According to family legend, my father (or maybe it was his uncle Jim … you know how vague family legends can be) could travel to a new city, meet strangers, and within a short conversation find out that he knew one of their relatives or friends or friends of friends. With him it took only two or three degrees of separation. I don’t have his gift of gab, but I do think I inherited his ability to make obscure connections. Since mine tend to be more literary and academic, people often lose interest in my chain of links before I get to the point. That may be so but, for me at least, some of these chains are no less personal and heavy with emotion.
Take, for instance, A Dance to the Music of Time, the TV series I mentioned in my last post. The show is based on a series of novels by Anthony Powell, who is said to have been inspired by this painting by Nicolas Poussin, completed during the reign of Louis XIII, who figured in the “selfies” of his mother Marie de Médicis, which so fascinated us in the Louvre. (A weak link. To what? In any case, not what I’m talking about here.) Poussin’s painting presents Father Time making music for four dancers. The dancers represent four aspects of human life: poverty, work, wealth, and pleasure. Father Time is playing on the lyre of Orpheus.
Unlike Louis XIII, Orpheus and his wife Eurydice have played important roles in my emotional life since the death of my wife Laura eight years ago. My fascination with the story of Orpheus’ descent into Hades to bring Eurydice back from the dead evolved from my magical thinking in the early months after her death. In particular Gluck’s aria for Orfeo Che farò senza Euridice? (What will I do without Eurydice?) gave words and music to my feelings. I described this process in a post three years ago. In that post I link to Luciano Pavarotti’s concert performance of the aria. Today I’m linking to the counter-tenor Franco Fagioli’s stage performance not only for the beauty of his voice, but also the richness of Gluck’s orchestration that provides a better foundation for the emotional impact of this song.
In October, here in Princeton, I went to see a performance of a new work by Steven Mackey, Mark DeChiazza, and Jason Treuting, called Orpheus Unsung. As the program notes tell us, “In this wordless opera, the Orpheus myth is shattered and remade within a space that fragments story and identity.” Even though I’ve spent a lot of time over the last eight years studying all the literary and musical versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, I am hard put to explain in words why this piece accomplishes its shattering and remaking of that story. But it did. Right from the start, Which I didn’t realize was the start until I did. As soon as the audience was seated on the bleachers in the performance space, three young women started marking the floor, the posts, and the walls with wide white tape. At first I thought they were stage hands, but then I saw that they did not walk like stage hands. They were dancers.
The music began after they had laid out their first set of lines and shapes. Here is an excerpt from this 21st century Orpheus playing for the dancers.
In his book of notes about the death of his wife A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis tells us that bereavement “is … not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure.” I have not yet found the words to explain why, but Orpheus Unsung marks the close of the figure I have been dancing over the last eight years. As the posts I linked earlier in this piece describe, memory has gradually replaced grief over these years. That’s not what this next move is about. Perhaps it’s just the approach of another quarter century mark. Whatever is going on, I’ll keep asking. In the meantime, it is fitting that I began reflecting on how I was grieving by studying Orpheus and Eurydice. Now I’m examining the next figure in this dance with reflections on what I’ve learned about and through Orpheus and Eurydice in a series of posts to follow.