Orpheus was an unusual character in Greek mythology. Instead of the all-conquering battling hero, or an immortal god, he was peaceful, mortal human being who used his talent as a musician to enchant his enemies with beautiful music, which led to peaceful victories in battles.
Tragedy strikes when his wife, Eurydice, steps on a viper snake which in turn bites her, injecting its fatal venom. His cries of anguish and pain at finding his dead wife, mixed with his songs of mourning and sorrow, open the work in an extended, unaccompanied cadenza for the soloist.
At her funeral, the gods wept, such was the power of his music, and overcome with grief, they suggested to Orpheus that he should go to the underworld to bargain with Hades (the god of the underworld). The remainder of the first movement (Journey to the Underworld) we hear our main protagonist tackle this difficult and dangerous journey, having to overcome many creatures and monsters – all done with his enchanting musical skills.
The second movement, Eurydice, is set in the underworld. There, once more, sweet songs were needed to tame the vicious beasts there, and to soften the heart of Hades – who for the only time agreed to allow someone to return to earth. However, Hades placed one condition on this; that Orpheus must walk in front of Eurydice and never look back to see her until they had returned to the upper world (earth), or she would disappear forever.
Once he was back on earth, maybe driven by love and desire to see her, or maybe by anxiety that she may not have kept up with him, Orpheus turned round to see his wife, forgetting that both of them had to be in the upper world, his actions killing her for a second time.
During the second movement, sweet songs, and even songs of love, are sung, before we hear the tragic death of Eurydice; the movement ending with Orpheus, our soloist, being alone, overcome once more with grief.
Orpheus would go on to lead a solitary, miserable, life, and his own death provides the back drop to the final movement (Hypnotic Dance and Finale). Four years after he killed Eurydice, in Spring, came the festival to honour the God of Wine, Dionysus (presumably a favourite God of trumpet players!). We hear the woman at the festival dancing their hypnotic dances in the third movement, gradually getting more and more drunk. Whilst our hero met his death this particular evening – the drunken, insane women beheading him – the work’s conclusion instead gives Orpheus the heroic send-off his ultimately tragic life deserved!
Orpheus is dedicated to Jens Lindemann, an incredible trumpet player, musician and friend (and someone who has, so far, managed to avoid a beheading by drunken women). Jens gave the world premiere, accompanied by Middle Tennessee State University Wind Ensemble – conducted by Dr Reed Thomas – on April 10 2014.
Peter Meechan 2014