Singing to Orpheus

Alexandre Séon: The Lyre of Orpheus (1898)
Art about art makes me uneasy.  Maybe that’s because I cling naïvely to the idea that a work of art should deliver me to a world beyond the confines of the picture frame, the covers of a book or the walls of an opera house. There’s also the suspicion that the poet who versifies about his pen or the vagaries of villanelles has shut himself off from ‘flesh and blood’ experience, forsaking ‘real life’ for the cosier corners of his own skull – or simply lacks the imaginative energy to look further for his material than what comes immediately to hand.  Surely, too, any artist who draws attention to the nuts and bolts of what they do risks appearing, at best, a careless craftsman, at worst, a traitor to his magic circle.
Such is the vein of thinking, from which sprang my misgivings, when commissioned to compose a song cycle for a conference investigating ‘Literary Britten’.  To write songs that had something to do with another composer of songs risked being hamstrung by self-consciousness: I feared producing something asphyxiatingly self-referential, leavened only by the occasional forlorn musical in-joke.  Of course, I accepted the commission enthusiastically before retreating to consider my tactics.
Luckily, one of the first texts I stumbled on while leafing through poets set by Britten, was W. H. Auden’s Orpheus, a tender snapshot of a musician (probably Britten) at his instrument.  It is a quizzical contemplation of the musician, innocent and vulnerable to a hostile world, which conveys both the poet’s compassionate concern and a note of bemusement that suggests the potential for misunderstanding between the worlds of words and music.  It also hints at the way in which the musician lends himself to being mythologised, in the title’s invocation of the figure whose music charmed the underworld and would, but for the momentary lack of faith that made him look back at Euridice, have undone death, itself.
Whatever prejudices I had formed about self-reflexive art, I was immediately attracted to the idea of dramatising the relationship between singer and pianist as a way of exploring the fraught and fruitful intersection of words and music.  Having found a conceit I liked, I set about collating texts by other poets that developed it from different perspectives, adding poems by Owen, Keats, Blake, Hardy and Tennyson.  I wanted to use poets of particular importance to Britten and began to think of the cycle as affording them an opportunity to ‘answer back’, allowing them to engage in a posthumous dialogue with the composer who had, in the first instance been inspired by them.  This led to the formation of an additional conceit that found resonance in the Orpheus legend: this was the notion of engineering a dialogue between the living artist and the dead.  The Keats text (‘How many bards gild the lapses of time’) is crucial in making this explicit, delighting as it does in the transfiguration wrought upon the world by the words of those bards who have described it.  
By the time I was ready to start writing notes, the sensual and intellectual enjoyment of the poems and my involvement with the cycle’s theatrical and metaphysical underpinning had entirely overturned my knee-jerk doubts about the subject matter.  To coax a change in my outlook, debunking a few flawed opinions in the process, is a major part of the appeal that composition holds for me.  Needless to say, the experience can be bruising as well as bracing.  It often amounts to the discovery that one’s next ‘big idea’ is not as bright as it first appeared, but fairly often, too, one learns that one can tap a seam, that surveyed distantly, looks unpromising.  This is one virtue of the conditional commission (as opposed to carte blanche).  An artist may not always be the perfect judge of how best to use the blank canvass; another voice may provoke fresh insight and stimulate new lines of enquiry that might otherwise remain obscure.
The need to be surprised, contradicted, or removed from one’s own point of view is a good reason for the musician to turn to words at all.  Herman Melville, in his poem, Art, which nearly became part of the cycle, but didn’t quite fit, writes, “But form to lend, pulsed life create,/What unlike things must meet and mate”.  As I worked on the cycle, one emerging strand saw words and music entangled in a turbulent love affair, swinging between infatuation and contempt – a marriage of fundamentally very different entities, each seeking to comprehend, even to become, the other, but inevitably sometimes falling short.  Singer and pianist are symbolic protagonists in a dynamic relationship that, following Auden’s aloof, but admiring observations, moves from the intoxicated outpouring of the setting of Wilfred Owen’s Song of Songs and a tranquil union in that of Keats’s Sonnet to the disgusted satire of Willliam Blake’s Dr Clash and the melancholy alienation of Thomas Hardy’s Music in a snowy street, before ending with Tennyson’s rapt vision of an eventual consummation, Far-far-away
In terms of the myth of Orpheus, the fourth song, Dr Clash, might, with a pinch of poetic license, be regarded as the descent of the hero to hell; the important difference here is that it is the musician’s soul, itself, that has degenerated to a point of banality and crude dissonance out of which the subsequent songs attempt to climb.  At this and other points in the cycle, the separation of singer and pianist becomes blurred: here, it is as if Orpheus is singing to himself, berating his own degraded state.  Although it wasn’t something of which I was fully aware while writing the piece, it is discernible that the mythical narrative of love, tragic reversal and thwarted redemption is partly mirrored by the progression of the cycle, although my ending finds a more optimistic tone than the original story.  I am not the first to attempt to rewrite Orpheus’s dismemberment by maenads, deaf to his musical charms.  
Orpheus’s tragedy results from an instant of doubt – of thinking rather than doing.  As such, perhaps the myth, itself, may be interpreted as counsel against allowing discursive thought to intrude too far upon the artist’s intuitive rhapsodies.    If so, the moral is so deeply ingrained that, despite discovering its attractions, the idea of art about art still makes me uneasy.  Nevertheless, the composition of Six Songs to Orpheus has shown me that it is possible – and maybe necessary – to examine more closely how what might be dismissed as navel-gazing can, in fact, unearth ideas of wider resonance.  I also have a clearer understanding of the roots of my uneasiness, as well as the expressive potential of probing it.  To place the artist or the act of creation at the centre of the work of art argues for art’s centrality to the whole of human endeavour.  This is a bold – possibly hubristic – statement to make when artists are not infrequently objects of ridicule, bafflement, annoyance, pity, or disregarded altogether.  Despite the frenzied violence of the maenad hordes, and the equally corrosive apathy of others, Orpheus proves to be an archetype too enduring to die: his disembodied head keeps singing.
© Tim Watts 2011