Classic myth and classic music are in this opera happily united. The beautiful legend belongs to the past, but Gluck the composer, like Orpheus the musician, has brought the departed to life. With gentle harmonies he pacified those surrounding Furies, the critics, and his creation has attained a lasting place in the musical world. Simplicity and sincerity stamp the entire composition. The musical thoughts are put down in the plainest, straightest way, in strong contrast to the old Italian style, whose profuse embellishments remind one of ornate penman-ship. Gluck lived more than a century ago, but his ideas anticipated many of our modern formulas. He succeeded in imparting a musical individuality to all his characters.
To properly enjoy Glick’s masterpiece the listener should present himself with a spirit as gentle as the composer. The opera is more idyllic than overpowering. Enjoy it as you would a perfect clay in some peaceful valley.
The overture to ” Orpheus and Eurydice ” is not remarkable. t bears no theme-feature in common with the opera, and its kinship is only discernible in name and nature, both opera and overture being de-void of ostentation.
The curtain rises upon a Grecian landscape that is beautiful but sad, for amid drooping willows and solemn pines stands the tomb of Eurydice. Orpheus, the disconsolate husband, is leaning upon the shrine. Not even his lute can solace him in this hour of grief. A dirge of unrivaled beauty arises from the orchestra like a flower from the earth. t is taken up by the chorus and given as an offering to the departed. There is something mythical about the music as well as the scene. All nature seems to join in this lament over Eurydice. Ever and anon Orpheus pro-claims her name in tones so pitiful that
” The rocks and rills and surrounding hills Feel pity, and are touched.”
He asks the chorus to scatter flowers upon her grave and then leave him alone, for their song but adds to his grief. Accompanied by an orchestral ritornelle of Arcadian simplicity, they strew their garlands and then retire.
The wood-wind and viol follow Orpheus in his solitary plaint that again reminds us of the voice of nature. It is a feminine voice, too, a fact worth mentioning, for Orpheus is now considered the contralto rôle de résistance. After vainly beseeching high heaven and all the gods to restore his lost Eurydice, Orpheus decides to brave the realms of Pluto. He will himself wrest her from death’s power. The gods help those that help themselves, and now Amor, the god of love, comes to his assistance. Amor says he shall descend in safety to the lower world, and will find his Eurydice among the peaceful shades. He must take his lute, and perchance by the power of music he can induce Pluto to release her. Was there ever a more charming story for an opera! Amor further dictates that while leading Eurydice to the upper world he must not look upon her, else all endeavor will have been in vain, and death will at once claim his own. After promising to obey, Orpheus sings a song full of gratitude, with here and there a gleam of gladness like flecks of sun-light after rain. His final aria is the very noontide of joy, dignified always but none the less radiant. Gluck here finds use for coloratureplain, classical scales and broken thirds without any appoggiaturas or even staccatos ; but his even-tempoed sixteenth notes seem as gay as Rossini’s breathless sixty-fourths.
The second act is the most interesting. t pictures the nether world of Hades. There are vistas of receding caverns full of smoke and flames. Furies and Demons occupy the stage. According to Gluck, the brass instruments furnish the music of Hades, in opposition to the harps, which belong to heaven. The first tones are hurled up by the trumpets like a blast of molten rocks. Then like a balm to all the senses, nectar after poison, incense after sulfur, day after night, come the next celestial harmonies. t is Orpheus with his lute, whose harp-tones reach us from afar, as this musician of the gods plays his way through the gates of Hades. For a moment the Furies cease their revel, as they wonder what mortal dares to enter here. When they resume their dance the orchestra renders a reeling, demoniacal medley of scales and staccatos. Again the Furies stop as they see Orpheus approaching, and they sing a malediction upon this mortal so audacious. They try to frighten him with howls from the watch-dog Cerberus, an effect admirably represented by the instruments. The music is all fearful and threatening, with creeping chromatics shrouded in a minor key.
