• Martin Dalby
  • Orpheus (1972)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

John Currie Singers with funds by the Scottish Arts Council

  • 02002000perchpdstr(
  • mixed chorus (min. 16)
  • narrator (optional)
  • 17 min

Programme Note

Martin Dalby: Orpheus

Orpheus has been written for the John Currie Singers who commissioned it with funds provided by the Scottish Arts Council. It is based on a poem by Robert Lowell, a translation or rather, as the poet describes it, an imitation of Rilke's Orpheus, Eurydike, Hermes.
© Martin Dalby
(For William Meredith)

That's the strange regalia of souls.
as platinum filaments they went,
like arteries through their darkness. From the holes
of powder beetles, from the otter's bed,
from the oak king judging by the royal oak -
blood like our own life-blood, sprang.
Otherwise nothing was red.

The dark was heavier than Caesar's foot.

There were canyons there,
distracted forests, and bridges over air-pockets;
a great grey, blind lake
moaned over the background canals,
like a bag of winds over the Caucasus.
Through terraced highlands, stocked with cattle and patience,
streaked the single road.
It was unwinding like a bandage.

They went on this road.

First the willowy man in the blue cloak;
he didn't say a thing. He counted his toes.
His step ate up the road,
a yard at a time, without bruising a thistle. His hands fell,
clammy and clenched,
as if they feared the folds of his tunic,
as if they didn't know a thing about the frail lyre,
hooked on his left shoulder,
like roses wrestling an olive tree.

It was as though his intelligence were cut in two.
His outlook worried like a dog behind him,
now diving ahead, now romping back,
now yawning on its haunches at an elbow of the road.
What he heard breathed myrrh behind him,
and often it seemed to reach back to them,
those two others
on oath to follow behind to the finish.
Then again there was nothing behind him,
only the backring of his heel,
and the currents of air in his blue cloak.
He said to himself, "or all that, they are there".
He spoke aloud and heard his own voice die.
"They are coming, but if they are two,
how fearfully light their step is!"
Couldn't he turn round? (Yet a single back-look
would be the ruin of his work
so near perfection). And as a matter of fact,
he knew he must now turn to them, those two light ones,
who followed and kept their counsel.

First the road-god, the messenger man…
His caduceus shadow-bowing behind him,
his eye arched, archaic,
his ankles feathered like arrows -
in his left hand he held her,
the one so loved that out of a single lyre
more sorrow came than from all the women in labour,
so that out of this sorrow came
the fountain-head of the world; valleys, fields,
towns, roads…acropolis,
marble quarries, goats, vineyards.
And his sorrow-world circled about her,
just as the sun and stern stars
circle the earth -
a raven of anxiety ringed by the determined stars…
that's how she was.

She leant, however on the god's arm;
her step was delicate from her wound -
uncertain, drugged and patient.
She was drowned in herself, as in a higher hope,
and she didn't give the man in front of her a thought,
nor the road climbing to life.
She was in herself. Being dead
fulfilled her beyond fulfilment.
Like an apple full of sugar and darkness,
she was full of her decisive death,
so green she couldn't bite into it.
She was still in her marble maidenhood,
untouchable. Her sex had closed house,
like a young flower rebuking the night air.

her hands were still ringing and tingling -
even the light touch of the god
was almost a violation.

A woman?
She was no longer that blond transcendence
so often ornamenting the singer's metres,
nor a hanging garden in his double bed.
She had wearied of being the hero's one possession.

She was as bountiful as uncoiled hair,
poured out like rain,
shared in a hundred pieces like her wedding cake.

She was a root, self-rooted.

And when the god suddenly gripped her,
and said with pain in his voice, "He is looking back at us,"
she didn't get through to the words,
and answered vaguely, "Who?"

Far there, dark against the clear entrance,
stood someone, or rather no one
you'd ever know. He stood and stared
at the one level, inevitable road,
as the reproachful god of messengers
looking round, pushed off again.
His caduceus was like a shotgun on his shoulder.

Robert Lowell: Orpheus (in imitation of Rilke)
© Robert Lowell, published by Faber and Faber Ltd