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Reference: AVSA9911

    • LA CAPELLA REIAL DE CATALUNYA
    • LE CONCERT DES NATIONS
    • Jordi Savall

There are few myths in Greek mythology more obscure or more laden with symbolism than that of Orpheus. Extremely ancient in origin, it developed into a veritable theology around which an abundant and largely esoteric literature developed. Orpheus is the “singer” par excellence, the musician and the poet. He played not only the lyre with admirable skill, but also the zither, the invention of which is attributed to him. It was said that the airs he sang and played were so sweet that wild beasts followed in his train, trees and plants bowed down to him and the fiercest of men were totally subdued by his music.

Description

There are few myths in Greek mythology more obscure or more laden with symbolism than that of Orpheus. Extremely ancient in origin, it developed into a veritable theology around which an abundant and largely esoteric literature developed. Orpheus is the “singer” par excellence, the musician and the poet. He played not only the lyre with admirable skill, but also the zither, the invention of which is attributed to him. It was said that the airs he sang and played were so sweet that wild beasts followed in his train, trees and plants bowed down to him and the fiercest of men were totally subdued by his music.

Virgil (70-19 BC), in Book IV of The Georgics, gives us the richest and fullest version of one of the most celebrated myths about Orpheus: his descent into the underworld for the love of his wife, Eurydice, who had died of a snakebite while fleeing from the pursuit of Aristaeus. With his singing and the strains of his lyre, Orpheus managed to charm not only the monsters of hell, but also the gods of the underworld. Poets have vied in their attempts to describe the effects of this divine music. Finally, the gods of the underworld yielded to Orpheus’s entreaties, but they did so on condition that he retrace his steps to the light of day, followed by Eurydice, without turning to look at her before leaving their kingdom.

But just as he was about to complete his journey, Orpheus was seized by a terrible doubt: What if he had been deceived? Was Eurydice really following him? He turned round suddenly, and Eurydice died a second time. Orpheus tried to go back for her, but this time Charon was unyielding and the inconsolable Orpheus was forced to return to the world of human beings. Among the many attempts to set this myth to music, the most accomplished and complete is La favola d’Orfeo on a poem by Alessandro Striggio with music by Claudio Monteverdi, which was first performed at the court of Mantua on 24th February, 1607. Thanks to its extraordinary musical and dramatic conception and its carefully crafted score, Monteverdi’s Orfeo attains a perfection almost unparalleled in the entire history of opera. Following some early experiments on a similar theme, such as Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini’s Eurydice to a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini (Florence, 1600), Monteverdi’s first opera marks the true beginning of the spread of the new stile rappresentativo. Monteverdi was the first musician to give absolute priority to the expression of feelings “che movono grandemente l’animo nostro” (which greatly move our spirit), to the portrayal of passions. Thus, in asserting that “the modern composer must base his works on truth,” he was defining a revolutionary, radical concept that would irreversibly alter the relationship between text and music. His work singles him out as one of those very rare polyvalent geniuses who are endowed with the ability to synthesize the most diverse styles. Monteverdi is unquestionably a Baroque composer, but his music contains all the essential ingredients found in later musical ideals.

He is brilliantly defined in the following eloquent text by Harry Halbreich:

“What is a Romantic artist? A Romantic artist is one who puts expression above form and inquiry; an artist who above all strives to translate the feelings and passions of his characters through the prism of his own personality: such is Monteverdi.

What is a Classical artist? A Classical artist is one who refuses to sacrifice pure beauty, equilibrium and harmony of proportions; an artist who creates new forms and means of expression which will be taken as a model by the generations that come after him: such is Monteverdi.

What is an Impressionist artist? An Impressionist artist is one who gives subject, colour and harmony a distinctive value in their own right, one who believes that the senses must be satisfied, just as the mind and heart must be satisfied: such is Monteverdi.

What is a Modern artist? A Modern artist is one who engages passionately with the age in which he lives, constantly contributing to its progress by exploring and conquering his own sensibility and expression; a musician who remains forever young: such is Claudio Monteverdi, a composer who will always be our contemporary.”

Today, more than 400 years after they were composed, Orfeo and Monteverdi’s other two surviving operas continue to be living works with a capacity to touch and move us at the deepest level of our sensibility, as witnessed by the works’ increasing popularity throughout the world and the growing interest they arouse. In this Orfeo we experience the power of music in one of its purest, most concentrated forms.

JORDI SAVALL

Translated by Jacqueline Minett