The Story of Orpheus

Greetings darling readers! I do believe it’s “Music Monday” 🙂

His mother was Calliope, the muse of epic poetry and inspiration for Homer’s The Iliad. His father was Apollo, the god of all Greek gods. The product of that impressive gene pool turned out to be a gifted musician who sang and played his lyre so with such magical beauty and tenderness that he tamed wild beasts, charmed evil forces, conciliated disputes, and spread happiness and goodwill with his heavenly music. He was Orpheus, the embodiment of music in Greek mythology.

Orpheus by Franz von Stuck, 1891:

A kind and sensitive troubador, Orpheus travelled around with his lyre performing for the world. In the forest, on the beach, along mountain trails, everywhere he went, Orpheus enchanted, soothed, and delighted all living things. Trees swayed gently toward him, wild animals eased their aggression, humans gathered and sat to listen to his beautiful notes and sweet singing voice. So pleasing was his music that he was invited to join the journey of Jason and the Argonauts, during which he protected the ship’s crew from the lure of the Sirens.

When he returned to Greece, Orpheus met and fell in love with a lovely nymph, Eurydice. They married, but were doomed right away. As Eurydice danced joyously at their wedding celebration, she accidentally stepped into a nest of poisonous snakes. She was bitten on the foot and died. Married and widowed on the same day, Orpheus would not let her go. Determined to get her back, he crossed the river Styx and bravely ventured down into the underworld, to Hades, hoping to rescue Eurydice.

With his lyre in tow, Orpheus played his music and met with Pluto and Persephone, the King and Queen of Hades. He pleaded and played, working his musical charms, trying to appeal to the hard-hearted gods of the underworld. He told them he would do absolutely anything they asked to be reunited with his love.

I like this painting a lot. The artist is Jules Machard, who I had never heard of until I researched this post. We see Orpheus down in the murky darkness of the underworld, holding his lyre, pleading for his wife, asking permission to bring her back. Orpheus in Hades, 1865:

And it worked. Pluto and Persephone agreed, but under one condition: that Orpheus NOT look at Eurydice – not one glance – until they had fully reached the land of the living. Sounds like an easy deal, right?

In this gorgeous painting by Camille Corot, we see Orpheus and Eurydice making their way back as he leads her along the path through the forest. He is holding her hand in his right, and his lyre in his left. Seeing this scene really makes you root for the couple:

But then, Orpheus made a terrible, tragic mistake. So overjoyed and excited to have rescued his wife, he turned back, just for a moment, to look at her beautiful face. It was too soon. Carelessly, Orpheus broke the one condition of the agreement and Eurydice, in an instant, went poof! Disintegrated. Sucked back into underworld. Trapped in Hades, this time for eternity.

Orpheus blew it big time. He was inconsolable. Heartbroken. Consumed with sorrow. He had lost Eurydice not once, but twice. Life held no meaning for him anymore and he fell into a deep, painful depression.

This is Orpheus Laments from French Symbolist painter Alexandre Seon:

For three years, Orpheus hung out in the region of Thrace where he continued to play his music and serenade the animals, although his heart was still heavy and broken from the loss of his beloved Eurydice. His sadness didn’t stop the women of Thrace from pursuing the handsome musician. But Orpheus was not interested. He had vowed to only love Eurydice. So he spurned all the other women, and this continual rejection made them very, very angry. There would be hell to pay. The women plotted their revenge.

First they started throwing sticks and stones. Orpheus tried to ignore the hurling objects and kept on playing his lyre in the forest. Then the women kicked it up a notch and basically beat the shit out of him.

The brutal attack against Orpheus is depicted in this painting by Emile Levy. I’ve got to say those are some pretty pissed off broads! They are ruthless. From 1866, this is Levy’s The Death of Orpheus. Check out that one on the left holding his arm. She wants to whip his ass so bad she can taste it. Damn girl! We all get blown off sometimes. Deal with it!

The same scene in an engraving by Albrecht Durer. Again, we see the lyre lying on the ground before him:

The angry mob of Thracian women tore Orpheus from limb to limb, ripping his head off in the process which they  then callously threw into the river along with his lyre. This is a horrible story isn’t it?!! Poor guy.

Orpheus’ decapitated head, floating on his lyre down the river, was discovered later by two woodland nymphs. Apparently, Orpheus was still singing beautifully! Here’s the scene depicted by John Williams Waterhouse in Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus from 1900:

Such a sad story 😥 But since this is a Music Monday post, we have to lift the spirits somewhat and honor the legacy of this tragic mythological figure. Remember that through all of Orpheus’ personal trials, mistakes, and harrowing experiences, his beautiful music endured – like beautiful music always does.

It’s very fitting that Orpheus is the namesake of one of the finest orchestral groups around. This is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performing Mozart’s Serenade in E Flat, K. 375. A very pretty, lilting piece:

11 thoughts on “The Story of Orpheus

  1. Fred says:

    Great post! There are literally hundreds of musical works, theatrical works, poems, films, etc. based on the Orpheus story. Here is one of my favorite Orpheus-inspired pieces of music:

    • artmodel says:

      Fred, that was wonderful!!! Wow. Thanks so much for sharing that! I could listen to Heifetz anytime. But I wasn’t familiar with the Gluck piece. I’ve learned some new music, thanks to you 🙂

      Claudia

  2. Jennifer says:

    Well – Fred stole the words I was going to open with! Fantastic stuff – I knew the part of the story where Orpheus looks back at Eurydice and loses her, but didn’t’ know that his story continues to such a tragic end (or maybe the women of Thrace did him a favour and put him out of him misery!). You’ve done a brilliant job of telling the story through the various paintings. I’ve seen the Waterhouse before, but not the others, though I’m sure that the ferocious women of Thrace have provided some titillating subject matter over the years! Well, that’s my art history and Greek Myth knowledge improved in one fell swoop …

    • artmodel says:

      Jennifer,

      Yes, the loss of Eurydice was painful enough, then Orpheus gets the crap beaten out of him! Greek mythology does have more than its share of violence. And the Thracian women certainly didn’t take rejection well! 😆

      The Waterhouse painting is a classic. I’ve always loved that one. But there are so many Orpheus-themed artworks. It was difficult to make selections for this post. Glad you liked it, and thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

  3. Elda says:

    ciao claudia, just wanted to let you know that you’ve a new follower. i love your blog and i even gave you an award. go check to my blog if you want, as there’s a little procedure to follow. love, elda xxx

    • artmodel says:

      Elda,

      Thank you, and welcome!! I’m so happy to have a new Museworthy follower. You have a lovely blog yourself. The award was very kind of you. I’m honored!

      Claudia

  4. Great post and paintings!

    My favorite modern day piece inspired by the Orpheus saga is ‘Black Orpheus directed by Marcel Camus.

    I saw it at the Bleecker Street Cinema in the early sixties and, for at least a week after I walked over to the park, on the East River by the Brooklyn Bridge, every morning with my alto recorder and piped up the sun. 🙂

  5. Claudia: “Is this the film you’re referring to? http://www.criterion.com/films/344-black-orpheus

    Yep, that’s the one!

    “Sounds like the good old days in NY!” Too right! Back then I truly believe you could find anything you could think of in NYC. Hey Claudia, if you happen to be down around Wall Street some time could ya look off Maiden Lane and see if there is a tiny little cul de sac street there that still has wooden sidewalks? There really was in the early sixties! 🙂

  6. Christine says:

    I just discovered your site, and am thrilled. It seems far too many people fear going to the source of this place you’ve created. Thank you.

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