The Music of Orpheus

music of orpheus

The early Greeks had little idea of the One God of the Hebrews, and lived too early in history to know of the Trinitarian God of the Christians. But they shared with Judaism and Christianity the idea that the things of the world and the actions of men had meaning. This belief was expressed in their myths and in their music. Even though we live at a great historical distance from the ancients, we still retain the sense, not always conscious, that stories and songs tell us something important about reality.

We have talked about how stories address the most painful and tragic aspects of human life (see “Light into Darkness: How Literature Puts Evil in its Place,” The Classical Teacher, Late Summer 2016). But music, too, addresses the deep things in life, and it does so in ways similar to story and myth. This can be seen in the role music plays in stories themselves.

There is a long tradition in story and song of the power of music to confront and control the things that threaten the peace of the world. In George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, the miner boy, Curdie, scares the goblins away by singing a chant, which to the human ear is playful and teasing, but which strikes fear into the hearts of the goblins. His songs have the literal effect of a goblin repellant.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam have left the Shire and are traveling through the Old Forest, and they stop by a stream to rest. After both have fallen asleep, Sam awakes to find Frodo partly swallowed by Old Man Willow, an ancient tree with a malignant spirit growing on the banks of the stream. Sam cries out desperately for help, hoping against hope that someone will hear him. Suddenly, along comes jolly Tom Bombadil, the master of the Old Forest. He sings into the tree in much the same way that Curdie sang to the goblins. The tree immediately relents, and lets Frodo go.

Bombadil is the most poetic—and musical—being in Middle Earth. He is also, not incoincidentally, the creature who is the most impervious to evil. He is the only character in the story who is immune to the evil influence of the Ring of Power.

Bombadil is portrayed as a sort of pre-fallen Adamic figure, who speaks in songs and rhymes. As a purely poetic creature, evil does not seem to affect him.
Singing has traditionally been seen to have incantational powers. In fact, the very word “incantation” is Latin for “singing into.” Friedrich Nietzche once pointed out that when the Greek sibyls rendered their prophecies, they did so in song. The Greeks didn’t believe that the Oracles merely predicted the future, but that they actually helped to determine it.

To the Greeks, music had the power to bind Fate.

This incantatory power of music is seen even in contemporary literature. In Larry McMurtry’s Dead Man’s Walk (the third book in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove series), Gus and Woodrow are among the only survivors of a cruel game which the head of a Mexican prison uses to choose who will be selected for release. As the dead bodies of their less fortunate fellow soldiers are loaded onto a cart, a woman, covered completely in black, walks onto a second-story veranda and begins to sing. Everyone—even the perfunctory Mexican soldiers carrying the bodies—stops, in awe of what they are hearing. The song is a death song and its haunting beauty mesmerizes everyone within hearing. She is Lady Lucinda Carey, a Scottish noblewoman and a leper, whose relatives have purchased her release. She was trained to sing by Verdi himself.

She hires Gus and Woodrow as bodyguards to take her and her servants through Comanche territory to El Paso. On the third morning of their journey, they see a Comanche war party—the same one Gus and Woodrow had fought off earlier in the story with a lot more men and guns on their side than they have now.

Facing imminent death, Lady Carey calmly tells Gus and Woodrow to mount their horses. She herself mounts a black gelding, and, wearing only her hat, her black boots, and a veil on her face, she reveals her black, eroded flesh. But she is beautiful even in her ugliness. “I will be leading us through these Comanches gentlemen,” she informs them. With her son’s pet boa constrictor draped around her shoulders, she warns Gus and Woodrow, like Odysseus to his sailors, to stop their ears. She leads them straight toward the Comanches, her leprous arms extended wide, singing an aria from Verdi’s Nabucco. As she approaches the Indian warriors, she opens her throat and sings “with the full power of her lungs,” drowning out the war songs of the Comanches.

Astonished at the beauty and power of her song, the Comanche warriors, notoriously cruel and fearless in battle, are stricken with terror. The sound of the song and the sight of the “Death Woman” causes even the greatest of the Comanche warriors to drop the arrows in his hand and flee.

In many ways the scene is strange, but Lady Carey has sung a song which to the good is perceived as piercingly beautiful, but which the Comanches, in their malice, hear as the declaration of their own doom.

Beauty has conquered evil; music has put death to flight.

This power inherent in music is most famously related in the legend of Orpheus, the poet and prophet of Greek legend, whose music was reputed to have been so powerful that it could charm even the stones. When, one day, this “father of songs” came upon the dead body of his beloved wife Euridice, killed by the bite of a viper, he sang a song so sad that the gods themselves are said to have wept. At their suggestion, says the legend, Orpheus traveled to the Underworld, where the heart of Hades himself, the King of Hell, was so softened by his song that he allowed Orpheus to take his beloved Euridice back to the world of the living.

Hell itself was opened through the power of a song.

This incantatory power of music is evident not only in how music operates as an element in a story, but in the very structure of music itself. Stories not only contain songs, but songs contain stories.

Evil and death and suffering are an introduction of chaos into an otherwise morally ordered world. They put the world, so to speak, out of joint. Like stories, music puts these events into a higher context—it helps us to see that the events that most trouble us because of their apparent randomness are a subordinate part of some more fundamental and transcendent order.

Like a story, every song involves a conflict that is resolved in some higher resolution. The original unity is threatened by something that introduces disorder. Melodic tension is heightened until at some point it is broken in a climax and resolved in a restitution of the original order. In a good song—as in a good story—the dissonance doesn’t merely just go away, but is subsumed under some higher unity we did not see before.

In his book Howards End, E. M. Forster describes a scene in which a young woman, Helen, and her family attend a concert to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Forster describes how Helen sees it in terms of a battle between the forces of meaning (Beethoven, its author) and the forces of metaphysical disorder (“the goblins”):

The music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was not that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world … Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness!

In her vision of the meaning of Beethoven’s great symphony, Helen perceives the goblins announcing that beauty and purpose, honor and meaning, are lies—that there is no moral order in the world, no real unity. But then something happens:

For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in major key instead of in minor, and then—he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demi-gods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars. And the goblins—they had not really been there at all! They were only the phantoms of impulse and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them?

Beethoven confronts a question that all of us must confront—Which is better: for evil never to have existed? Or that it exist and be defeated? Beethoven chooses the second option:

The goblins really had been there. They might return—and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall.

Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and death, and, amid the vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Beethoven has cast a vision in music of the order of the universe and what happens when it is threatened by darkness. The very structure of his music—in fact, all music—reflects reality. Like Beethoven, the Author of the Music of the World allows the entrance of evil into His creation. But He doesn’t just allow it, He engineers its defeat by entering His own symphony and dispelling it Himself.

Maybe this was what Dostoevsky was getting at when he said, “Beauty will save the world.”

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