The Orphic Moment
The story of Orpheus is music’s founding myth, its primal self-justification and self-glorification. On Orpheus’s wedding day, his wife Eurydice is fatally bitten by a poisonous snake. Orpheus audaciously storms the gates of hell to plead his case, in song, to Hades and his infernal gang. The guardians of death melt at his music’s touch. They grant Eurydice a second chance at life: she may follow Orpheus back to earth, on the one condition that he not turn to look at her until they’re above ground. Orpheus can’t resist his urge to glance back; he turns, and Eurydice vanishes.
The Orpheus myth is typically understood as a tragedy of human impatience: even when a loved one’s life is at stake, the best, most heroic intentions are helpless to resist a sudden instinctive impulse. But that’s not my understanding of the story. Orpheus, after all, is the ultimate aesthete: he’s the world’s greatest singer, and he knows that heartbreak and loss are music’s favorite subjects. In most operas based on the Orpheus story – and there are many – the action typically runs as follows: Orpheus loses Eurydice; he laments her loss gorgeously and extravagantly; he descends to the underworld; he gorgeously and extravagantly begs to get Eurydice back; he is granted her again and promptly loses her again; he laments even more gorgeously and extravagantly than before.
"The Orpheus myth is typically understood as a tragedy of human impatience: even when a loved one’s life is at stake, the best, most heroic intentions are helpless to resist a sudden instinctive impulse. But that’s not my understanding of the story."
So might this backwards glance be a conscious gesture? Might Eurydice’s second death be not an accident but a kind of murder? Or, if Orpheus does look back out of a sudden impulse, might that impulse be the aesthetic one, the seductive and amoral tendency to value art above one’s fellow human beings? I take this interpretation to an extreme in The Orphic Moment, a “dramatic cantata” that shines a magnifying glass on the final moments before Orpheus turns around. Up to the moment when the piece begins, Orpheus’s conscious intentions have been noble: he has risked his life to rescue Eurydice, he’s succeeded, and they are walking toward the light. But as the piece begins, he has a second thought: “It has been life to lose you,” he says. “It has been life to go without…”. He muses on what would happen if he lost Eurydice again. A second death…the loss of Eurydice at the very moment when she was about to be granted life…nothing could be more tragic than that. It’s bound to inspire the greatest music ever.
The solo violin is Eurydice, wordlessly calling to Orpheus, growing more and more unsettled as she senses his emotional withdrawal. In the second half of the piece, Orpheus calculates the perfect moment to aim his gaze backwards at Eurydice. Patiently, coldly, he waits until light from the world above begins to filter down through the soil. He slowly turns his head. The scene goes dark.