This song is taken from a 1991 opera written by Glass, which was based on a 1950 French film by Jean Cocteau, which in turn was based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus. Which goes like this:
Orpheus was a poet, musician, prophet, and all-around good guy. His wife was tragically bitten by a snake and died in his arms. In his grief, he sang such beautiful music that some nearby nymphs said something like, “wow, you’re talented! You should totally go to the Underworld and see if you can charm death with your songs and get your wife back!” Flattery is an intoxicating thing to a musician, so he decided to do it.
Sure enough, Orpheus sang so beautifully that he charmed the horns right off Hades. He agreed to give his wife back, but on one condition. (Isn’t that always the way it is in myths? They can’t seem to ever do a good turn without sneakily adding in conditions.) The condition was that as Orpheus walked up from the Underworld, his wife behind him, he was prohibited from looking back at her until they were both up and out. If he looked back, the deal would be off.
You can probably see where this is going. He walks out to the edge of the Underworld, and is so darned excited to see his wife alive again that he turns around…forgetting that they both had to be up and out before he was allowed to turn around. His wife, just steps from safety, disappeared, this time forever.
A few thousand years later, Philip Glass wrote this simple and lovely piece of music.
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. The constantly downward-moving scales in the right hand. I can only assume this is supposed to represent Orpheus descending to the Underworld, but it sounds so pretty, it kind of makes the Underworld seem like a nice place.
2. The left and right hand switch places briefly at 2:40. The left hand starts doing a descending scale while the right imitates the repeating chords that the left had been doing. It doesn’t last long, and I’m not sure what it’s supposed to represent. But it’s nice.
3. Repetition. Some people hate Philip Glass for being so repetitive, but I find it hypnotic and calming. It’s actually great road-trip music if you’re the driver and all your passengers are asleep.
Recommended listening activity:
Not looking back.