ACT I. After the short overture in C-major, the curtain rises, showing an open plain with the tomb of Eurydice. A chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses carrying myrtle boughs and flowers are present with Orpheus (contralto) prostrate. The mourning chorus in C-minor is prefaced by a massive and broad introduction, the purpose of which is to impress both chorus and audience with a sense of largeness and a spirit of tranquillity. Distant trumpets sound throughout the movement and four cornets render the melody. The movement lifts its melody superbly and then sinks in tone, finely expressing dignity and reserve. In the same mood, the mourning chorus follows with a simple four-part movement in which all the voices are so compact that rarely does one precede or lag behind the others for more than a quarter of a bar. The orchestra also keeps in close touch with the voices, only now and then making the rhythm more palpable by syncopation, or giving the melody when the chorus cannot do so without overstepping its limitations. The general grief makes the voices march solemnly, none asserting any individuality.
Twice does the chorus, first in G-major and then in G-minor, come to a momentary pause, and each time the agonised cry of “Eurydice!” on the minor third of the dominant, is heard from the lips of Orpheus ; and this cry is at once taken up by the chorus. A third time he cries “Eurydice!” this time a third higher, with accents of hopeless agony. From this point the short pauses of the chorus are filled only by the brass instruments. The chorus and the suffering outcry of Orpheus now speak in a half suppressed manner, signifying that they are possessed exclusively with the solemnity and grief of the occasion. The chorus ceases, and, accompanied by violins, viola, and bass, Orpheus tells them that their grief only aggravates his own. Let them garland the marble tomb with purple flowers and leave him alone with his sorrow. The ceremony is completed to a solemn ballo of thirty-six bars and then the chorus repeats its song, the voices being softly set against each other at the words ” odi i pianti, i lamenti, i sospiri,” for now at last personal feeling demands recognition. Then follows a broad epilogue on the lines of the introductory movement, while the chorus quietly departs. In this musical epilogue, the modulation brings us to F-minor, and finds its final utterance in the new key without returning to C-minor, there being a sort of sub-finale on C, E, G, uniting the deep gloom of the sub-dominant with the more comforting glimpse of the major chord.
Now at last, not only a voice, but Orpheus in all the strength of his personality comes before us. Left alone, in a tenderly-flowing melody he calls upon his beloved to return to him. The first violin and the clarinets double the voice, the flute plays its octave, and the second violin keeps as close as possible to the melody. ” But vain is my grief!” Here the depth of his woe is reinforced by a small and tender orchestra of violins and chalumeaux behind the scenes, like a wail from the other world. He says, ” The idol of my heart does not answer me ! ” and yet the second orchestra responds as though Eurydice heard and called from the Elysian Fields, when he calls upon her shade to appear.
In the recitative that follows, the lamentation becomes more stringent ; the orchestra takes a more active part. The aria is repeated to other words (” so do I seek my love “) note for note. The outcry of pain grows sharper (recit.), the cry of ” Eurydice ! ” is re-echoed by the second orchestra of violins and chalumeaux, and the aria is repeated. Then bursts forth the despairing cry that life will be impossible without the loved one. He recalls their love by grove and stream, and cries to the Gods to restore her. He is ready to dare all to recover his beloved. He will cross the dark Acheron and seek her in the shades. Lightning and rolling thunder answer his last outcry ; the thunder of the orchestra seems to foreshadow the hero’s way to the underworld. Amore (soprano) appears and announces that Jove is touched at his woe and Eurydice may be recovered if he will cross ” Lethe’s sluggish wave ” (here pictured on the strings) and placate the furies and monsters. But if he looks upon her before he has recrossed the Styx, he will lose her again forever. Before departing, Amore sings an aria with pizzicato accompaniment. It is divided into alternate recurring sections in 3/4 and 3/8 time; the same musical phrase always accompanying the same words. The music is very descriptive of the words that tell of the happiness awaiting Orpheus. After Amore’s departure, Orpheus in a recitative is in ecstasies at the prospect of regaining his adored one, and vows to endure any trial. The instrumentation is exceedingly sympathetic.
AcT II. The fearful underworld with its abysses and its stream of horrors of death ; from the distance float dark vengeful clouds, flashing with flame, that overspread the whole scene.
The orchestral prelude in E-major gives us in severe outlines a picture of the underworld, and seems to bring its terrible forms upon the scene before us. The lyre of Orpheus with second orchestra and harp is heard in the distance in a timid sort of preluding strain, and is at once, after three bars without cadence, silenced by the chorus of the Furies. ” What rash mortal dares to follow the steps of Hercules into the realms of Erebus ? ” cry the daughters of blood and destruction in stern and severe measures of desolate, lonely octaves, the strings accompanying in tremolo. Their strain is in an icy, gloomy C-minor, with-out a complete ending cadence. Then follows the menacing dance of the shapes of night, embodied in a powerful struggle of the forces of the orchestra, seemingly at emnity with each other, wind against strings, etc., again in C-minor and again without finality of cadence. The dominating power of the minor key of C is very finely displayed throughout. The first chorus comes in again now with wider scope of expression, greater determination, and gloomy decisiveness ; for, as we learn from their lamentations in Aeschylus, joyless indeed is the avenging function imposed upon the Eumenides. Gluck, like that poet, has done only just enough to make them palpable to us, not unduly obtruding them. The only forcible musical vision we obtain of the shapes of terror surrounding the scene is the howling of Cerberus for twenty-five bars, admirably rendered on the strings. This restraint on the part of the composer only renders the unseen phantoms the more terrible.
