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All about Orpheus

The mythical figure Orpheus ventured into the realm of the dead to save the woman he loved — and has captivated the fantasy of generations of music lovers. 

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Concert Hour: Tragic love stories, part one

In the myth, Orpheus' beloved Euridice dies after a snake bite, so he ventures into the realm of death to bring her back and charms the spirits there with his singing. She's allowed to follow him back to the world of the living, but under the condition that Orpheus is not allowed to turn around and look at her. He fails the test, and loses his Euridice again.

This story about love, fate and aesthetics was set to music by many composers, one of them Joseph Haydn. During his first stay in London, in 1791, Haydn occupied himself with the subject and worked on an opera named The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Euridice, but due to rivalries between two theaters there, it was never performed.

Haydn's Orpheus remained unfinished, but that won't prevent us from enjoying the overture and an aria from it. 

Joseph Haydn (picture-alliance / maxppp)

Joseph Haydn

The Orpheus story turns up again and again in opera, which is only fitting, because the central character is so musically gifted that he's able to charm the demons of the underworld with his playing and singing. "Music is the enemy of fate," wrote the philosopher Theodor Adorno, and the Orpheus myth gives musical expression to that notion. 

The most famous opera based on the myth premiered in 1762 and was by Christoph Willibald Gluck, who didn't have to explain the story; his audiences were well familiar with it through different previous Orpheus operas.

We'll hear parts of Gluck's "Orpheus and Euridice," beginning with the opening scene at Euridice's grave. Then, in Act Two, Orpheus confronts the Furies. Later on comes the most famous aria: "J'ai perdu mon Euridice" (I've lost my Euridice).  

The mythical figure of Orpheus was once so ubiquitous in music that Jacques Offenbach made him the subject of what's been called the very first operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld, a parody on the famous opera by Gluck. 

Christoph Willibald Gluck (public domain)

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Jacques Offenbach
Orpheus in the Underworld: Overture

performed by:
Orchestre de l'Opera National de Lyon
Orchestre de Chambre de Grenoble
Marc Minkowski, conductor

on EMI Classics 7243 5 56725 2 0

Joseph Haydn 
Excerpts from the opera The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Euridice

  • Overture (excerpt)
  • No. 18: recitative and aria  

Christoph Willibald Gluck
Excerpts from the opera Orpheus and Euridice

  • Act one, scenes one and two
  • Act one, scene four
  • Act two, scene one
  • Act three, scene one

performed by:
Mathias Vidal, tenor 
Bonn Philharmonic Chorus
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Sébastien Rouland, conductor

Recorded by Deutsche Welle, Bonn (DW) in the World Conference Center Bonn on September 30, 2017

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