Our concert is constructed around Orpheus, not as a subject so much as a point of departure. Threaded through the program are the five sections of Hans-Werner Henze's Orpheus Behind the Wire.
The text by Edward Bond (one of England's leading contemporary dramatists) reworks the myth of Orpheus: the archetypal visionary singer with lyre whose singing tamed animals and uprooted trees; who visited the underworld to reclaim his beloved Eurydice - killed by a serpent's bite - only to lose her again when, ignoring Hades' warning, he turns to see if she is following him; and who is eventually torn to pieces by maenads (the wild women of his native Thrace.) Bond's text redeploys this story to create a powerful set of poems, which flicker ambiguously between the ancient myth and images drawn from the Holocaust of WWII.
The myth itself, centered on a singer, has entranced many composers and poets, including Monteverdi (composer of the first great opera, Orfeo, published in 1609) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), author of the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus.
Bernd Franke's Rilke Madrigals (2011) draw on the Elegies with words sung, spoken and whispered, often in aleatoric combination, though just as often in precisely notated passages as well, and to my ear create a perfect sound image for Rilke's words, not by 'interpreting' them, so much as providing them with a voice.
The same quality distinguishes the six Rilke chansons (originally written in French) composed by Hindemith while he was in Switzerland just before the outbreak of WWII.
Byrd's Orpheus song (published in 1611) holds the myth at a safe distance to display some very neat madrigalian word-painting inspired by 'strange chromatic notes...of sourest sharps and uncouth flats'.
Finally, Holmboe's two settings of Border Ballads (from the border area between England and Scotland) know nothing of Orpheus perhaps, and yet they reflect a comparable world of myth in which everyday life and the magic world coexist - creatures that speak, trees that walk, fairies and witches, little people of amazing strength and sexual allure, and ghosts who return from the grave.