it back so that it ends on the tonic, whereas flamenco and North African maqams always end on that low note, which is the lowest note on the guitar.

So there’s a very interesting cultural mix that happens in this. But after Monteverdi produces this, everyone uses that formula to refer to lament. We have very famous ones, like “When I am laid in earth”, Dido’s lament, the Crucifixus in Bach’s B Minor Mass. They are simply ubiquitous.

And that process allows for a different kind of temporality than had been available in the 16th century or in other kinds of 17th century music, where you simply repeat and repeat and repeat on an ostinato, which is the word for obstinate. It never goes away, you can never escape. So it becomes this tremendous metaphor for being sunk in the pit of despair.

[00:06:41] DN: While there are many operas and smaller scale works like cantatas that tell the story of the Orpheus myth, there are far fewer instrumental representations of Orpheus.

Les Delices ultimately commissioned bass baritone composer Jonathan Woody to compose a trio sonata for us.

I am so happy with the piece, which also includes a passacaglia lament to end movement 2. We’ll hear now from Jonathan, who spoke about the piece and its inspiration, anticipating its video premiere in 2021 by much.

[00:07:17] Jonathan Woody: By Much Love Betray’d takes its title from John Dryden’s 1709 translation of Virgil’s Georgics, and was inspired by several key events in the Orpheus myth. In movement one, the viola de gamba, begins a broad and expansive climb, soon joined by oboe and violin, conjuring Orpheus’s journey to Mount Parnassus, where he is given the gift of music by the God Apollo. The deliberate, scale wise motion is meant to convey the awe and determination Orpheus must summon to reach the top and be granted his most significant ability to charm the world with his magical liar.

The next movement begins just after Orpheus has successfully used his charm to rescue Eurydice from the underworld. The oboe and violin now chase each other with a bounding melody reminiscent of the youthful passion of a lover who has cheated death, only to reach the brink of safety before his fatal mistake. An abrupt, diminished harmony snaps the heroes out of their anticipatory bliss, and the instant of horror is depicted with staccato, heartbeat like pulses interrupted with pitiable cries from each instrument. Upon realizing his fate, Orpheus’s lamentation is conveyed by a chromatic, descending passacaglia, beginning in the viola da gamba and then joined by the other instruments. Its unstable and ever shifting harmonies generate images of the turmoil, confusion and loss that the impassioned Orpheus must now face.

The final movement once again skips forward to the end of Orpheus’ life, described in some versions of the myth as coming to a violent end at the hands of the Maenads, the frenzied disciples of Dionysus. In the story, they rip him to pieces, weary of his incessant mourning of Eurydice. And in this depiction, flying and contrasting scales in the oboe and violin are meant to conjure the limbs of Orpheus being torn asunder here and there. The Maenads make efficient work of their prey, and the movement comes to a quick, cheeky end, befitting the unceremonious demise of one of the great heroes of ancient Greek myth.

[00:19:54] DN: Welcome, Hannah. It is really great to see you and talk to you again on SalonEra

[00:20:01] Hannah De Priest: Absolutely. I’m excited to revisit this 2021 recording project that we did.

Feels like it’s been a while, but this music was so fun to record.

[00:20:14] DN: Yeah, it was a cool program, and I love the way that Les Delices can often bring to life music that people really don’t know, as in the Courbois that we’re going to feature with Jonathan. And then people know Rameau as an opera composer, of course, one of the greatest opera composers of the 18th century and certainly in France. But his cantatas, which are really fairly early works from the 1720s, from before he started writing operas, are relatively little known. And Orpheus, of course, has all of these dramatic implications and operatic settings. But here is a small scale work from Rameau, his Orphee cantata.

Can you talk to us about where we are in the story as this begins?

[00:21:14] HD: Absolutely. So, yeah. Unlike other adaptations for the stage, be it plays or operas, Rameau only has about a quarter of an hour to tell this whole story.

So unlike Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which begins with the wedding festivities between Orpheus and Eurydice, Rameau starts actually in act four of Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

And it’s worth saying that starting at the wedding is not a universal choice that all opera composers made.

Gluck starts at the tomb of Eurydice in his. So in the Rameau cantata that we’re talking about, the wedding has happened. The snake bite which kills Eurydice has happened.

Orpheus has already mourned her. He’s decided to go to the Underworld. He’s crossed the river Styx. He’s even bartered with Pluto. And now he is leading Eurydice out of the underworld, back to the surface. And that is where we start.

