Vocal score for sale

  • fl(pic).cl(bcl)/hn/perc/hp/str
  • TTBB
  • soprano, tenor, bass
  • 55 min

Programme Note


The legend of Orpheus’ marriage to Eurydice, her death and his journey into the Underworld to reclaim her. Against the commands of Hades, Orpheus turns to look on their return to Earth and Eurydice fades from sight. However, the postlude ends on a happier note with the chorus and soloists surmising that the love between Orpheus and Eurydice inspired the skills of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, thereby giving that love eternal life.


Orpheus, an opera-oratorio in one act with a libretto by Peter Porter, was first performed at Wells Cathedral on 17 July 1982. The soloists were Catheryn Pope (soprano), Rogers Covey-Cump (tenor) and Richard (bass) and the composer conducted the Wells Cathedral Vicars Choral and Instrumental Ensemble. Orpheus was commissioned for the Wells 800 Celebration.

Orpheus is a Chamber Opera, or perhaps more properly might be described as an ‘Opera-Cantata’. It is designed to be performed as a short opera, fully staged and costumed, or as a concert piece. Either way, its structure is dramatic, rather than reflective. It tells the story of Orpheus, probably the most familiar story in music, and en emblem of their art for composers of all periods, as a direct narrative. Since the legend is set in the world of pagan mythology, it has been lightly Christianised for its Church setting. The Aeneid has often been seen as speaking of Christ avant la lettre, and Renaissance Humanists were always willing to identify forerunners of Christian types in Classical personages: in this manner, Orpheus pursues, without undue emphasis, musical parallels with St Francis, St Cecilia and even Adam and Eve.

The work is framed briefly by a prologue and epilogue. The Prologue introduces the four solo singers – Hades (bass), Orpheus (tenor), Eurydice (soprano) and Charon (baritone). It also introduces the chorus who do not only portray, at various stages, Orpheus’s wedding companions, the denizens of Hell and Blessed Spirits in the Elysian Fields, but also comment on the action as it proceeds.

Four lines from the introduction serve to set the character of the work:
Like Pagan temples repossessed
Our Churches are a palimpsest
The myths of man we recognise
And Orpheus’s story we baptise

In Part One of the story of Orpheus, the musician-singer, and Eurydice, his bride, celebrate their wedding. The Chorus tells how Eurodice is stung by a servant soon after her wedding (recalling Eve’s encounter with the snake), and introduced Part Two, which is Orpheus’s lament for his lost wife, together with his determination to follow her to Hades and reclaim her with his love. Part Three is Orpheus’s encounter with Charon, who ferries dead souls across the Styx to Tartarus and the Elysian Fields. Charon, who is legalistically-minded cannot bend the rules to allow Orpheus to cross the river, but, moved to a trance by Orpheus’s lament, he does not oppose the crossing. The Chorus introduces Part Four, much the longest of the work’s four sections. The Chorus describes Orpheus’s lament, he does not oppose the crossing. The Chorus introduces Part Four, much of the longest of the work’s four sections.

The Chorus describes Orpheus’s indifference to the horrors of Hell and sets him down among the Blessed Spirits. Here he sings of the pure bliss of life in the Elysian Fields (as in Gluck’s "Che puro ciel”). However, without Eurydice, life in Paradise has no pleasure for him. Eurydice appears, but she cannot see Orpheus. He implores the Chorus to restore her to him. Hades, ruler of the Underworld and husband of Persephone, takes pity on Orpheus. He promises to let Eurydice return to the overworld with Orpheus, on the familiar condition that he must not look back at her but trust that she is following. In a duet, with Chorus participation, Orpheus, moved unbearably by the ban on looking at Eurydice, breaks the rule, and immediately Eurydice disappears. The Chorus comments that mortals must obey the rulings of the Gods even when these do not make sense. Hades ends the scene with aria of reflection: "Do nto say we can go back”. He reminds us that Eros is a God for the Present and that "to live in the past is to live with Death”.

In the Postlude, the deities of Love and Art (Amor, Apollo, Aphrodite) are summoned to honour the musician who died for love, and Orpheus is celebrated as forerunner of Cecilia, patron-saint of music. The four soloists conclude by honouring the immortality conferred upon Orpheus and Eurydice through the fidelity of mortal love.

Peter Porter