Orpheus at Juilliard

I apologize for the radio silence over the last few weeks. While the near-simultaneous arrivals of an air conditioning unit and a harpsichord have made my existence more comfortable, they’ve also enabled me to practice practice practice in my studio and not really come up for air. I’d like to say that it’s purely out of self-motivation and delight that I’m note cramming, but in reality the coming academic year is looming over my head like a Damoclean butter knife. Nobody’s life is on the line, but the stark reality that I actually have to be productive is starting to sink in (and yet I’m here on my blog?).

Summer’s end for me really fell early last week. Instead of confining myself to my studio and working on marking up orchestral excerpts, I decided to visit some friends in Philly. Drinks and pizza were followed by the successful wedging of three opera singers and a blogger (all Obies, naturally) on a single air mattress to watch Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. The geek factor was already pretty high as we’re watching a cult film by a filmmaking icon, but it rose to another level as we realized that the entire film follows the outline of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The opening credits commence with the unmistakable Purcellian grandeur while the closing credits begin with the sound of a single piccolo, swelling into the furious fugue that closes the work. The same furious fugue I should have been in NYC marking up… as I’m playing it for my placement audition in a few weeks… and haven’t learned it yet. At that point, my summer came to a close. Running away, while fun, was predictably futile. Procrastination always has an expiration date.

By 9:30AM the next morning, I was back on a bus to the city and situated at my harp bench by noon. The feeling was different – I could immediately tell that my jaunt to Philly was a welcome break. In sitting down to practice, I immediately got the familiar sense of escape I always get when I bury my mind in a score. Normally, the longer I practice, differences between pieces and instruments start to fade, and headspace forms in which the themes of the different pieces converge each day, forming images over the hours sat on piano stools and organ benches, waning upon my return to laundry, groceries, the mundane.

But rather than the renewed daily cycle of thoughts, there’s been a confluence over the past week. I seem to have fallen under the shadow of Orpheus, as these three pieces I’m working on play with the very themes that constitute humanity’s first parable of loss and self-betrayal. Attempting to retrieve his deceased wife, Eurydice, from the underworld, Orpheus uses the “power of music” to charm his way into the depths of the abyss. In making a pact with Hades, Orpheus is allowed to take Eurydice with him, on the condition that he does not lay eyes on her. Yet, in absence of the use of his eyes, it is Orpheus’s ears that betray him. He hears a sound and looks over his shoulder, dooming himself to an eternal damnation of loss and grief. Orpheus is now as he was at the beginning, alone not with his beloved, but with his harp.

This remarkable changelessness feels like a sensation without a name; the notion that Orpheus has only music left is neither tragedy nor compensation, but a strange in-between, like a bitter reality that one takes for granted or simply accepts. Orpheus is the musician’s musician after all, taught to play the harp by his father Apollo and given the muse’s voice by his mother Calliope. It’s no secret that music has a way of getting musicians to tussle out what’s going on upstairs in their heads. Composers from era to era have striven to get music to reflect the human experiences of love and loss. Think about it; how many times do we as humans plug in our headphones and turn on some music that reflects our mood? It’s not as if there’s a nutritional aspect to your iTunes that will make sure you’re eating enough salt or iron. Your only measure is buried somewhere in you – the gut, the soul, the heart, the psyche, etc.

As I look at the three pieces, I see that each tussles with a different aspect of the Orphic myth. Over at the organ, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s Hexachord uses the six notes of the antiquarian lyre to construct a ricercar, a literal “searching out” of an idea in perpetuity. No resolution is really found in the Hexachord; there are constant false and interrupted cadences, one after another, and variations and repetitions on a theme which one could pick out on the piano with no prior knowledge of music. A Plagal cadence ends the piece, but there’s an extenuation which raises the fourth before the final chord, intentionally lending no real sense of finality.