Orpheus is undaunted ; and with enduring faith in the power of his music he takes up his harp and sings to them of his love for Eurydice. Entreating their pity, he begs them to let him pass ; but Cerberus still howls and the Furies shout “No!” They threaten him with eternal torture, but the inspired youth sings on. No punishment they can devise could exceed the grief he already sufferssuch is the burden of his song. Even the Demons and Furies can not long resist such tender strains. With bated breath they wonder what strange feeling steals o’er them, for pity is a new sensation : ” The cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears; all Hades held its breath.” Three times the wondrous song and accompaniment still the shrieks of Pluto’s realm. Orpheus is finally allowed to pass. The Furies and Demons hasten to drown their recent emotion in a mad revel that surpasses the first one. This demon-dance is admirably characterized by the music. It has a rapid tempo and a perpetual motion that suggest dancing on hot iron. Tremolos rise and fall like puffs of smoke, while scales like coiling snakes and staccatos like skipping imps add to the effect of pandemonium.
Act III. pictures the Elysian fields, the abode of the blest where ” calm and eternal rest ” pervade even the music. The orchestral introduction is saintly, with its religious harmonies and classic purity. It is simple, but yet so interesting that we can imagine the immortal spirits hearing forever and never weary, for classical music is always new and always beautiful. The flute and stringed instruments perform the great part of this Elysian music. White-robed spirits glide about, and one soprano voice starts up a happy, flowing melody that inspires a chorus of others. t is Eurydice who leads this singing of the blest.
There is dancing as well as singing, and during this divertisement the instruments weave out a new musical fabric. The steady accompaniment and firm legato theme are the woof and warp through which, around which, and over which a little five-note appoggiatura sports like a weaver’s shuttle. t appears four times in every measure, but never twice in the same place.
With wonder and admiration comes Orpheus upon the scene. The orchestra continues its blithe harmonies while Orpheus sings of the beauteous sight. But not even such surroundings can quell his longing for Eurydice. Unlike the Furies, who only granted his prayer because compelled by his wondrous music, the spirits of the blest can not see any one suffer. With one voice and immediately they tell him to take Eurydice. To the strains of softest music Orpheus approaches the various spirits. He harkens to their heart-beats, and finally recognizes his loved one without seeing her.
The scene changes to another part of the nether world, a forest through which Orpheus is leading Eurydice back to earth. A nervous, anxious instrumental passage precedes the opening recitative dialogue. Eurydice at first rejoices over her new-found life, but then forgets all else in surprise and grief because Orpheus will not look at her. She questions him, entreats him, fears she is no longer beautiful, or that his heart has changed. Orpheus explains that he dare not look at her, but Eurydice is not satisfied. She refuses to go farther, for if he can not look at her she does not wish to live. The ensuing duet is intense and full of climacteric effects. The voices chase each other like clouds before a storm, low down and hovering near that sea of sound, the orchestra, over which the conductor rules with his wand like Neptune with his trident.
Orpheus firmly resists the pleadings of Eurydice until she declares that his coldness will break her heart,she will die of grief if he does not look at her. Little wonder that he flings prudence to the winds and impulsively turns to embrace her.
But no sooner has he looked upon Eurydice than she droops and sinks from his arms like a blighted flower. Death has again come between them. Orpheus cries aloud his grief, and there springs from his heart a song of lamentation surpassing any other as a geyser does a fountain. ” Ach, ich habe sie verloren ! ” is the German and “Che in faro” the Italian name of this great song that is the standard classical contralto program piece. t is full of sobbing cadenzas and sighing intervals that express more than words or deeds.
Grief at last gives place to desperation: He is on the point of killing himself when Amor reappears. The gods are again moved to pity by his enduring love, and Amor with a touch of her wand revives Eurydice.
The opera closes with a trio between Amor and the reunited pair, an ode to the power of love. It is a sort of musical apotheosis. The orchestral accompaniment has a steady, revolving movement that might suggest the wheel of time tuned and turned in harmony with the voice of love.