The Transcendence of Myth through Music

Bobby Bevilacqua

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Greek mythology and the stories surrounding the in-depth culture originated over three thousand years ago, with stories of gods and goddesses permeating the ancient Greek society. The stories were told in many ways: literature, poem, spoken word, theater, and more recently, film and television. But perhaps the most lasting use of mythological adaptation and representation in forms other than written is musically. With mythology being as old as it is, it is quite impressive that it is still being represented in modern society. It is more common in film, where people can tell a story and use visuals, but in music, people may not recognize the references. Yet bands across all genres and musical performers across many generations have used songs and music as a way to continue to tell these stories and continue the tradition of Greek mythology and the lore associated with it. Like an epic poem or a novel, music is something that crosses all generations and time periods, with music from the 1930s, like Frank Sinatra, still being played and cherished today. Music, like mythology, transcends time, and songs about the stories and lore of Greek mythology allow for the tales to continue in a new form for future generations to learn from and appreciate.

From the days of Greek mythology’s origin, theater has been a big part of society and of storytelling in the societies of the time. Following the Italian Renaissance and the rebirth of the arts, theater and opera began to become increasingly prevalent in society again. Italy was the home of many famous artists, musicians and writers that kick-started this movement. These people were also the creators of some legendary art that is still revered today. In the 1600s, following the Renaissance music era, the Baroque movement took place. Named after a Portuguese term that means “oddly shaped pearl,” Baroque is a word used to describe a style of music in Western Europe from around 1600 to 1750. Initially it was used by critics to describe the music and art of the time as “overly ornamented and exaggerated,” but since then it has been used as a blanket term to describe an era of rich musical diversity.[1] For mythology, the Baroque opera Orfeo (1607) is a perfect example of myth living on through song. Revolutionary composer Claudio Monteverdi came up with this opera, which was the first one he had ever written. Orfeo tells the story of Orpheus and his journey to the underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, and his attempt to take her back with him. Orpheus was a master musician himself, and softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone with his songs of sorrow about the loss of his wife. They agreed to let Orpheus take her back with him, but under one condition; he could not look back at her until they both reached the upper world. Due to anxiety and longing for his wife, Orpheus looked back as soon as he reached the upper world but before Eurydice did, and she disappeared forever. The opera was designed to capture the intense emotions in the story itself, with a blend of forty-one different instruments being used, combined in different parts to represent different characters and settings. For example, strings, harps, and flutes would represent the upper world and the fields or meadows, while heavier brass instruments are used to represent the dark and dank underworld. The five act play is still very famous and well known, incorporating one of the most popular stories from Greek Mythology, and even saw some revival in the 20th century opera houses. Because of his renowned status in the arts, Monteverdi went on to influence many other composers, as well as teach a few people firsthand. One of his pupils, Pier Francesco Cavalli (1623-1669), also wound up going on to incorporate myth into his operas, with his most well-known being Giasone (Jason) and Ercole Amante (Hercules in Love). Marc Antonio Cesti, another famous opera composer, used music to tell the story of yet another well-known and famous story. Il Pomo d’Oro tells the tale of the contest for the Apple of Discord, with the play compromising of five acts and twenty-four different sets.[2] It’s no coincidence that the stories that are told in these operas, including Orpheus, Jason and the Argonauts, and the Apple of Discord, are all among the most well-known myths today. Music through theater and opera captures the essence of myth and allows the stories to live on long past when they were first told.

The use of Greek mythology also expanded into what is now known as “classical music,” consisting of some of the most famous composers and musicians to ever live. One of the most well-known classical composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), was interested in mythological and legendary themes. At the age of 11, he wrote a short opera titled Apollo et Hyacinthus (1767), a tale about the love triangle between Zephyrus the West Wind, Hyacinthus’ sister, and Apollo, who happens to be in love with Hyacinthus’ sister. Mozart also went on to write about Rome’s legendary heroes, as well as other legendary figures in history. Il Re Pastore, which means “The Shepherd King,” serves as an addition or interpretation of the mythology surrounding Alexander the Great. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) also was influenced by ancient Greece and Rome. One of his more well-known works involving Greek myth is his ballet composition The Creatures of Prometheus. Prometheus is a culture hero in Greek mythology, making it so that people sacrificed the scraps of food to the gods, not the good meat, and stealing fire from Mt. Olympus and bringing it to mankind. It was arranged as a set of variations for piano, and “the whole aura of defiance conjured up by the romantic image of the life and music of Beethoven is strikingly parallel to that evoked by the Titan Prometheus.”[3] Beethoven used Prometheus’ character as well as the stories and emotions tied to him as a way to contrast it to himself as an artist. Johannes Brahms, a German composer and pianist, put together Song of the Fates (Gesang der Parzen), which was designed for chorus and orchestra, as well as Song of Lamentation (Nänie), which is about the death of beauty, referencing Hades, Orpheus, Aphrodite and Adonis, Achilles and Thetis.[4] Classical music is still a tremendously popular genre of music today, with people still listening to Beethoven and Mozart on their iPhones to this day. Their popularity, coupled with their love and appreciation of Greek mythology, helps the stories transcend time and still be told today.