So a lot has happened before the opening notes, and it’s an interesting choice, especially as we think of Rameau as having this incredible appetite for drama, and I love to imagine what he would have done as a mature composer with that snake bite moment or crossing the river Styx. But at the same time, he knows that at the heart of the story is the look back: Orpheus, looking back to see Eurydice, that fateful moment, he knows that, so he’s laser focused on it from the very beginning.

[00:23:06] DN: I would love to imagine not just what music Rameau might have written for the snake bite itself, but in the whole lead, know the building, the relationship between Eurydice and Orpheus, which know mostly really underplayed. We don’t get to fantasize too much about that. Eurydice is like barely a person. Somehow.

[00:23:30] HD: It’s so true. I mean, one of my favorite adaptations of the Orpheo myth is Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice, which was actually turned into an opera and premiered at the Met, the opera by Matthew Aucoin. And in that opera, it’s really all from her perspective, which is a totally different way of thinking about the myth. But you’re right, Rameau doesn’t give us, really, any of that.

[00:23:57] DN: We do hear a couple words from Eurydice in the Courbois, but we’ll save that for later in our episode. So you’ve told us about the opening recitative. What is the first air about? Because we’re going to hear both the recit and the air in a moment.

[00:24:10] HD: Yeah, absolutely. So Rameau adds what I think of as a just quintessentially French touch of this little retinue of cupids who are escorting Orpheus and Eurydice on their way out of the underworld. And when you hear the aria, which is quite positive and quite triumphal in its way, it’s still very sweet. You can almost imagine these little boys kind of marching around Orpheus, kind of getting underfoot and really kind of annoying him because he knows he needs to stay focused, you know, not messing this up and getting out. And the whole aria is really this premature celebration where these cupids are saying, “Oh, Orpheus, you’re this amazing hero. You can subdue everything, even death itself, just with the sound of your voice!” Which is like a fantastic message. But as we all know, tragedy is coming, so it’s way premature.

[00:25:10] DN: Yeah, no, it’s super fun. I love this kind of faux trumpet kind of music, also in the instruments.

[00:30:58] DN: This is such an exciting time for Le Delices and SalonEra. Le Delices is in the midst of its 15th anniversary season and our fourth season of SalonEra. And the episode that you’re enjoying today, Orpheus Revisited, includes performances recorded during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in the summer of 2021.

Thanks so much for being part of our global community of music lovers as a listener to SalonEra. With your support, we can continue to collaborate with engaging guests from across the country and around the world.

You can support SalonEra by subscribing to this podcast and by donating at salonera.org. Your donations make every episode possible.

In our next segment, taken from the pre-concert talk for Song of Orpheus’s online premiere, we turn our attention from Rameau to lesser known French baroque composer Philippe Courbois. As Jonathan Woody and I talk about the rather remarkable opening of Courbois’ Cantata.

[00:32:05] DN: For listeners who don’t know this piece, what’s going on and what’s interesting and what to be listening for. I wondered what you find most remarkable about the opening of this cantata.

[00:32:22] JW: Yeah, it is really a remarkable piece. First of all, it begins with a recitative, which is not always the case in French Baroque cantatas. And then this recitative, the first interval is this very dramatic interval. It sort of begins mid-cry. And so that initial pang of tragedy that he’s experiencing starts the entire piece off, and it creates the tone for the whole piece.

[00:32:52] DN: Sometimes cantadts have a prelude at the beginning, sometimes they don’t. They just start with the recitative. But even when they start with the recitative, they almost always start with some omniscient narrator giving an exposition and setting the scene. There is no scene set here. It’s just, “Oh, my God.” Literally from the beginning. And one of the other things that I think is remarkable about this opening is that it’s actually full of silence. There are rests everywhere, and there’s so much that can happen in terms of psychological portrayal in those rests.

You know, it’s just voice and continuo. And we’ll see Shelby, our wonderful violinist, standing there, and there’s a point at which Orpheus talks about his lyre, and then suddenly she starts to play, as though the connection between the obbligato instrument, the violin, and the lyre is made quite literal in that moment and is really actually kind of an echo of what Orpheus has just sung to us. So let’s listen to the opening of Coubois’ Orphee.

[00:43:36] DN: The last item that I would love to share for our listeners in this pre-concert conversation is from the final recitative. It’s really the last bit of action before the final air, which in most french cantatas, actually is a moral that sort of reflects on this story, but is not part of this story. So this is the last bit of storytelling. And one of the things, of course, that we all find remarkable, especially in the 21st century, is the way in which, in the Orpheus myth, we really don’t hear anything from Eurydice.