At first, the chorus of Furies comes on with its dreary, deadly, question, ” Chi mai dell’ Erebo,” icy, and terrible, showing us the dread beings as the dead-alive slaves of their terrible duty ; a point finely marked by the repetition of a single note in 3/4 time.
Then, after this bitterly hostile manifestation, the chorus repeats the question, and, as it proceeds, raises the curtain that conceals the objects and shapes of terror lurking behind it. The music of the action in dumb show that follows is the same as that which has already a little earlier informed us that we are in the underworld.
Arpeggios and strings pizzicato announce the lyrist. To a soft sounding of harps, which support a second small orchestra behind the stage, Orpheus implores the Furies to relent. He cries plaintively, ” Alas ! be friendly to me, Furies, Lary e ! ”
No ! no ! ” they cry. ” Pity my grief! ” ” No, no ! ”
The No ! of the Erinnyes, reinforced by the whole orchestra, falls with leaden weight into his song which closes on E-minor. Gluck has reserved the solemn trombones until now.
This ” No,” which has served as an opposition motiv to his prayer, has rarely been equalled in all the range of dramatic history.’ But the third movement and subject of the chorus commences in Eminor, indicating a milder and more melancholy mood. ” Misera giovane che vuoi che me diti. Altro non abita che lutta e gemito in queste orribili soglie funeste, che vuoi,” and then the chorus falls back into its desolating octaves that seem to be always indicating unspeakable depths and abysses, the notes constantly going lower down in the scale. At this point, beginning at the pause, the orchestra seems to be suddenly agitated, saying something independently for the first time, but only for a moment. The fourth choral movement and subject, after the second appeal by Orpheus, is in F-minor and seems to struggle out of the gloom, being lifted up (con maggior dolcezza) by the sense of an unfamiliar compassion. The rhythm of the chorus, fixed by a kind of law, is still inexorably maintained, and has the effect of rendering almost visible the unity of purpose in all the members of the chorus, the single purpose of Retributive Fate. After the third solo movement, this choral subject again occurs and is finely developed on the words, ” le Porte stridano su’ neri cardini,” this going on for ten bars to a higher octave, when the voices seem to focus themselves, the basses holding C as organ-point throughout. The character of the Furies, as of their music, is kept up strictly through every change, and the significance never fails. Simple as are the means employed, they could not possibly be more characteristic, significant, nor picturesque. Since Hell has no terrors for the lover whose hell is within, the Furies cannot stand out against the conqueror. They re-tire as he presses forward in search of his beloved.
The scene changes. Elysium appears, with its enchanting meadows garlanded with hedges and adorned with flowers, with rivers and brooks gleaming gloriously. There is delightful dancing of the happy spirits, a quiet minuet-like song-movement in three sections, in F-major, played by strings, bassoons and two flutes. The flutes accompany the violins very skilfully, now in diatonic, now in accidentals, a very excellent blending of string tone and flute tone. What is brought before us here in the music is a placid, tender, contented form of existence.
The oboe plays an important rôle in the introduction to the appearance of Orpheus. ” What a pure sky ! What a clear sun ! What lucid atmosphere ! How sweet the songs of the birds, the murmurs of the brooks and the gentle sighings of the breezes ! ” ” All breathes peace and happiness, but not for me ! ”
The music colours the words with pathetic fidelity. C-major is the key of this admirable construction. The harmonic foundation is given by thirds on the violins in 4/4 time, Andante. The double bass takes each first and third beat with a gentle pizzicato. This proceeds in a complete and lively manner, flowing in a succession of triplets on the first violin, while the horn breathes gently into the movement as though sounding from a distant forest. Then the oboe intervenes with notes as truly articulate as the speech of this natural scene, this landscape that comes to life in the orchestra. It is a true melody that the oboe sings ; that instrument alone has a clear and undeniable ,song given to it here, which, however, ends in a sort of arabesque, and thus modestly retires into the background and is silent in presence of the human voice about to be heard. All the tone-pictures evoked by the words are rendered by the second violin, flute and violoncello, the last in solo.
Now come in the voices, singing at one time an arioso, in the accompaniment of which we have occasional orchestral suggestions of the previous movement ; at another, recitative, in which the orchestra is all but silent. The Chorus of the Blessed, in F-major, again is heard, telling us in tranquil, easy flow, not without a touch of solemnity, of the inviolable delights that pertain to these fields of asphodel.
