Today an excerpt from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, celebrating the Greek musician and poet who could charm the beasts and bring forth dance instead of savagery. The story of his journey into the Underworld to retrieve his beloved Euridice inspired the very first operas, and continues to intrigue composers. A list on Wikipedia of “Orphean Operas” lists 70 some, including Monteverdi’s 1615 La favola d’Orfeo, the first operatic masterpiece, and still performed, to Philip Glass and Ricky Ian Gordon’s more recent ones.
A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.
Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,
but from simply listening. Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts. And where there had been
at most a makeshift hut to receive the music,
a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind-
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.
(To me, this echoes ideas I got from Les Murray’s lines of a few days back, music’s paradoxical ability to help us find some quiet in ourselves.)
Orpheus was also a guiding spirit of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, and a founding work of neo-classical ballet and the company. (It was on the very first program and the company’s logo was for many years referred to stylized lyre, at left, created by Isamu Noguchi who designed the production.)