I’ve got some harpsichord continuo on my plate as well this weekend. In lamenting the loss of their mentor and friend Henry Purcell, composer John Blow and poet John Dryden reject the notion of returning their Orpheus to earth on his departure. In having “left no hell below” Orpheus has apparently already transformed the earth into a perfect harmony, in no need of further tuning. It is in “harmony” that his legacy remains.


Yet in setting the words “the power of harmony” it’s ambiguous what harmonies should be played against the melody line. One could easily play seemingly conventional chords that initially match the melody, allowing the singer to create the tension with the occasional dissonances.


On the other hand, one could play rudimentary harmonies, all in root position, which initially seem jarring but almost instantly resolve.

Not so boring

Who is tuned to whom? Whence Purcell’s supposed perfection?

We beg not Hell, our Orpheus to restore,
Had He been there,
Their Sovereign’s fear
Had sent Him back before.
The pow’r of Harmony too well they know,
He long e’er this had Tun’d their jarring Sphere,
And left no Hell below.

(Dryden, Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell)

Elliott Carter’s Trilogy for oboe and harp retells the initial reunification of Orpheus and Eurydice in Hades, using complex relationships of rhythm and tuning to turn chaos into peace. The final notes of both the harp and oboe are the supposedly the same, unisons of several harmonics, but the sounds is anything but unified. The quietude is unnerving, as it’s not clear whether Orpheus and Eurydice really recognize each other after spending so long apart, being forced to reunite in the darkest corner of existence. Does Eurydice really wish to leave? Does Orpheus really want her anymore?


The machine threatens all we have gained
Only so long as it is imagined, rather than obedient.
It no longer flaunts magnificent gestures of exquisite hesitation
But resolutely works the mine, and polishes the gem more precisely.  

Nowhere does it lag, that we might for a time escape it
And leave it behind in a quiet factory oiling itself, as is proper.
It has become our Life, – and best assumes this power
When with one resolve it orders, produces, demolishes.

But still our Existence enchants us; from a hundred sources
Being wells up. A play of pure energies, which
No one encounters who does not kneel and marvel. 

Words even now go forth with tenderness into the inexpressible …And music, ever new, from the most tremulous of stonesConstructs in waste spaces her deified dwelling.

(Rilke, Sonnet to Orpheus II.10)

Something doesn’t feel quite right in all of this. What is Orpheus “doing?” There’s a lot of wallowing, but there is no triumph or resolution. Monteverdi shot him into heaven in Orfeo at the end (well, in his second version at least). Author James Fenton turned Orpheus gay in Love Bomb. I’m looking for some direction. A solution.

I admit I spent a couple of days reading up on Orpheus. I had a class at Oberlin that centered on the notion of what makes Orpheus “Orpheus” or the definition of the Orphic might be. I dragged up all my notes. Apollodorus. Apollonius. Aeschylus. Plato. Hesiod. Ovid. I’m still getting nowhere. I still find account after account of Orpheus as a figure who just simply suffered a great loss and made music about it, with no sense of self-defiance or overcoming.

In frustration I leafed through Hesiod’s Theogony, reading more myths, stories of wayward gods, tales with morals shrouded by historic distance. I was looking for anything more on Orpheus, on the delivery of music, the inspiration of mortals, some epic aspect of his existence that made his music special. But in reading more about the Gods and their struggles, I realized I wasn’t hunting for Orpheus. I was looking for Prometheus.

Being the great Titan who stole fire from Zeus and granted it to humankind, Prometheus was punished sorely, chained to a mountain in the Caucuses to be eternally feasted on by an eagle (yum). Though freed by Heracles, he was to wear a chain around his neck for eternity, a reminder of his wronging Zeus. Zeus in his anger sends beautiful Pandora to earth, imprisoned by nothing except her own curiosity about a jar. Just as Heracles freed Prometheus, Pandora frees herself, opening the jar and releasing upon the earth evil, sorrow. But also hope.

