The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

The Power of Myth

  8th December 2021

8th December 2021

The interest aroused by our recent review of Scenes from the Kalevala on the BIS label serves as a powerful reminder of the enduring appeal that myths and legends have for composers. Although every indication is that music had been a part of myth-telling since ancient times, it was only in the early 17th century with the representational magic of the early operas of Peri, Caccini, and above all Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) that the musico-dramatic potential of classical myths was unleashed with full force. The particular attraction of the story of Orpheus for musicians is self-evident: to regain his beloved Eurydice from the depths of Hades, he wins over the subterranean deities with the extraordinary power of his singing and playing. That he loses her again by looking back as he leads her out of the Underworld only adds poignancy to the story, although many adaptations (like that set by Gluck in 1762, more than a century-and-a-half after the Orpheus craze first took root) involve a further twist by reuniting the pair with a deus ex machina. (Such divine intervention became de rigeur during the heyday of opera.)

Composers from Rossi and Sartorio to Malipiero and Glass have continued the Orphic obesession over the centuries (even Haydn got in on the act with his 1791 opera L’anima del filosofo, originally intended for performance in London). But the wider preoccupation of composers (and by no means only operatic ones) forms a rich seam through music history from the dawn of the Baroque to the present day. The Baroque remains a highpoint, partly because the prolific symbolism and well-known archetypes that characterise classical myth and legend made possible the presentation of ideas and emotions that would have been thought de trop (and in some cases even dangerous) if presented in contemporary guise. And the presentation of a stage action in which the classical deities reigned supreme over the lives of mere mortals was customarily taken as a direct nod to divinely-appointed monarchs and their lowlier subjects.

Any history of music which left out mythologically-inspired works would be a slender one indeed: for starters, most of the operas of Lully and Rameau would be gone, as would Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and King Arthur, most of Handel’s operas, several of Mozart’s (including Idomeneo), but also Beethoven’s music for The Creatures of Prometheus (Beethoven being one of the most Promethean of composers!), Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Offenbach’s comic masterpieces Orpheus in the Underworld.

As Enlightenment values blossomed into human-centred rationalism, the trend in operas was to a more human-centred focus, a shift of emphasis evident in Mozart’s late operas (particularly the politically-charged Beaumarchais comedy Le nozze di Figaro, but also in the symbol-laden, quasi-mythological Die Zauberflöte), an even in the treatment of such legends as that of Medea in Cherubini’s famous setting (1797). Beethoven’s only opera, the openly political Fidelio, represents for many the apex of this trend, but the focus on human history and even contemporary realism was one that dominated Italian opera in particular (the Romantic histories of Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi, and the verismo school of Puccini, Mascagni and Leoncavallo).

Yet as the Romantic century progressed, myth and legend were put to powerful use in the search for national identities. The most obvious example is Richard Wagner’s use of medieval sources in his music dramas, above all his transformation of the Middle High German Nibelungenlied (the so-called ‘German Iliad’) into his vast tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. Such artistic appropriation of national epics was by no means limited to Germany. In the Czech lands, Smetana’s Libuše (1881) is a magnificent operatic setting of the myth of Queen Libuše, who prophesied the founding of Prague, while his cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast (‘My Homeland’, 1874-79) drew on a variety of legends from Czech myth, including that of the fierce warrior maiden Šárka, whose story was also set in operas by Fibich (1897) and Janáček (1887, first performed in 1925). By contrast, Dvořák’s most notable contributions are surely his four late symphonic poems of 1896 after the folk ballads of Karel Jaromír Erben (right down to their motifs, which are based on the rhythms of Erben’s texts).

Further East, the rich heritage of Russian folk legend was eagerly taken up by Rimksy-Korsakov in his operas, from the Ostrovsky-based Snow Maiden (1882) to the fabulously scored epic The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1907). Rimsky’s legacy is plainly evident in Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird (1910), while his following two works in the genre, Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) were founded respectively on the Russian traditions of magic puppetry and ‘pictures of pagan Russia’, with the latter incorporating several folk melodies into its riot-inducing score. The myth-based works of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, by contrast, are all on classical legend (Oedpius rex, Apollon musagète, Perséphone and Orpheus), in a cool, detached style which exemplifies not only his middle and late output but also the changed attitude towards myth and its artistic and expressive possibilities in the 20th century (in which Jungian psychology and the theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss became increasingly influential).

Other examples of this shift can be found in the Expressionist and Symbolist movements in early-20th-century music, as represented above all by such quasi-legendary works as Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1911, based on a tale by Charles Perrault), and the brooding half-world of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902, setting Maeterlinck’s famous 1893 drama). Of Richard Strauss’s operas on classical themes, by far the most successful is Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), with its witty libretto by Hofmannsthal contrasting the high seriousness of the opera seria characters with the subversive antics of the ‘low’ comedians of the commedia dell’arte. Yet there’s also a pronounced mythic feel to what some Straussians would consider the highpoint of his Hofmannsthal collaborations in Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), with its complex, heavily symbolic, magic fairy-tale libretto and sumptuous, vocally demanding score. Sibelius’s many orchestral and vocal works inspired by Finnish myth (including the Kalevala) in the years leading up to Finnish independence in 1917 are well documented, and perhaps most striking because they are so different in tone from such predecessors as Liszt, Smetana and Dvořák.

The subsequent use of myth and legend from the mid-20th century onwards is too varied to deal with in such a limited space as this, but mention should be made of a composer of our own time who, perhaps more than any other, has recognised not merely the expressive and theatrical but also the structural potential of myth and legend. Since the mid-1960s Harrison Birtwistle has produced an astonishing output of works based not just on classical myth – including The Mask of Orpheus (1986), Panic (1995) and The Minotaur (2008) – but also on folk sources as in Down by the Greenwood Side (1969) and Yan Tan Tethera (1986), popular sources as in Punch and Judy (1968), and even the ‘modern myth’ of King Kong in The Second Mrs Kong (1994) to a libretto by Russell Hoban. For anyone interested in the possibilities of combining myth and music, Birtwistle’s output is an endlessly fascinating one.

A few suggested recordings:
Monteverdi - L’Orfeo (La Venexiana/Cavina)  GCD920941
Berlioz - Les Troyens (Strasbourg PO & Chorus/Nelson)  9029576220
Smetana - Libuše (Prague National Theatre/Krombholc)  SU39822
Dvořák - Symphonic Poems (Czech PO/Mackerras)  SU40122
Rimsky-Korsakov - The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Teatro Lirico di Cagliari/Vedernikov)  866028890
Sibelius - Tone Poems (Lahti SO/Vänskä et al.)  BISCD190002
Stravinsky - Oedipus rex (Czech PO/Ančerl)  SU36742
Birtwistle - The Minotaur (ROH/Pappano)  OA1000D (DVD) / OABD7052D (Blu-ray)

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