[St. Pachomius Library]

The Power of Music in Medieval Literature:
A Change of Heart:
Orpheus and Euridyce

© 2000, 2004 by Brenda Johnstone Flynn. All rights reserved.

          Robert Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice was probably written in the second half of the fifteenth century. The story appears to have no relation to the romance of Sir Orfeo, but owes a heavy debt to Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and Nicholas Trivet's commentary on Boethius' Consolation. The tale begins with an explanation of Orpheus' genealogy, which is much more lengthy than in previous versions, and one that better explains his musical heritage. He is the grandson of Memoria and Jupiter and the son of the muse Caliope, "that maidyn meruailus,/ The ferde sister, of all musik maistresse,/ And moder to the king, sir Orpheus" (Henryson lines 43-45). In the course of Orpheus and Eurydice, Henryson tells the Orpheus story twice. The first telling is the classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice's marriage, Eurydice's death or capture (it is unclear which), Orpheus' quest for her in the heavens and in Hell, and his gain and finally loss of his love. The second telling is an allegorical interpretation of the first, explaining exactly the moral significance of each aspect of the story.
          The most interesting commentaries on the power of music come in the first telling of the Orpheus tale. In the allegorical interpretation, Orpheus is described as the intellect (son of Phebus, god of knowledge and Caliope, who is eloquence) and the music of his harping is the effect of reason upon the allegorical enemies he encounters. The interpretation deals with abstract concepts, and has no room for music. The story, on the other hand, pays a great deal of attention to music, how its power is gained, and how it acts upon its audience.
          Orpheus' skill in music, and the manner in which his musicality earns its persuasive power, are the most interesting aspect of Henryson's Orpheus story. Orpheus, as the son of the musical Caliope, was predisposed to his musicality. Indeed, as an infant, "Quhen he was borne scho [Caliope] set him on hir kne/ And gart him sowke of hir twa palpis quhyte/ The sweit licour of all musike parfyte" (Henryson 67-70). Orpheus' musicality comes quite literally from his mother's milk. Having explained that Orpheus comes from a musical family, Henryson goes on to tell of Orpheus and Eurydice's courtship, marriage, and love. As in the other tales, Orpheus does not actually play his harp until he has heard of his wife's removal from this world. Upon hearing the news of his wife's removal Orpheus, like Sir Orfeo, goes off to the wilderness, "Half out of mynd, he maid na tary more,/ Bot tuke his harpe and to the wod can go" (Henryson 129 - 130). Unlike Sir Orfeo, he stays there only long enough to deliver the lament for his wife before going in search of her.
          Nature responds to Orpheus' plaintive harping, but not as it did in Ovid, Boethius, or Sir Orfeo. Instead of weeping sympathetically (as nature does upon hearing of Orpheus' death in Ovid's telling) or becoming transfixed by the sound of such emotionally laden music (such as in Boethius' version), the natural world tries to comfort the mournful Orpheus:

Him to reios, yit playit he a spryng,
Quhill all the foulis of the wod can syng,
And treis dansit with thar leves grene,
Him to devoid of his gret womenting;
Bot all in wane, thai comfort him no thing

(Henryson 144-148)