Today, America is a powerhouse when it comes to entertainment, and especially when it comes to music. Part of that has to do with the fact that many of Europe’s most talented composers and artists all immigrated to the United States at some point, bringing their skills and style and blending it with the American style of music. It also influenced American composers of that era as well, with the melting pot of American society impacting their music. Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791) was a composer from the United States that used Greek Mythology in his work. Hopkinson was a poet, and wrote The Temple of Minerva, which later went on to incorporate music. Minerva is the Roman goddess closely associated with Athena, and the Temple of Minerva is a real structure in Assisi, Umbria, in central Italy, built in 1539 and serving as a place of worship as well as housing a tribunal and a small jail when it was in use. Since Hopkinson was a poet, the words had a lot more of an impact than in some other songs, serving as a focal point of the composition. The Temple of Minerva was spoken, not sung, with the music serving as a counterpoint in the background of the poem, talking about the goddess Minerva, her traits and qualities and the stories associated with her.[5] American theater also began to adopt mythology and add it to their plays. Earlier, in 1797, Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, in the Isle of Naxos was put on for the first time. This play tells the story of Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, who helped Theseus navigate through the Labyrinth and wound up being left behind by him. Adonis (1884) was the longest running Broadway play at the time with a string of  six hundred and three consecutive performances, and it was loosely based on the theme of Pygmalion and Galatea with a burlesque twist. There were also adaptations of myth with a modern twist, such as Up and Down Broadway from 1910, which features Apollo and other gods arriving in New York to try and reform the theaters on Broadway. Harry Partch was an American composer that may have been the most influenced by Greek Mythology. Partch created his own style of “musical language” called monophony, with its own octave scale. He also designed new instruments out of things like fuel tanks, Pyrex jars and more, like a modern day Apollo designing new ways to create music. He used his own translations of W.B. Yeats’ Oedipus to make his dance-drama of Oedipus in 1967. But he wanted to modernize it, leading to his Americanization of Euripides’ Bacchae, which he titled Revelation in in the Courthouse Park (1960), which had Dionysus looking like Elvis Presley and many other modern twists.[6] Greek myth permeated into new societies, like America, and continued to be represented through music, song, and even modern interpretation.

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Photo courtesy of Metal Injection.

