I’ve had the year from “Hades.” No, not personally, don’t worry! Rather in a set of repertoire coincidences that I’m now finding hard to ignore. The year began with the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra performing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Of course, in the last movement, the composer descends into the depths of hell where he meets his day of judgment with witches, the famous “dies irae” chant, and not one but TWO tubas (not to mention the FOUR bassoons).
Soon after that, the Richmond Symphony Chorus began preparing Mendelssohn’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht (with spirits, witches, and howling owls) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (which combines a Latin hymn of light with the final scene from Goethe’s Faust – the ultimate in devil stories).
In between, I lectured on Monteverdi’s Orfeo at American University, and was reminded that the connection between music and Hades has been around for hundreds of years. Yes – one of the first operas ever written (in 1607) centers around Orfeo’s failed trip to bring his beloved back from the underworld. It is Orfeo’s musical prowess that convinces (or cajoles) Pluto to allow him to attempt his rescue of Eurydice. Unfortunately, it’s Orfeo’s own human passion that causes him to fail in the end.
With all of these devil-related projects, I started to wonder if the universe was trying to tell me something sinister. Or, perhaps I was just missing the opportunity to make conductor/Satan associations and jokes about how hellish orchestra auditions are.
But with this weekend’s fully staged performance of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale with the Richmond Symphony and VCUTheatre, I’m choosing to take away a different message. In Stravinsky’s miniature theatre piece, Joseph the Soldier sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for promise of “riches untold.” His soul is represented by: his violin. It is music that makes him human – music that makes him whole.
Written in the economic disarray after World War I, A Soldier’s Tale seems to offer the message that no matter how hard things get – emotionally or financially – we must strive to make music survive. It is music that allowed Berlioz to voice his angst over unrequited love. It is music that gave Orfeo the power to confront the rulers of the underworld. It is music that Joseph the Soldier seems to miss most, despite the unlimited gold coins in his pocket.
So, if you’ve had a “heck” of a year, come to the symphony. The music will do you good.
PS – Years ago (2003?) I performed this on my DMA recital. Here is a .pdf download of the program notes.