Monday 14 April 2014

Musical Star Gayzing : A Lyrical Constellation

One of the most popular pieces of classical music is “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Jacques Offenbach. It contains one of the world’s most familiar tunes, though familiar in a different context. Here’s the tune in question, and I doubt if you’ll think of Greek mythology when you hear it.
The Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus is perfect for a musical composition. After all, Orpheus was the most celebrated mortal musician in Greek mythology. The queer angle, and Orpheus’s connection to the night sky, is hinted at in the title, but first let’s see where he got his musical talent from.

The most common version in the myths about of his birth makes his mother one of the 9 Muses, those sister goddesses who rule over the sciences and culture. Calliope was the Muse of epic poetry and supremely gifted in the art of singing. Orpheus inherited this talent and more. Even the animals and plants seemed to stop and listen to his singing, accompanying himself on the instrument we usually refer to today as the lyre.

The lyre had been invented by Hermes, the messenger god of the Greeks. Apollo, the god of music, fell in love with the instrument and offered to swap it for some supernatural cows! It was Apollo who taught Orpheus to play the lyre, recognising the boy’s talent, and have him one made of gold (perhaps having magical qualities “to soothe the savage beast”, as the saying goes). Presumably Orpheus carried this lyre with him for the rest of his life. There’s some local Greek myths about young Orpheus being one of Apollo’s many male lovers.

As Orpheus grew up his musical talent became widely known. When Jason was gathering his crew for the quest to find the Golden Fleece he was told that the only way he’d survive an encounter with the Sirens was if Orpheus was a crew member on the Argo. So Orpheus became an Argonaut.

It was on board the Argo that Orpheus met the love of his life. Not Eurydice, as you might have guessed, but Kalaïs, the winged mortal son of Boreas, god of the north wind. Kalaïs was also an Argonaut though he left the crew before the quest was over. Orpheus was heartbroken when he left, but he was to meet him again later in his life.

When the hero Odysseus encountered the Sirens he ordered his crew to fill their ears with wax so they couldn’t hear them singing. The Sirens had such beautiful voices that any ship’s crew sailing past the rocky coast where the Sirens lived would forget what they were doing and sail straight into the rocks. The sailors would then be at the mercy of the Sirens, who ate them. The Argonauts had Orpheus. His singing was sweeter and louder than the Sirens, so that when the Argo sailed past the Sirens they were silenced and the Argonauts escaped.

After leaving the Argo Orpheus met young Eurydice, the woman he chose as his wife. Tragedy struck soon after the wedding. Eurydice was bitten by a snake and died. Her soul descended to the Underworld and Orpheus was again heartbroken. His life with Eurydice had hardly begun and it had ended too soon. After praying to the gods for advice he decided to go down to the Underworld and ask Hades to let Eurydice return. Playing his golden lyre he charmed the 3-headed dog Cerberus into letting him pass into the Underworld where Hades, suitably impressed, agreed to let his wife go, as long as he didn’t turn to check that she was following him back to the surface. And the famous story ends as we know it does with Orpheus looking behind him too soon, and Eurydice descends back to the Underworld forever.

For the third time Orpheus wass inconsolable. So much so that he renounced the love of women and spent the rest of his life with a string of boy lovers, which was acceptable in Ancient Greece. Here, the winged Kalaïs re-entered his life. But Kalaïs was to be the cause of further tragedy.

During the spring festival dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and passion, a group of women who took the role of Dionysus’s attendants made a move on Orpheus. Full of wine and passion themselves the women had grown tired of Orpheus rejecting their sexual advances and his love for Kalaïs. As Orpheus was lying by a river bank singing of the joys of the love of boys, the women attacked his as one drunken mob and ripped his body to pieces. They flung his remains into the river, along with his beloved golden lyre, and returned to their feasting.

Orpheus’s severed head, so the myth goes, was still singing as it drifted down the river. It came to rest on the shores of the islands of Lesbos, where the inhabitants placed it in a sacred cave and listened to it prophesying for many years.

The golden lyre was found by Apollo and in remembrance of Orpheus and his music placed it in the night sky as the constellation Lyra.

As for Kalaïs, he lived on for a few more years until, as one myth says, his own past caught up with him. While on the Argo Kalaïs had persuaded fellow Argonaut and great lover of boys Heracles to remain ashore searching for his lover Hylas while the Argo sailed on. Hylas was never found, and Heracles never returned to the Argo. In revenge Heracles killed Kalaïs.

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