In attempting to cheer Orpheus up, and make him forget his mourning, nature's reaction foreshadows the allegorical interpretation that will be offered later. It is not necessarily a good thing for the intellect (Orpheus) to seek and desire that his affection (Eurydice), who is available to the temptations of the flesh, be returned to him. This reaction of nature to Orpheus is much more similar to the Boethian and Ovidian Orpheus than to Sir Orfeo because nature, while capable of understanding and interpreting Orpheus' grief through his music, is not necessarily animated by the music, nor does it respond to the music. At the same time, this situation is different than any found before, because nature refuses to mourn with Orpheus and responds to his plaintive music by attempting to reduce his sorrow. While Orpheus' music has a power sufficient to merit a response by nature, the music itself does not have the overwhelming and clearly delineated effect that it had in Sir Orfeo. Instead, nature seems to have an ongoing relationship with the musician, which while perhaps caused by the music, is not entirely contingent upon it.
          At the point at which Orpheus mourns the lost Eurydice, all we know of his musicianship comes from what we are told of his musical heritage. At the end of the tale, however, Orpheus has a much greater musical power than he had at the beginning. In an allegorically loaded turn of events, Orpheus first looks for his wife among the heavenly planets. While he fails to find her among any of the planets he searches, he gains in his celestial journey a greater musical ability. In his Fundamentals of Music, Boethius (whom Robert Henryson mentions by name in the opening line of the interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice) discusses three different kinds of musicians: "Thus, there are three classes of those who are engaged in the musical art. The first class consists of those who perform on instruments, the second of those who compose songs, and the third of those who judge instrumental performance and song" (Fundamentals 51). These distinctions come from the Greek philosophical tradition (Plato said much the same thing in his Republic), and were observed throughout the Middle Ages. The critical, theoretical musician is considered far superior to the actual performers, who "act as slaves" because they "are totally lacking in thought" (Fundamentals 51). Orpheus, who at the beginning of the tale is known only to be a highly able harp player, might be open to the charge of being the first type of musician. Nothing has been said about his philosophical or critical understanding of the music he is playing. The very fact that he spends so much time performing, indeed, makes him suspect. Furthermore, with Orpheus standing allegorically for the reason or intellect, another of Boethius' statements must be taken into account: "For this reason the power of the intellect ought to be summoned, so that this art, innate through nature, may also be mastered, comprehended through knowledge" (Fundamentals 8). Through his mother, Caliope, he has a natural ability with music. It is uncertain, however, whether he possesses the intellectual mastery which he must have to be a true musician in a Boethian world. If intellect is Orpheus, it is profoundly important that he be able not only to perform wonderfully and potently, but also to be able to understand the theoretical underpinnings and implications of what he is performing. Otherwise, he cannot be a great musician.
          Orpheus' journey through the planets, while apparently futile in that it does not bring him Eurydice, is very fruitful in terms of his ability to understand rationally and intellectually the music he was already able to play with great virtuosity:

Thus fra the hevyn he went doun to the erde,
Yit by the way sum melody he lerde.
In his passage amang the planetis all,
He herd a hevynly melody and sound,
Passing all instrumentis musicall,
Causid be rollying of the speris round;
Quhilk armony, throu all this mappamound,
Quhill moving cesse, vynt perpetuall -
Quhilk of this warld, Plato the saul can call.
  There lerit he tonys proportionate,
As duplar, triplar, and epetritus;
Emoleus, and eke the quadruplate;
Epogdyus, rycht hard and curius;
And of thir sex, suete and dilicius,
Ryght consonant, fyve hevynly symphonyis
Componyt ar, as clerkis can deuise.
First dyatesseron, full suete I wis;
And dyapason, symple and duplate;
And dyapente, componyt with a dys;
This makis five, of thre multiplicate.
This mery musik and mellifluate,
Complete and full wyth nowmeris od and evyn,
Is causit be the moving of the hevyn.

(Henryson 217-239)