Nothing could possibly be simpler than the music here; this Act had to close with suggestions of peace and perfect tranquillity, and so every note speaks of rest and peace. Orpheus sees Eurydice : in a short valedictory blessing they place her hand in his, and without looking at her, he hurries her away. A ballo by the Happy Spirits follows.
AcT III. In a cavernous pass, Orpheus, with averted head, is leading Eurydice by the hand to the upper world. A prelude of a few bars in F-minor suggests the unhappy frame of mind that both are in as it brings them on the scene which they are not again to leave.
The conversation begins of course, as was necessary, in recitative. Some little touches in this beautiful music suggest the misery and perplexity that are to pervade all that follows. Orpheus does his best to get matters on a happier plane, for after the F-minor of the prelude he turns to C-major with a decided, ” Come, follow my footsteps,” and ends his first subject with a resolute F-major. But Eurydice’s first words, ” Is it thou ? Can it be ? Am I dreaming ? Is this madness ? ” takes us back into the gloom of the minor (B), and his answer, “Beloved wife, it is I, Orpheus, and I live,” which might have been so clearly comforting and strengthening, as coming from a dear and free spirit, starts on the painfully limiting chord of the diminished seventh and reaches the key of D-minor at the very words, “I am Orpheus,” thus suggesting a depressed and broken spirit; a striking instance of Gluck’s power of rendering the music eloquent when the words are reticent.
The long recitative, beautiful as it is, suffers for lack of action. Eurydice cannot understand his apparent coldness. ” Why will he keep his head turned away ? ”
She is piqued, for she is surely worth looking at ; and yet he cannot tell her. that there is death in his glance. At length he becomes masterful and cries : ” Come ! come and give thy consort peace ! ” She must and shall obey ! But the suspicion has seized her that she is no longer loved, and that has roused extreme wilfulness in her. She tears her hand out of his, and now answers him with equal decision : ” No, rather death here, than life with thee ! ” From these words develops a duo (marked Andante though Resoluto was intended). The ritornello shows us with what renewed courage Orpheus tries to accomplish his purpose. The matter sung by both of the characters is in keeping with what has been indicated as to their frame of mind ; it is full of spirit and vivacity, it seems to put movement into the feet that have been lagging so in the long recitative. But now comes back unavoidably the fundamental tone of the situation, which is lamentation and fruitless endeavour. The dialogue of the two unfortunates is admirably con-ducted and full of expression ; their agitation, their move-ment generally, are enhanced by the way in which voices and instruments help each other. But still, after all, there is no change in the situation. Dramatically speaking, there is no change, no climax, none of those changes of tempo which are the surest signs of heightening dramatic expression and exigency. It remains on the same level right through.
After this we have more recitative, then an aria of Eurydice, then recitative again, until the moment of the fatal glance and the death of her who has only just been brought out of the sleep of death ; for her persistence breaks down his determination, and, finally, at her entreaties, his fatal glance is turned upon her. Then comes her expiring cry : ” Ah mio tesoro ! Dei, che m’avenne ? Io manco ; Io mare ! Ahimè ! ”
His despairing recitative leads to the famous aria of mourning. We might have expected here an aria of sheer despair, but that would only have served to stamp deeper and deeper into our hearts the matter of the last recitative.
Gluck prefers to go back to the tenderness and softness which are the very foundation and base of the character of Orpheus. How judicious he was in this, his success shows. The aria, Che faro senza Eurydice, in C-major is sweet and most lovable; it became a favourite at once, and has never lost its first fame and charm.
Then in sheer desperation, he is about to take his own life when Amore appears and stays his hand, announcing that he has afforded proof sufficient of his fortitude and faith, and Eurydice is restored to life. Ballets, including a delightful gavotte, and a chorus, Trionfi amore, celebrate this happy termination of the quest of Orpheus.
” One last word about the Overture,” says Marx; ” we speak of it in our last word, just as Gluck composed it after the rest of the opera.
” What could Gluck find to say in it ? A true musical prelude or introduction to the opera was not called for. That was already given in the broad and significant music introductory of the first scene.
“Premonitory suggestion of the musical and dramatic contents of the opera, as given by Beethoven, Mozart, and Gluck himself in the Iphigenia in Aulis, were not needed. . The material of the opera was so simple and clear that there was nothing for such premonition or prefiguration. So the composer could only deal with something purely subjective coming from his own musical self. There was his opera, this work which he had desired to have and now had accomplished, the first opera he could call really his own, the realization of his idea; there it was fully equipped, ready to start on its career. This thought it was that inspired him more than any other. So the Overture starts with brilliancy and excited movement, trumpets, horns, drums, and basses striking on the very middle of each of the bars, and then breaking out into a clear and powerful Fortissimo. So it begins ; and such is its character throughout, really, only that now and then there is a sub-siding into quick chords, broad and quiet, or else, now and then, a descent into significant, low-pitched octaves, all the orchestral voices joining in; evidently a reminder and a reminiscence of the descent to Erebus.”