Pull out that flashlight and put on your hard hat, because this week Ether Game is going spelunking. We’re looking at music all about caves, caverns, holes, and other things subterranean in a show we’re calling “Musical Underground.” Here’s our underground playlist:
- Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880), Orpheus In The Underworld – You probably know about the myth of Orpheus. Orpheus was the most gifted musician in Greek mythology, whose wife Eurydice dies and is sent down into the underworld. When the gods hear Orpheus’s beautiful song of lament, they offer him a chance to follow her underground to save her. Except, he can’t look at her, or else she’ll be stuck in the underworld forever. This myth has been told and retold several times, including in the opera Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck in the 18th century. Offenbach’s absurd retelling of the myth is a parody of Gluck’s more serious version. In Offenbach’s Orpheus In The Underworld, Orpheus and Eurydice are stuck in an unhappy marriage, and the underworld feels like a step up. Even Jupiter and the rest of gods find the underworld enticing. They eventually leave their dull life on Mount Olympus for a raucous party in hell, accompanied by the “Infernal Galop.”
- Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Tannhäuser – In Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, history and myth are blended together through the filter of nineteenth-century German nationalism. The story is of the titular master singer who returns to the historic castle of The Wartberg to participate in the famed singing competition, only to find that he has been damned by his erotic sojourn in the grotto of Venus. In German mythology, Venus’s underground kingdom is situated between Gotha and Eisenach, in a giant mountain called the Venusberg, When even the Pope can’t help Tannhauser, his soul is ransomed by the life and love of the pure Elizabeth. Real characters populate Wagner’s opera: the poets Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide supposedly participated in the contest at the Wartburg. Also, a real Elizabeth resided there, and was later canonized as a saint. The historical Tannhäuser, however, probably had no connection to the competition.
- Henry Purcell (1659–1695), Dido and Aeneas, “When I Am Laid In Earth” – Though Henry Purcell was one of Britain’s most influential early Baroque composers, he only composed one opera: Dido and Aeneas, about the life and death of Dido, the Queen of Carthage. Her last aria When I am Laid in Earth is identified by most music historians as an almost perfect use of the ground bass, a technique where a bass line is repeated as the foundation of a piece. The bass line of Dido’s aria is more specifically called the “Lament Bass.” Its four notes, descending slowly by half-steps evoke deep sadness and musically depict the act of Dido being laid in her tomb. The subterranean also appears in Purcell’s opera with the introduction of the villain, the Enchantress. She first appears in an underground cave with her fellow minions and evil demons, who, while laughing maniacally, plot the destruction of Carthage.
- Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), The Hebrides Overture (“Fingal’s Cave”), Op. 26 – Mendelssohn’s popular concert overture The Hebrides, also known as “Fingal’s Cave,” was originally titled Die Einsame Insel, or, in English, The Lonely Island. This piece, despite the designation “overture,” was intended as a stand-alone concert work. The actual Fingal’s Cave is an extraordinary natural landmark among the set of islands known as the Scottish Inner Hebrides. It’s an uninhabited sea cave that’s distinguished by its large hexagonal columns of basalt and its odd acoustics within. On his 1829 tour of England and Scotland, Mendelssohn was so excited by his visit to Fingal’s Cave that he wrote out the first phrase of the overture on a postcard. He sent the postcard to his sister Fanny, writing, quote “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.”
- Edvard Grieg (1843–1907), March of the Trolls, Op. 54, No. 3 – You might think of trolls as solitary creatures that lurk under bridges or in underground caves. But in Norwegian folklore, they are described as an ancient race of dim-witted but extremely strong mountain-dwellers. A young Norwegian, like Edvard Grieg for instance, might have been told to watch out for the “Huldrefolk” or Hidden Folk, a small race of trolls that took up residence in Norwegian burial mounds. In the late 19th century, Grieg re-discovered the Norwegian folktales of his youth, including the legend of the trolls, and incorporated these folktales into his compositions. “The March of the Trolls” comes from this time period, part of his Op. 54 collection of piano pieces. These piano pieces later became part of a larger set called Lyric Pieces For Piano. The first of these Lyric Pieces were begun in 1864 and the last completed in 1901, making them representative of Grieg’s entire career.
- Howard Shore (b. 1946), The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring: “The Bridge Of Khazad Dum” – Almost all of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy epics feature journeys through ancient caves and underground hoards. When director Peter Jackson adapted Tolkien’s first Lord of the Rings book into a film, he devoted most of the movie’s second act to the subterranean journey through the Mines of Moria, the ruined remains of a sprawling Dwarven Empire. Jackson chose Canadian composer Howard Shore to set the story to music. We just heard one of Shore’s most recognizable themes from the film’s soundtrack, The Bridge of Khazad Dum, in which Gandalf leads the Fellowship across a bridge that spans the deepest chasm in the mine. Shore represents this moment musically with heavy brass and deep industrial sounding drums. He also incorporated a Polynesian men’s chorus. The choir begins to chant ancient Dwarvish as the Fellowship encounters the Balrog, an ancient demon that was awakened when, as Gandalf says, “In their greed, the dwarves dug too deep.”
- Steve Reich (b. 1936), The Cave – Steve Reich’s 1993 multimedia opera The Cave explores how biblical traditions are interpreted in contemporary society. Reich collaborated on the work with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot. The basis of the work is a collection of recorded interviews from various Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans. They were asked to relate what they knew of the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, the patriarchs of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic faiths. Like many of his previous works, Reich mined these recorded snippets for the hidden rhythmic and melodic contours found in everyday speech. The “cave” of the title refers to the Cave of Machpelah, also known as the “Cave of the Patriarchs,” a subterranean chamber in the West Bank where Abraham is traditionally said to be buried.
- Antonio Salieri (1750–1825), La Grotta di Trofonio (“The Cave of Trofonio”) – Antonio Salieri was much more than the supposed foil to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In his day, he was seen as an important figure in opera. In fact, librettist Lorenzo da Ponte called maestro Salieri “a man I truly liked and respected … not merely a friend, but a brother.” da Ponte might even have taken inspiration for his libretto to Mozart’s Così fan tutte from a subterranean comic opera that Salieri wrote in 1785 called La Grotta di Trofonio or “The Cave of Trofonio.” Trofonio is a wizard who owns a magic cave. He invites two sets of lovers with contrasting personalities (one set is introverted, the other is extroverted) to his cave, where their personalities are magically switched. Like the plots of many Classical era comic operas, confusion ensues, but in the last minutes of the final scene everything is made right, and a jubilant finale is sung in unison before the curtain falls.
- Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – I’m not sure if there is anything particularly “subterranean” about Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” If anything, it was the song that turned him from an underground artist to a full-fledged pop star. This 1965 song was Dylan’s first Top 40 hit, and marked his first foray into the world of “electrified” (as opposed to “acoustic”) music. The song was likely influenced by Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans, and the stream-of-consciousness of the lyrics is reminiscent of Kerouac’s beat prose, mixed with Woody Guthrie’s talking blues and Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll poetry. When it was released, it came with a promotional film clip, directed by D. A. Pennebaker. You’ve probably seen it, or seen it parodied. It’s a proto-music video featuring Dylan flipping through cue cards of the lyrics. This clip was also the opening sequence to Pennebaker’s documentary about Bob Dylan called Don’t Look Back.