Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Don’t look back!

Music has such evocative power. On Tuesday, both sadness and joy were present in spades during the Proms performance in the Albert Hall of Monteverdi’s Orfeo.  Now regarded as one of the earliest operas, Orfeo tells the story of the marriage of Orpheus and his subsequent quest. Throughout it, you’re aware of Orpheus as the hero whose singing had such beauty, it was said, that it had the power to attract the wildest of beasts and even to move inanimate things.

Orpheus’ marriage:

GondolaFor all his other adventures, the high point of Orpheus’  life was his marriage to Eurydice. So ecstatically happy did she make him that he was cast into the uttermost depths of grief when, running away from a would-be lover, she was bitten by a snake and died from the poison. After her death, Orpheus became completely unable to imagine living without her. In his bereavement, he determined to do what had never previously been done by any living mortal: try and find a way into the darkness of the Underworld, there to plead either to be given  back his wife or, if his pleas failed,  to be allowed to stay there with her.

Orpheus’ quest:

Orpheus set off on his mission and found his way to the river Lethe, the border between the lands of the living and dead. There with his lyre and his singing, he managed to lull to sleep the boatman, Charon, who rows the souls of the dead across the river. After penetrating Hades, the world of the dead, Orpheus came into the presence of Pluto, its king, and his wife Persephone.  With all his power, he began to plead to be allowed to take Eurydice back to the land of the living. Eventually, he succeeded. Pluto granted she might go with him on the condition that, on the way, he must not once look back at her until she had come into the full light of the sun.

Well, we all know what happened – or at least, we should for it was the most heart-rendingly human thing. Just as he was about to emerge from the gloom of the Underworld, something made Orpheus turn. Was it a sudden noise? A moment of self-doubt? Was his wife really behind him? Whatever made him do it, he turned and as he did so saw the form of his beloved fade and dissolve into the shades of the Underworld.

Orpheus’ end:

Orpheus’ end was not good. According to the usual version  – Monteverdi chose another in which Orpheus was taken up to the heavens by the god Apollo – Orpheus was torn apart by the Maenads, a group of women who became enraged by the particularity of his grief for Eurydice and his inability to love any other woman. After killing him, the story goes, they threw Orpheus’ head and his lyre into the sea where, singing the while, his head was carried all the way to the island of Lesbos.

What next?

Through the archWell, it’s not a story for the very young. Yet I do think it’s a story for everyone else. I know I was incredibly moved by it when I first came across it as a young teenager. Its impact came strongly back to my mind on Tuesday as, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the story was brilliantly brought to life with dance, expressive acting, singing and playing by the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and a fabulous cast of young singers. At some point during the performance, I became conscious that this Orpheus story was one I want to tell. Monteverdi’s work balances grief for Orfeo with some element of criticism of him for his excesses of love and sorrow. Yet even with that criticism, or perhaps enlarged by it, the story has such evocative strength. For instance, that moment when Orpheus looks back was so brilliantly accomplished on Tuesday, I found myself audibly gasping. It’s a moment that tells us so much about people. Besides, it’s very good to have a story about the power of music, something everyone can relate to, whatever their age or taste or culture.

The severed head:

An interesting addendum to the Orpheus story (well, interesting for me being Welsh) arose when I was looking it up in various sources following Tuesday’s performance. In his book, The Greek Myths, Robert Graves draws a comparison between Orpheus’ head, singing on its sea journey to Lesbos, and the head of the Welsh giant of the Mabinogion, Bendigeidfran, which continued to produce entertaining talk  through all the years it took its bearers to bring it back from Ireland to be buried in London.

Know any more?

Such links are one of the great fascinations of story. Know of any more singing or talking heads? Please send them along if you do.

 P.S. Monteverdi was living in Mantua in Italy when he composed Orfeo in 1607. Only a few years later, he moved to Venice. Since I’ve never been to Mantua, my photos this week are from Venice.

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “Storytelling Starters ~ Don’t look back!”

  1. Jean Says:

    Again thanks again Mary for an interesting an inspiring blog. Orpheus is a timeless, beautiful and sad story and how i loved Greek legends when i was a child – i read them over and over and still occasionally tell some.
    Heads – there is a Scottish folk tale ‘ the Well at World’s End ‘ which has 3 severed heads at the bottom of the well and they are able to grant riches and good fortune to whoever is kind to them but of course, horrors and ill fortune to whoever is rude and unkind.
    And then Susan Price wrote a collection of tales told by a storyteller’s severed head in ‘Head and Tales’ – a while since i read that, but seem to remember enjoying them.
    I’ll keep thinking – talk soon X

Leave a Reply