The Supreme Inspiration IV: Myths

Bacchus
Bacchus – or his Greek counterpart Dionysos – is subject of the most colourful of myths and is synonymous with orgies and drunken revelry. The god of wine and merriment and of powers in nature, he could make plants grow and men and beasts have offspring. In his ceremonies women worshippers would eat wild boars alive as they were driven to madness. He inflicted dreadful punishments on those unable to enjoy themselves. This wild excess greatly appealed to romantics such as Berlioz and Liszt, and also inspired Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane, Holst’s Choral Symphony, Purcell’s Bacchus is our power divine and Glazunov’s Bacchic Song.

Orpheus
Many works have centred on the image of Orpheus with his lute but it is the story of Orpheus in the Underworld which has fascinated most opera composers, including Monteverdi, Gluck and Charpentier. It tells of Orpheus being allowed to go to the underworld to bring back his beloved dead wife, Eurydice – provided he does not look back at her. Offenbach turns the story on its head with his satirical operetta.

Apollo
The Greek-Roman sun-god appears in many operas, including famous ones from Lully and Gluck, but the most colourful myth surrounding him is best explored in Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthe. Britten’s Death in Venice, Richard Strauss’ Daphne, Handel’s Semele and Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète also draw their inspiration from the god.

Prometheus
Prometheus stole the holy fire of the gods and as a punishment he was chained to the rocks for a vulture to pluck out his liver – every day. A romantic hero who liberated man from his worldly monotony was immortalised by Shelley and expounded by Parry in Scenes from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. The myth also drew great works from Beethoven and Scriabin.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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