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Love and Loss:
the story of Orpheus & Eurydice in Art and Music

Peter Paul Rubens  Orpheus and Eurydice  (1636-38)

Report of the lecture given by Dr Lois Oliver
on September 23rd 2015

This, the first lecture of the autumn term was a cultural tour de force delivered with humour and rigour.  Our speaker Dr Lois Oliver skilfully wove together for us three strands, the convoluted story of Orpheus, the works of four composers inspired by the myth and the paintings of artists who have responded to it over the centuries.

In Greek mythology the music Orpheus made on his lyre was so beautiful that when he played wild beasts were soothed, trees danced and rivers stood still.

Jacob Savery  Orpheus charming the animals  (16th century)

Orpheus marries the nymph Eurydice.  When the beekeeper Aristaeus tries to violate her she flees, is bitten by a snake and dies.  Orpheus with his lyre descends to Hades to search for her and is granted the chance by Pluto to regain her if he can refrain from looking at her until he has led her back to sunlight.  He cannot resist, she vanishes forever and he is left to his inconsolable grief.  Different versions of the myth concoct a variety of dreadful endings for him but a recurring theme in these is that of his severed head continuing to sing as it is thrown into the river Hebus and floats down to the sea.

John William Waterhouse
Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus   (1900)

We enjoyed excerpts from Monteverdi’s 1607 Orfeo, Gluck’s 1762 Orfoe ed Eurydice, Offenbach’s 1858 Orpheus in the Underworld and finally Menotti’s 1990 The Death of Orpheus.  These were played against a backdrop of the works of artists such as Savery, dell’ Abbate, Poussin, Rubens, Poynter, Watts, Bronzino, Moreau, Feuerbach, Scheffer, Boucher, Levy, Waterhouse and Redon.  Lois showed how over the centuries artists have focused on depicting different aspects of the myth.  Savery painted an exotic range of animals charmed by Orpheus, others set the myth in a rural idyll or a Christian version of the hell that is the underworld.  Watts for example was fascinated by love and death and painted several pictures on the theme of the Orpheus story.

Lois explained how opera audiences such as those at the first performance of Monteverdi’s work for the Duke of Mantua would have been familiar with the story of Orpheus and captivated by its tragedy.  She told how Gluck’s opera broke with every courtly convention governing the operatic form of the time, enlarging the orchestra, simplifying the storyline and increasing the dramatic impetus.  She then entertained us with insights into Offenbach’s irreverent parody.  His is a world where the central characters live in marital discord, nymphs, shepherds, gods and goddess romp and the revels reach their climax in the Can Can.

Whilst Monteverdi, Gluck and Offenbach all opted for happy endings, Menotti focused on the violence in the story.  The lecture ended with a sublime extract from his work which conveys the sadness of the severed head which continues to sing.

Vivien King

Our erudite and entertaining lecturer, Dr Lois Oliver