• Matthew Aucoin
  • The Orphic Moment (2014)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • 2(pic).0.1.1/
  • Countertenor[=Mezzo-soprano], violin
  • 15 min
  • the composer
  • English

Programme Note

Listen to an excerpt

Composer note
The story of Orpheus is music's founding myth, its primal self-justification and self-glorification. On the wedding day of the great singer Orpheus to the beautiful Eurydice, Eurydice is fatally bitten by a poisonous snake. Orpheus audaciously descends to the underworld to plead his case, in song, to Hades and his infernal gang. The gods of death melt at his music's touch. They grant Eurydice a second chance at life: she may follow Orpheus back to earth, on the one condition that he not turn to look at her until they're above ground. Orpheus can't resist his instinct to glance back — he turns, and Eurydice disappears forever.

The Orpheus myth is typically understood as a tragedy of humanity's incapacity to overcome our basest, least rational instincts, even when another person's life is at stake. That's not my understanding of the story. Orpheus, after all, is the ultimate aesthete: he's the world's greatest singer, and he knows that heartbreak and loss are the most moving things in the world to sing about. In most Orpheus operas — and there are many — the action typically runs as follows: Orpheus loses Eurydice; he laments her loss gorgeously and extravagantly; he descends to the underworld; he gorgeously and extravagantly begs to get Eurydice back; he is granted her again and promptly loses her again; he laments even more gorgeously and extravagantly than before.

So perhaps Orpheus loses Eurydice on purpose, or perhaps the instinct that he can't overcome is the aesthetic impulse, the musician's amoral attitude that art matters more than other human beings. I take this interpretation to an extreme in The Orphic Moment, a "dramatic cantata" that temporalizes and shines a magnifying glass on the instant before Orpheus turns around. Before the piece's beginning, Orpheus had had the best of intentions: he has rescued Eurydice, and they are walking toward the light. But as the piece begins, he has a second thought: "It has been life to lose you," he says. "It has been life to go without…" He muses on what would happen if he lost Eurydice again. A second death…the loss of Eurydice at the very moment when she was about to be granted life…nothing could be more tragic than that. Surely it will inspire the greatest music ever heard.

The solo violin is Eurydice, wordlessly calling to Orpheus, growing increasingly agitated as she senses his emotional withdrawal. In the second half of the piece, Orpheus calculates the perfect moment to aim his gaze backwards at Eurydice. Patiently, coldly, he waits until light from the world above begin to filter down through the soil. He slowly turns his head. The scene goes dark.

— Matthew Aucoin


Anthony Roth Costanzo, countertenor; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor
Matthew Aucoin leads a performance of "The Orphic Moment" – his dramatic cantata for voice, violin, and chamber ensemble – at the Music Academy of the West. The July 6, 2017 performance features countertenor Wee Kiat Chia, violinist Keir GoGwilt, and fellows from the Music Academy.