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Orpheus in the Underworld

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Orpheus in the Underworld
Jeremy Bell

Orpheus in the Underworld was commissioned by the J.T. Lambert Intermediate School Combined 6th Grade Band in East Stroudsburg, PA under the direction of Matthew Whitney.  I wanted to write a piece that would incorporate a subject that the students would most likely be learning in school at the time and decided to pursue stories from Greek mythology for the subject matter.  After giving a few suggestions to Matt, we decided to go with the idea of Orpheus, which is one of his favorite stories.

        For those unfamiliar with his story, Orpheus was the son of Apollo who gave him his first lyre and taught him how to play, and the muse Calliope.  It was said that Orpheus's music was so beautiful that even animals and plants were moved by it.  After returning from an expedition with the Argonauts, Orpheus married Eurydice, who was soon killed by a snakebite.  Overcome with grief, he ventured to Tartarus ( the land of the dead also known as the Underworld) to bring back Eurydice.  He charmed Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx, and the three-headed dog Cerberus, the guardian of the Underworld with his music.  In several versions of the story, it was said that his music moved Hades and his wife Persephone to the point that Hades allowed Eurydice to follow Orpheus back to the land of the living but under one condition - Orpheus could not look back.  As they ascended from the depths of Tartarus, Orpheus began to have doubts.

What if Hades had tricked Orpheus?  

What if he lied about letting Eurydice leave?

As they neared the exit, Orpheus could see the sunlight, but his faith began to waiver.  He turned back to ensure that Eurydice was following and that he was not being fooled by the god, but in doing so, saw Eurydice's soul being pulled back to the Underworld.  

        For this piece, I wanted to write something that sounded epic and would get students excited about playing in band.   My goal was to write a work that sounded advanced while still composing something within the skills of young players and providing a challenge for them to practice and grow.  While thinking of the premise of Orpheus's journey through the Underworld, I wanted the opening to be kind of dark, to set this eerie, unsettling thought of traveling through the land of the dead and also wanted to tell the "story" as well.  Throughout the piece, there are certain themes and leitmotifs to represent the Underworld/Hades, one for Orpheus's song, and a sort of heroic theme as well.  These are all interwoven throughout with rhythmic ostinato ideas as well.

Orpheus in the Underworld begins with the low brass and woodwinds sort of mimicking Orpheus's footsteps.  The trumpets, horn, and saxophones enter with the theme of the Underworld/Hades.  At measure 17, the vibraphone, acting as Orpheus's lyre, outlines the harmony with an arpeggiated figure as the flutes and glockenspiel play Orpheus's main theme, which has the same ascending fifth and overall shape as Hades's theme.  Orpheus's theme is followed up by the heroic theme as he confronts Hades in his throne.  Hade's theme then returns as he bargains with Orpheus.  At measure 48, the piece begins to gain speed as Orpheus and Eurydice begin their ascent.  The heroic theme and Orpheus's main theme get played again, but as his doubt grows, the music becomes more tense with dissonant chords when Hades's theme enters one more time drawing Eurydice back to the underworld as Orpheus turns to look behind him.  The piece ends with a short version of Orpheus's lament as he leaves the underworld alone.

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