John S. Powell




            In their attempts to resurrect the legendary powers of music and antique drama, the earliest opera composers were drawn naturally to the myth of Orpheus.  Not only is it a moving love story, but its protagonist is a legendary singer who uses the power of song to sway the hearts of the gods.  The myth of Orpheus divides into three parts:  the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice, which is thwarted when the bride is bitten by a serpent;  Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld, where he successfully persuades Pluto and Persephone to allow Eurydice to return—only to lose her when, against Pluto’s warning, he turns to see if she is following him; and (the part rarely set by opera composers), Orpheus lamentation of his fate and his death at the hands of the Bacchantes.


Unlike Italy, where the earliest surviving operas were based on the Orpheus myth, in France the same myth became the inspiration for a number of pastoral plays with machine effects and incidental music.  Orpheus makes his first appearance in Nicolas de Montreux's pastoral drama L'Arimène, ou le Berger desespere (1597), within the context of a short mythological interlude performed before the final act.[1]   The first play-length dramatization of the legend in France, however, was Charles de l'Espine's La Descente d'Orphee aux enfers (1614)[2], republished eight years later with the more descriptive title Le Mariage d'Orphée, sa descente aux Enfers, sa Mort par les Bacchantes.[3]  Each of the three parts of the legend is built around spectacular tableaux involving exotic settings, machine effects, and music. 


Chapoton's tragedy La Descente d'Orphée aux enfers (1639) ushered in the golden age of the French pièce en machines.  This work featured a sensational enfer scene—antedating by eight years the famous one created by Giacomo Torelli for Luigi Rossi's Orfeo (1647).   This Roman opera inspired the famed Théâtre du Marais to revive Chapoton’s play the following year with a new title—La Grande journée des machines, ou le Mariage d'Orphée et d'Euridice—and with added music (by Dassoucy) and machine effects (trumpeted in the libretto as 'the most beautiful and extraordinary that the technology of centuries present and past could invent') by the French stage designer Denis Buffequin.2    


Two Orpheus projects proposed for the French court came to naught.  Following the successful court performances of Rossi’s Orfeo, Pierre Corneille began work on his own French adaptation of this work.  According to Dubuisson-Aubenay (writing at the end of January 1648), “the play of Orpheus and Eurydice, which played at the Palais-Royal this past winter with machines, was translated into French [se fait françoise] by sieur Corneille, for which he has received a 2,400 livres advance, and Torelli, conductor of the machines, between 13,000 and 14,000 livres to restore them in order.”[4]  The unexpected illness of the king caused all plans to be set aside…”  Corneille would later introduce Orpheus as a minor character in La Toison d'or (1660), composed to celebrate the wedding of Louis XIV.   Orpheus invokes Juno in song in Act I and urges on the winged Argonauts in their battle with Medea's dragon in Act V.


A decade later, Jean Racine proposed another Orpheus project for Carnival of 1671.  According to Lagrange-Chancel, Colbert solicited proposals from the leading playwrights of the day:  Racine proposed the subject of Orpheus; Quinault the abduction of Persephone, which he made subsequently into one of his loveliest operas; and Molière, with the aid of the great Corneille, held out for the subject of Psyche, which was preferred over the two others.[5]


Until Charpentier’s time, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice had never been the subject of a French opera—although around 1683, Charpentier himself had composed a small chamber cantata on the Orpheus legend.  Orphée descendant aux enfers is a work for three male singers and a small chamber ensemble, and has the character of a scene from an opera.  Its action is restricted to Orpheus’s encounter with two shades of the Underworld, Ixion and Tantalus; undoubtedly it served as inspiration for Act II of La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers.


Approximately three years later (in late 1686 or early 1687, according to Wiley Hitchcock’s catalogue), Charpentier embarked on a full-scale operatic setting of the legend.  The librettist of La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers is unknown, but the literary source is the Metamorphoses of Ovid (Book X), which tells the tale of Orpheus and his bride Eurydice, who is mortally bitten by a serpent on their wedding day.   In the tradition of the mythological pastorale, the librettist add some nymphs and shepherds.  At the end of Act I, Apollo, Orpheus’s father (his mother was the muse Calliope), appears and advises Orpheus to go to Hades and persuade Pluto to allow Eurydice to return to the upper world.  Act II takes place in the underworld, where all of the opera’s characters derive from Ovid.  There are the “ombres coupables” on display at Tartarus—Tantalus,[6] Ixion,[7] and Tityus[8]—as well as a chorus of Furies, all brought to tears by the beauty of Orpheus’s singing.


