4 September 2015 at 3.18pm | 1 Comment
The Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s opera Orphée et Eurydice is one of the composer’s best known and best loved pieces of music. This self-contained work for two solo flutes and string orchestra is often performed on its own, but it achieves its greatest effect as part of the complete opera, following directly on from the fiendish Dance of the Furies – as Orpheus stumbles out of the deepest circle of hell and is struck dumb by the beauty of the Elysian Fields.
Gluck does everything in his power to give the Dance of the Blessed Spirits a pastoral air. The use of flutes, the gentle, unchanging tempo, the regular phrasing and simple harmony, the lilting melody, often shadowed by the accompaniment in 3rds – even the key of F major: all are stylistic markers commonly used in Gluck’s time to depict an idealized rural calm. It is a perfect encapsulation of light-filled serenity, though tinged with a sense of loss – and it couldn’t be more different from what has come immediately before, the furious tempest of sound that is the Dance of the Furies. By this heightened juxtaposition, Gluck gives the peaceful beauty of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits an almost visceral power, and increases our sympathy with Orpheus and his desperate quest.
At the start of the opera we found the great musician mourning the death of his wife Eurydice. Encouraged by the god of love, Orpheus descends into the Underworld to seek Eurydice’s spirit, daring to hope that his musical gift can calm the hellish forces and so win her back to life. In Act II he has passed beyond the river Cocytus into deepest hell. Amid music that vividly depicts the leaping flames and billowing smoke, Orpheus’s sweet song gradually lulls the anguished Furies, until finally they let him pass.
That was the Furies over and done with in the opera’s original premiere in Vienna in 1762. But when Gluck revised the opera for Paris in 1774, he introduced at this point the substantial Dance of the Furies, sating Parisian desire for dance (and giving another chance to show off the complex stage machinery used for the flames of hell). Gluck actually lifted this dance from the end of his ballet Don Juan, where the titular unrepentant sinner is dragged down into hell by a horde of demons before a surprisingly peaceful ending – solemnly intoned by trombones in the major key – represents a return to earthly peace. Lifted into Orphée this ending serves a new purpose, as the Furies of hell gradually fall back and we see Orpheus enter the Elysian Fields.
The Elysian music also changed between Vienna and Paris. Gluck ended up tripling the length of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, adding that mournful middle section and closing with a reprise of the original F major music. This move was again prompted by the expectation of his Paris audience for dance – but by this expansion Gluck also deepens our sensation of the blessed spirits, of their elegance but also their sadness, and the ache Orpheus must feel knowing his Eurydice is among them. The contemporary audience would also have recognized the new music as a minuet – a stately dance in slow triple time, popular among the French aristocracy – and so added to the sense of nobility of this chorus of great heroes and heroines, in their dance in the Elysian Fields.
The simplicity and clarity of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits have drawn audiences to the work since its premiere, and its popularity as a stand-alone piece was almost inevitable. But – as with all great operatic music – its true dramatic power can only be felt when heard within the opera itself, a bewildering follow-up to the Dance of the Furies.
Orphée et Eurydice runs 14 September–3 October 2015. Tickets are still available.
The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, and is part of #Hofest.