Unlike Orpheus, the Promethean myth constantly flips back and forth. Earth’s darkness, Prometheus’s fire. Zeus’s punishment, the Heraclean emancipation. Anger, retribution. Pandora’s jar of sorrow, hope. On and on it goes. There’s a consequence for everything, a reflection of the importance of fire to humanity for them to survive. But why can’t Orpheus be like Prometheus? Why can’t he spite the Hades and give music to humanity to free them from his clutches, so that they too can charm the underworld? Why can’t Orpheus try again? Call upon Apollo, Calliope or his brother Linus, to embolden music into triumph? Why is Orpheus’s music so apparently aimless?

There’s a certain pressure for musicians to treat music like fire, as if it’s pertinent, necessary, vital to human existence and survival. Yesterday, students at the Juilliard School attended their first day of classes for the academic year. At 11AM in room 314, students in Professor Joel Sachs’s practicum on music in the 20th and 21st centuries were challenged to ask themselves if they thought classical music culture is thriving. Is classical music in danger? Are we going to have jobs? Are people interested in what we do? What can we do to promote new music to keep it alive, to invigorate? How can we let the audience in on what’s going on? Do they care? Do we care? You get the idea.

The philosophical fast turned to the practical as we were handed a 9 bar piece by Schoenberg and asked to identify the most important point in the piece. Easy, right? We all had different ideas, and votes were taken as to the most plausible. There was a general acknowledgement that the exercise was slightly artificial, but the undertone was explicit: what we do with music, how god-like Juilliard musical technicians bring music to humanity, will have a consequence. The material, as beautiful, inspiring, even Orphic as it may be, has to be approached with a Promethean ethic.

Langsam from Six little Pieces for Piano, Op. 19 by Arnold Schoenberg

I suppose I’ve been beating around the bush for a little while. The pressure I have to make sense of the music in front me is this totally self-constructed; musicians are constantly worried about whether people can hear what they’re doing in real time. Philosopher Pierre Hadot drew the lines between the Orphic and the Promethean in terms of their function: Orpheus simply plays, while Prometheus delivers. Orpheus searches, discovers but Prometheus cures. Orpheus’s music remains constant, as he sings even after he is beheaded by the Maenads. Prometheus lives, but fades in and out, is imprisoned and emancipated, emboldened and punished, but ultimately exhausted.

Prometheus Unbound from the “Brahmsfantasien,” Max Klinger 

So what are we musicians left with, if our music is supposedly forced to carry such weight and purpose. If music is our fire, do we reserve any for ourselves to charm Hades within us? The ideal of course is that we would naturally be Promethean by virtue our Orphic gifts – that somehow, it just happens.

But what if what we do naturally has an effect people’s lives? Did music only begin with us? Are we so arrogant to think that issues of articulation in Schoenberg constitute a zero-sum game? How many times do we perform and hear how people were indeed moved by our music? Do we really want to be in control of their emotions so closely that we micromanage their responses? If so, then we’re neither Orpheus nor Prometheus; we’re Zeus, alone and blind on Olympus. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather descend Parnassus to inspire, than to spend a solitary eternity on Olympus.

A god can do it. But tell me,
how can a man follow through the narrow lyre?
His mind divides. At the crossing of two heartways
stands no Temple.

Song, is not covetousness or the quest for something
one might finally obtain.
Song is being. Easy, for the god.
But when do we exist? When does he

pour the earth and the stars into us?
Young man, it’s not about love,
when your voice forces open your mouth; —

learn to forget those songs. They elapse.
True singing is a different breath.
A breath serving nothing. A gust in the god. A wind.

(Rilke, Sonnet to Orpheus I.3)

What if we revelled in the unknown of music and allowed others to make up their minds? I’m not saying that we should be indifferent or that we shouldn’t care. But if people need music as much we say they do, then surely we’ll still be here when the next crisis of classical music hits, and the one after that, and so on. What instead of focusing on the tasks, we just focus on the music? After all, isn’t that why we came to Juilliard?

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