“Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” evokes the lead-up to Orpheus’ fateful turn to glance at Eurydice, the awestruck, awful regret at that moment and its terrible aftermath.
“Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” beginnt kurz vor den fatalen Rückblick Orpheus zur Eurydike, welches stilles Entsetzen und bewegte Reue auslöst, sowie den endgültigen Schicksalsfall.
Above you can read my description of the piece “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” on my entry page for the Carl Orff Competition (you can also listen to my piece and rate it). When I submitted my entry and filled out the on-line forms, the text box provided for the composers to describe their piece was so small, I assumed there would be, like there usually is in these things, a strict, low word limit. Knowing I wanted to describe my piece in both English and German and worrying about how little text space I might be allowed, I wound up writing descriptions that are nearly haikus.
Orpheus’ fateful turn to glance at Eurydice
the awestruck, awful regret at that moment
its terrible aftermath
Der fatale Rückblick Orpheus zur Eurydike
welches stilles Entsetzen und bewegte Reue auslöst
sowie den endgültigen Schicksalsfall.
Well maybe not great poetry; I probably do a better job with my musical composition. But I did work hard to find just the right words in the right formulations. Yet the German and English descriptions are not really literal translations of each other, but the kind of freer reflections one finds when poetry is carefully translated, where the right dictionary definition may be better substituted by words or phrases with the right cultural and emotional connotations.
Which brings us to the differences between Rilke’s original German text and the English translation (both of which I reprint here, along with the score and recording of my interpretation). I set the original German text because it is the original Rilke, but also because it is superior to the English translation (a Spanish translation was also made available). There are many reasons why I think that, but I’ll share one example with just one word. In the English translation, Eurydice is said to no longer be Orpheus’ “property”. The word used in the original German is “Eigentum”. That is a direct, literally true translation. Eigentum means property. But Eigentum in German contains the word “Eigen”, which means “what is one’s own”. So “Eigentum” literally means “that which is one’s own”. Which is what “property” means too, but not in the way that includes a spoken reference to one’s sense of self. Also, the word “Eigentum” is full of lovely long held vowel sounds and soft consonants, whereas “property” boasts the opposite in all, only short, curt vowels and explosive consonants. In the English version I can only feel the ugly, mercantile, possessive aspects to describing Eurydice as belonging to Orpheus. In the original German I can also feel the loving, soulful connection.
The Carl Orff Competition provided the text to be set to music. The text is an excerpt from a much longer poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. The excerpt starts at the moment right after Orpheus has turned around to glance at Eurydice and ends right before the poem describes her descent back into the Underworld, which Orpheus’ backward glance caused.
This presented me as a composer with two major conundrums. For one, can I dramatically incorporate the run up to Orpheus’ glance and Eurydice being pulled back away forever, even when there is no text to describe it? I decided I could at least suggest these moments in an instrumental introduction and epilog.
And two, the moment described in most of the text excerpt is a frozen moment, what Orpheus sees in that one forbidden glance. A moment that is filled with the instantaneous realization that he has now already lost Eurydice forever. A moment of beauty and horror that seems frozen in time, the instance something snaps and is broken forever, a last gasp of held breath before the inevitable doom. A moment to be remembered and regretted forever. How to set that fateful pause, that cracked silence to music? Especially when absolute silence and the audience’s imagination may actually be most effective? There are several moments in the piece where I try different ways to halt the music and hint at that quiet calamity. Listen to / follow the score to judge for yourself how well I succeeded (my Aunt Azzie thought I did 😉 ).
I almost struggled harder trying to describe that moment in concise, effective words for my competition description. The first phrase that came to my mind was, in German, “stilles Entsetzen”. The English translation for that, via google German to English is “silent horror”. Okay, not untrue literally, but not at all encompassing the full emotional and poetic resonance I get from “stilles Entsetzten”. I also chose to use the phrase “bewegte Reue” in the German description of my piece along with “stilles Entsetzen”. Google translates that as “moving regret”, which is not quite right. “Moved regret” or “emotionally touched regret” comes closer in meaning even if both sound ridiculous (Twitter’s translation program proffered “agitated regret”, which is much better). But together “stilles Entsetzen” and “bewegte Reue” informed my decision to coin the phrase “awestruck, awful regret” in the English description. I liked the double use of awe, thought there was a certain rhythm and poetry there, as well as relished the idea that in Shakespeare’s time, “awful” more often actually meant “awestruck”, and not “horrible” as it does now.
By the way, back to the actual music, if “stilles Entsezten” encompasses the paused musical moments, “bewegte Reue” might well describe the baritone’s melodies. But why is it that I here still spend more time and go into more details describing how I chose a handful of words for my competition entry description than I do describing my musical compositional choices? Maybe because the former is the thing about the latter, which is the music itself, and about which I am more cautious “explaining”, since I feel the music should really first and foremost stand on its own. Which is why I waited until the tail end of the public evaluation phase of the Carl Orff Competition to even post any piece like this one, with any details about my musical thought process. I figure anybody who reads this now most likely has already listened to my composition. (Ah, the conundrum of maintaining a blog called “Notes from a Composer” while also maintaining misgivings about writing about ones art. Have I told you I’m a Gemini?)
This reticence may also be the main reason why I kept my entry descriptions for my competition page so short. I made no attempt to see how long I actually could go before I reached a cut off point. And naturally, as it of course turns out looking at many other entries, there was much more space for many many more words; if I had chosen to use them.
The public evaluation phase of the Carl Orff Competition continues through April 30, midnight Eastern European time. Please rate my and as many other compositions as possible. The more you rate, the fairer the competition and the greater your input will be weighed. My earlier blog posts on the competition and my piece are here and here.