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Commentary

Chapter 16: Orpheus and Orphism: Mystery Religions in Roman Times


In music, art, and poetry Orpheus has been a source of inspiration for thousands of works. His myths address several of the most profound of human concerns: the power of music over animals and inanimate nature, over human discord, and over death itself; the pain of bereavement and the hope of reunion after the loss of one’s beloved.

Orpheus exemplifies the universal power of the artist and in particular music and poetry. Art eases care, makes life meaningful and beautiful, and it can instruct. Orpheus is also the archetypal religious teacher, illustrating the omnipotence of the word in music. Orpheus suffers and dies the martyr’s death of a prophet and a savior. Just as potent are the eternal elements in the romance of Orpheus and Eurydice. Theirs is a moving and tragic love story that, in its endless metamorphoses, never fails to touch the hearts and minds of human beings forever.

One can listen to and see Gluck’s Orpheus performed traditionally but nevertheless powerfully by a mezzo (in Janet Baker’s performance) or turn to this same Orpheus, sung by a male alto, Jochen Kowalski, in leather jacket and with electric guitar, pursuing his Euridyce who has died in a car accident. One can study the music and text of a melodious song by Schubert or Schuman or explore the avant-guard, modern Syringa of Carter. One can marvel at the possibilities of a humorous Orpheus through the amusing operetta of Offenbach and consider how this most serious tale of love and devotion can be turned up-side down for comic effect.

The words of Marlon Brando in the brief opening scene of the movie, Tennessee Williams’ The Fugitive Kind, speak volumes. The name of this Orpheus sounds like Savior, he wears a snake-skin jacket to attest to his underworld connections, and is devoted to his guitar, “a life-long companion.” Cocteau’s Orpheus is in love with Death, named the Princess, and his entrance to the Underworld is through a mirror; Black Orpheus attests to the universal humanity of the myth, which transcends race, color, locale, and time.

The Composer in Richard Strauss'’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos, yet another Orpheus, captures ecstatically the duality of religion and music in the archetype, declaring in the most soaring of all musical motifs: “Music is a holy art.”

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