Orpheus, in travelling through the heavens, obtains an excellent education in formal music. Many of the concepts listed above are quite technical, and indeed, to be found in musical textbooks such as Boethius' Fundamentals of Music. The first book of Boethius' treatise discusses the duple, triple, quadruple, and sesquialter meters, as well as the diapason, diapente, diatessaron, etc. (Fundamentals 23). Denton Fox, in his notes on the poem, suggests that Henryson is deriving his technical information on music theory from Macrobius, but it could as easily have come from Boethius. Whether it comes from Macrobius, Boethius, or another unknown musical theorist, the point remains the same. In his journey to the heavenly spheres, Orpheus gains that which will make him a complete musician - a rational and intellectual understanding of music theory. He also does so in the absence of his affection, Eurydice, which might affect his music. Indeed, since Orpheus' journey to the heavens does not appear in any of the previously discussed tales, its appearance here requires some explanation. There is a need to ensure that Orpheus is the correct sort of musician before permitting his music to have the profound power it does when he releases Eurydice from Hell. For Orpheus to be the sort of musician who can talk death out of his due, he must be not only the virtuoso he is in Sir Orfeo, but he must be an intellectually acute musician. If Sir Orfeo was the musician's musician, full of practical knowledge, Henryson's Orpheus is the theoretician's musician.
          The newly educated Orpheus, having failed to find his love Eurydice in Heaven, turns to look for her in Hell. The first trial for the musician and his harp is Cerberus, the three-headed dog: "Quhen he beheld that vgly hellis hund;/ He tuke his harp and on it playit fast,/ Till at the last, throu suetenes of the sound,/ The dog slepit and fell vnto the ground" (Henryson 255-257). There is a major difference between Orpheus singing and the guardian of the gate of Hell sleeping in response and the Boethian Orpheus where "Hell is moved to pity" (Consolation 73). Music is a charm in Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice. It allows Orpheus to get past the guarding hellhound, but does not act as a medium for his emotions or his grief, as it did in Boethius and Ovid. Indeed, the music sounds rather cheerful. It is "fast" and "sweet", which seems to relate poorly both to Orpheus' supposed grief and make Cerberus' somnolent response strange as well. The third element of power in Boethius' Orpheus, his love and grief, has been replaced by another, different, Boethian concept; the power of the knowledgeable, intellectual musician.
          Another difference between the early Orpheuses and Henryson's is that in Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus faces each of the denizens of Hell individually. Boethius tells, in a list, of all those who are moved by the sound of Orpheus' lyre, but he does not play for each denizen of Hell individually. All Hell stops astonished when Orpheus enters in the Metamorphosis. In Henryson's version, however, Orpheus passes through the guardians separately. Those inhabitants are far from being overwhelmed, as they are in those previous versions. On the contrary, it sounds as though Orpheus must work fairly hard to get past each trial. While they are finally charmed by the music, it does not play on their emotions. Indeed, it is unclear how or why they are affected as they are. As in Sir Orfeo, however, Orpheus' primary weapon and first thought is his music, not his eloquence.
          Orpheus has very similar experiences passing through the rest of Hell. Upon encountering the furies "Than Orpheus playit a ioly spryng;/ The thre sistirs ful fast thay fell on slepe" (Henryson 268 & 269). Again, the music is cheerful (jolly), but inspires sleep, not pity. Orpheus also encounters the tormented Tantalus: "Than Orpheus had reuth of his grete nede;/ Tuke out his harp and fast on it can clink;/ The water stude, and Tantalus gat drink" (Henryson 286-288). Orpheus' music does indeed have power over the enchantments of Hell, as it did in Boethius and Ovid's versions. Unlike previous versions, however, those being tormented by the enchantments of Hell are not enraptured by Orpheus' music. In the Boethian version "Tantalus, long maddened by his thirst, ignores the waters he now might drink" (Consolation 74). The two versions are neatly opposed. Then Orpheus encounters Ticius being tormented by the "grype" that eats his innards: "Quhen Orpheus saw hym this suffer sore,/ Has tane his harp and maid suete melody;/ The grype is fled; Ticius left his cry" (Henryson 300-303). The question remains unanswered as to why the grype fled. In Boethius, everyone stopped what they were doing in order to listen better to the sweet sound of the music. In Henryson, they fall asleep or flee. They do not linger to listen.
          This has quite a lot to do with the allegorical interpretation that will come later. In that interpretation, Henryson explains the significance of each of the encounters in Hell, and how Orpheus/Intellect must conquer each independently. For example, the three Furies are "wickit thoucht, evill word, and frawart dede" (Henryson 478). The intellect must defeat, not attract that which the occupants of Hell represent. For this reason, the furies are sent to sleep and Cerberus is subdued, not won over.
          Finally, Orpheus finds Eurydice and plays before the hellish court, in an attempt to induce them to relinquish his wife:

Than Orpheus before Pluto sat doun,
And in his handis quhite his harp can ta,
And playit mony suete proporcion,
With base tonys in ypodorica,
With gemilling in ypolerica;
Till at the last, for reuth and grete pitee,
Thay wepit sore that coud hym here and see.

(Henryson 366-372)

Here the connection between Orpheus' efficacy and his intellectual understanding of music is made quite plainly. Denton Fox argues that "it is impossible to 'gemil' in two modes" (Henryson 412). Henryson, however, in a rare first person moment, admits after narrating the various modes that Orpheus learned in his celestial journey: "Off sik musik to wryte I do bot dote,/ Thar-for at this mater a stra I lay,/ For in my lyf I coud newir syng a note" (Henryson 240-243). With this plain admission of musical amateurism it is unreasonable to try to make Henryson's theoretical language make perfect sense. It seems Henryson is using technical terms he himself does not fully understand. Why? Because it is important for Orpheus to be fully versed in the technical and theoretical aspects of music. Without his "gemilling" and his understanding of modes he would be unable to convince Proserpyne and Pluto to release his wife, no matter how beautiful his music or how deep his grief. Finally, Orpheus' music moves its auditors to feel, and to have their emotions changed. The rulers of Hell weep at the sound of Orpheus' music, although the music takes a while "at the last" to work its effect. Significantly, it is at this moment, too, where we are given theoretical specifics about what modes and what manner Orpheus uses to do so, to show how such an effect is achieved. Of course, in Henryson's allegory there is no happy ending to Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, forgetful of all he has won by his eloquence in harping, looks back upon his wife and loses all. In Orpheus and Eurydice, the conflict between knightly violence and music, present in Sir Orfeo, is removed. Music is the only way Orpheus can possibly redeem his wife from Hell.