Greek mythology has seen a rise in pop culture in America since the mid-1900s and especially in the 2000s, being represented in movies and other mediums as well, especially in music. There have been songs based on stories from many different areas of mythology, such as It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus) by Arcade Fire and Hyacinth House by The Doors. But mythology has permeated even the most unlikely of genres: death metal. Fleshgod Apocalypse is an Italian technical death metal band that formed in 2007, combining classical music with brutal drums and thrashing guitar. After working to find their sound through their first two albums, Fleshgod Apocalypse released Labyrinth in 2013, a concept album based on the palace at Knossos and the stories surrounding it. A concept album is one in which all of the songs are connected, weaving a tale through all of the tracks. Fleshgod Apocalypse is known as a technical death metal band, meaning the songs focus on complex rhythms, riffs and song structure, often blending in elements of classical music suck as piano and string instruments. Their follow up album, 2016’s King, features a full orchestral backing to go along with the guitar, drums and growling lyrics. A majority of songs on the Labyrinth album feature Veronica Bordacchini, a trained opera singer who tours with the band and contributes vocals on the songs. Many of the earlier musical interpretations of myth focused around the theater and opera, telling great tales of ancient Greek and Roman heroes. Fleshgod Apocalypse’s use of opera vocals and style in their music hearkens back to that era of composers weaving tales of mythology. The first song on the album, “Kingborn,” is an introduction to the story, and it appears to be the hero Theseus’ arrival to the island of Crete. The song references some of his deeds along his travels, with the lyrics, “Sinis is waiting the vagabond / Lacerating the wisdom of the trees / Skiron’s feeding the giant turtle / While Procrustes is ripping his limbs.” The following song, “Minotaur (Wrath of Poseidon)” tells the story of the reason for the birth of the Minotaur, which was Minos refusing to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon, which creates the whole premise for the wrath of Poseidon to come to light. The album then transitions into “Elegy,” which in Greek literature is a poem of suffering and sorrow. The song is from the perspective of the Minotaur, talking about his cruel and unfair captivity inside of the Labyrinth, with lyrics like, “Bound to this labyrinth / Selene is tricking me / Misled by darkness ‘n’ tainting lies of my mortality.” The Minotaur is talking about how he is eternally tied to the Labyrinth, saying that Selene, the moon goddess, is teasing him with visions of the moon despite the fact that he is not truly outside. The captivity is so torturous, that it seems like he is begging for his death and to get past the “tainting lies of my mortality.” The song “Warpledge” talks about the tradition of sending seven boys and seven girls from Athens into the Labyrinth for the Minotaur to devour, saying, “All the rage of the slayer unfolds as King Minos / Calls the flesh, tribute of souls! / On the stone lay the fourteen!” Track six is “Pathfinder,” transitioning to the view of Theseus and Ariadne as they come to slay the Minotaur. “I won’t get lost through this maze / holding hard this thread / For I will slay the shame of Crete / My path will lie ahead.” These lyrics are talking about Theseus’ journey through the maze of the Labyrinth with the thread given to him by Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, while the Minotaur is the shame of Crete due to the embarrassing circumstances surrounding his conception and his birth. The next song is titled “The Fall of Asterion,” which is another name for the Minotaur, and this song details Theseus killing the Minotaur. After an instrumental break, the tracks “Epilogue” and “Under Black Sails” discuss the relationship between Ariadne and Theseus after he conquers the Minotaur, starting out with Ariadne’s positive outlook on their future together (“Beautiful prince / Now take my hand again / Forever tied by the thread of our fate / Now, we’re together again”) followed by Theseus’ outlook of his destiny to become the king of Athens, leaving Ariadne to do so (“Cut the thread with old days… / To become the new emperor / There’s no space for the fears / She will wander alone drowning in tears”). The album also has a song called “Toward the Sun,” which tells the tale of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who dies after flying to close to the sun with the wings constructed by his father (“Toward the sun! / I see the splendor of the light again / Show me father the secrets of flight! / Swear it now, you will let me soar”).[7] Death metal is probably not the first place people would look to find a song about mythology, but Fleshgod Apocalypse told the tale of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, weaving in a tremendous amount of detail, storytelling and emotion into one album, as the stories continue to be told thousands of years later.

Greek and Roman Mythology have lived on through generations in many different forms of art, such as literature, paintings, film and more. But since the stories were created, music has always been used to tell the tales and attach more emotion and storytelling to each myth, whether that be through theater, opera, or a standalone song. The myths also vary in representation from Broadway plays to a death metal album. Despite the fact that the stories themselves are thousands of years old, music helps the mythology live on and transcend time, to be played again and told to future generations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

“What is Baroque Music?” Music of the Baroque. https://www.baroque.org/baroque/whatis#top. Accessed: May 1, 2016.

Fleshgod Apocalypse, Labyrinth, CD, directed/performed by Fleshgod Apocalypse (2013; Donzdorf: Nuclear Blast).

Morford, Mark, Robert J. Lenardon, and Michael Sham. Classical Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[1] “What is Baroque Music?” Music of the Baroque. https://www.baroque.org/baroque/whatis#top. Accessed: May 1, 2016.

[2] Morford, Mark, Robert J. Lenardon, and Michael Sham. Classical Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[3] Morford, 2014, 746.

[4] Morford, 2014, 746.

[5] Morford, 2014, 753.

[6] Morford, 2014, 754-759.

[7] Fleshgod Apocalypse, Labyrinth, CD, directed/performed by Fleshgod Apocalypse (2013; Donzdorf: Nuclear Blast).

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