And there’s a reason for that. She’s dead before the action really starts.

But remarkably, in this final recipe from Courbois, we get to hear Eurydice actually speak.

Orpheus is not allowed to look at her. But apparently he can hear her.

[00:44:37] JW: Yeah, exactly.

[00:44:40] DN: Can you talk to us what’s going on rhetorically in this final recitative?

[00:44:45] JW: So it begins sort of outlining, as you said, kind of the end of the action, and they’re headed out of the Underworld. And because it’s a recitative, the action tends to kind of just fly right by. And what I really love about the way this recit is set is that those moments when Eurydice speaks, they’re so ethereal, it moves into sort of e-flat, major key area, which we hadn’t really heard before. And the pace of the recitative slows as well. Instead of 8th notes and 16th notes, now you have quarter notes and half notes, and so everything just kind of slows down and just really becomes this very mystical almost moment.

[00:45:41] DN: We’re hearing from a ghost.

[00:45:43] JW: Exactly.

And I think that’s really cool. And then, of course, when she fades away, then we snap back into the action again, and it’s sort of like, well, that was that. And that’s the end of the story, so to speak.

This is a personal favorite movement of mine in this work, just simply because of, I think, the sheer brilliance in how this recitative was crafted, the use of harmony, the use of pacing, and just the beauty of the melodic line of the restitution, even as it tells this story, it’s just all really striking to me.

[00:48:35] DN: Welcome back, Hannah. It’s been great to listen to some Courbois and hear from Jonathan about that cantata, and now I’d love to return to the Rameau, and we talked about the opening of the piece near the top of our episode. But I wanted to talk to you about the ending. And, of course, as listeners may or may not know, most French Baroque cantatas end with a sort of lesson or wrap up. They don’t actually end with action. The action ends, and then there’s some kind of moral for us to take away. What is the takeaway from the Rameau?

[00:49:17] HD: Yeah. So I love this about French baroque cantatas. I think it took a while at first. There are especially some of them that are so dramatic. You’re like, oh, just leave it. It’s such a fantastic, dramatic moment. But then there’s always this, and some of them are kind of silly, a little wrap up. And especially in these French Baroque settings of Freek myths, which, of course, is one of the dominant minds for subject matter, for these cantatas, they loved the myths. And, of course, we still love these myths. And I think part of the enduring appeal of a story like Orpheus and Eurydice is that there are all of these strands to pluck out, like they are multifaceted. There is more than one moral to the story, but for the French, they pluck one out and that’s what they go with.

And this one, it’s really: timing is everything. And the idea is that Orpheus’s fatal mistake was his sense of timing. If he could have waited, if he could have mastered his impulses or known when to take action, everything would have been fine. And I think it’s one of those ones that seems obvious. And then you think about the audience for this kind of cantata. These cantatas would have been performed as part of 18th century salon, for aristocrats and the nobility of the time.

And these are people whose romantic and social lives were really rich, really complex. They would have known, first of all, how dangerous love could be, and also the importance of timing in relationships. That is really at the heart of it.

[00:51:21] DN: I think that’s an issue for us all. I mean, the other side of timing is everything is like, strike while the iron is hot, be the master of your own emotions and yet do the right thing at the right moment.

[00:51:33] HD: And that’s what I love about this final aria, is it’s not content with saying what I imagine as being a very sort of Protestant message would be like, oh, wait your turn or don’t be impulsive. But that’s not what the French are saying. The French are saying, know when to go there and know when to wait.

And I think if I could pluck out two lines, because this one has some really great lines, and these two lines, I think if I found them in a fortune cookie, I wouldn’t even bat an eye. So they’re like sexy commandments. So one of them is, “Of her impetuous desires. A skilled lover is always the master.”

I love that line. I think it’s a great piece of advice. And the other one is “Many a man would be happy today had he not desired his happiness too soon.” So I think there’s this element of, like in love, in romantic relationships, to push too hard, it will all fall apart.

[00:52:47] SM: If he didn’t look back, if he only believed that she was there forever, she could be there forever. And I think this is one of the things that we try to convince ourselves of. When a beloved one dies, we have that spirit and we genuinely want the physical body to be there and to demand sight always makes the illusion disappear. The underlying story here is very much about that, about having faith that the beloved spirit is with you.

And what happens if you look back and discover that she is not?

[00:58:11] DN: Welcome back, Hannah. And I really want to thank you for being a part of this episode and a part of Les Delices’ wonderful work, both behind the scenes with SalonEra and on stage. Obviously, we recorded this music back in the summer of 2021 and looking forward to some other fabulous projects together in the future.

In the meantime, Les Delices is actually reprising song of Orpheus in a slightly different form in March of 2024, which is the year that we’re in now.

Makes me dizzy to think about. And I love returning to French cantatas. It really is core repertory for Le Delices, and I wonder if you have any parting thoughts or words about Orpheus, that story, or what it’s been like for you to continue to develop Les Delices’ cantata repertory as a performer.

[00:59:18] HD: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve been incredibly fortunate to get to record four or five or perform many cantatas with Les Delices at this point, and every time my appreciation for this particular repertoire deepens.

And I think what’s fantastic about specifically this Orpheus project is the myth itself is one that exists kind of more broadly in the cultural consciousness.

So it’s a great way to introduce this really specific genre to people.

And I love that Les Delices makes cantatas a cornerstone of its repertoire because not very many people are doing that. And it’s such a rich and vibrant kind of music making. And I think it’s one that’s exciting as a listener, but also when you reflect on it, it just invites you into the 18th century mindset in a really special way, I think, like imagining the audience members and imagining the artistic and aesthetic priorities and philosophical ideas that these librettists bring in, but also just all through it and hearing different voices performed by the same singer, it’s just an exceptional ride. Always.

[01:00:49] DN: I agree with you. I think that what is really special about the cantata repertory is mostly having a soloist who gets to be both narrator and perhaps multiple characters who gets to, in the same way, an opera aria would kind of reflect emotionally and deepen the character portrayal. You get that as well. The instrumentalists sometimes are participants in the kind of theater of it all, as well as being both kind of like stage and character. It’s a really rich and rewarding repertory, and I’m so glad that you’ve been involved in that pursuit with us, Hannah, and that is an ongoing project, the mythology and French cantatas with Les Delices. So thank you again for being a part of this episode, and I look forward to more.

[01:01:46] DN: Les Delices and SalonEra recently recorded “Inside the Goldbergs” live in Cleveland, and we’re excited for its online premiere on March 25.

This episode brings together harpsichordist Mark Edwards and pianist Dror Biran to explore Bach’s momentous keyboard works and consider the unique challenges and opportunities that Bach’s music has for us all.

Our show also includes images from a rare first edition of the Goldberg Variations and an interview with renowned Bach scholar Michael Morrison.

We even have a keyboard cam, which enables everyone a close up view of the magic happening at the keyboard.

We are proud to collaborate with the Riemann Schneider Bach Institute at Baldwin Wallace University and Piano Cleveland on this episode.

[01:03:02] DN: If you’re in northeast Ohio March 8 through 10th, you can hear an updated live version of Song of Orpheus. This new iteration of Song of Orpheus features french mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux and acclaimed bass-baritone and composer Jonathan Woody in dramatic cantatas by Jean Philippe Rameau and Philippe Courbois, plus excerpts from Orpheus and rarely performed opera by Georg Philip Telemann. Song of Orpheus typifies Les Delices’ best work as depth programming combined with flawless but laid-back execution that makes their music instantly accessible to modern audiences. Les Delices will give three performances of this thrilling program, complete with dramatic lighting and super titles, march 8th through 10th, 2024 in Akron, Cleveland and Cleveland Heights, Ohio. You can get details and tickets by visiting ldmusic.org.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of SalonEra. This episode was created by me, executive producer Debra Nagy, associate producer Shelby Yamin, and Hannah De Priest, our script writer and special projects manager.

For this episode, we drew from archived video from Les Delices’ 2022 online concert, Song of Orpheus, featuring performances by soprano Hannah De Priest, bass baritone Jonathan Woody, violinist Shelby Yamin, viola de gamba player Rebecca Landell, harpsichordist Mark Edwards, and myself on oboe. Interview Content with Dr. Susan McClary was drawn from an April 2021 SalonEra episode and my conversation with Jonathan Woody about the Philippe Courbois cantata Orphee was originally included in a 2022 pre-concert talk.

Support for Salon Era comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the Ohio Arts Council, and audience members like you. SalonEra’s season sponsors are Deborah Malamud, Tom and Marilyn McLaughlin, Greg Nosan and Brandon Ruud and Joseph Sopko and Betsy McIntyre. This episode featured musical performances of music by Jonathan Woody, Jean Philippe Rameau, and Philippe Courbois. A film version of this episode is available to SalonEra members. Visit salonera.org and you can get full performance details and learn more about the music and information shared in this and any episode. Please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps the show.