At first, Pluto remains unmoved by Orpheus’s argument (as related by Ovid) that both Eurydice and Orpheus must eventually return to Hades, and so Pluto can surely afford to return Eurydice to him temporarily.  Finally, when Persephone intercedes and her plea is seconded by a group of shades, Pluto gives in and grants his permission for Eurydice to return—provided that Orpheus not look back to ensure that she is following.


Charpentier’s autographs manuscript score ends at this point of the drama.  Whether the composer intended for or ever composed a third act remains unknown.   The manuscript does not carry the composer’s usual measure count on the final folio; nor does it state something final, but rather the laconic indication “fin du s[econ]d acte”.  In short, there are none of Charpentier’ usual indications that a major work has come to an end.  (By contrast, the composer writes at the conclusion of his cantata Orphée descendant aux enfers the indication “fin” and he provides a measure count.)  Moreover, the libretto is unique in that in breaks off in the middle of the second part of the tripartite Orpheus myth, and before the catastrophe and dénouement of the second part that 17th-century audiences would have come to expect.


            Although we know virtually nothing about the circumstances of its first performance, it is clear that Charpentier composed La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers for the musicians of Mlle de Guis (as will be demonstrated further on).   Moreover, the rubrics related to the mise-en-scène prove that this chamber opera was given a fully-staged performance, complete with ballet.  At the end of Apollo’s appearance in Act 1, Charpentier writes “Apollon poursuit sa carrière” below a 7- measure instrumental postlude.   Apollo, a symbol associated with Mlle de Guise’s cousin, Louis XIV, most often appeared in his flying chariot, which brings the dawn of each new day to the world; therefore, we might speculate whether some chariot machine might have been used in the first performance.  The question then arises: where might this opera have been first performed?  Its small scale and the doubling of roles (with the soloists serving as choral singers) suggest that it was given a private, rather than a public performance.  Two likely venues would have been the private quarters of Mlle de Guise in the Hôtel de Guise in the Marais quarter of Paris; or, perhaps, those of her younger relative “Mme de Guise” in the Luxembourg Palace.


La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers drew upon the entire musical establishment of Mlle de Guise, along with some extra instrumentalists.  In his autograph manuscript Charpentier assigns the vocal solo and choral parts to Mlles “Guy”, “Bri”, “Tal”, “Isa”,  GrM”, and to MrsAnth”, “Charp”, “Boss”, “Beaup”,  and “Carl”.  Patricia Ranum has identified these as the following singers who served on Mlle de Guise’s domestic staff:[9]


  • Jeanne Guyot, dessus, chambermaid and musician in ordinary (Daphné; also sang in the Chorus of Nymphs, Chorus of Furies, Chorus of Happy Shades, Criminals, and Furies)
  • Jacqueline-Geneviève de Brion, dessus, chambermaid "ordinarily with the music"  (Euridice; also sang in the Chorus of Nymphs, Chorus of Furies, Chorus of Happy Shades, Criminals, and Furies)
  • Antoinette Talon, dessus, chambermaid "ordinarily with the music" (Enone; also sang in the Chorus of Nymphs, Chorus of Furies, Chorus of Happy Shades, Criminals, and Furies)
  • Elisabeth Thorin, dit "Isabelle", dessus, chambermaid (Aréthuze; also sang in the Chorus of Nymphs, Chorus of Happy Shades, Criminals, and Furies, “Proserpine”)
  • Marie Guillebault de Grandmaison,  bas dessus, "girl close to Her Highness" (sang in the Chorus of Nymphs, Chorus of Furies, Chorus of Happy Shades, Criminals, and Furies)
  • François Anthoine, haute-contre, musician in ordinary (“Orphée”; also sang in the Chorus of Furies, Chorus of Happy Shades, Criminals, and Furies)
  • Marc-Antoine Charpentier, haute-contre (Ixion; also sang in the Chorus of Nymphs, Chorus of Furies, Chorus of Happy Shades, Criminals, and Furies) 
  • Henri de Baussan, taille, musician in ordinary (Tantale; also sang in the Chorus of Furies, Chorus of Happy Shades, Criminals, and Furies)
  • Pierre Beaupuis, basse, musician in ordinary (Apollon and Titye; also sang in the Chorus of Furies)
  • Germain-Alexandre Carlier, basse, musician in ordinary (Pluton; also sang in the Chorus of Furies)


Charpentier’s  three-part orchestration offer no indications with regard to instrumentation in the first act, and we might presume a trio of violins.  However, Charpentier’s instrumental indications become more specific in the second act, where Orpheus meets up with the inhabitants of the underworld.  Here, the music of viols ( “avec sourdines” in the first air of Act 2) accompanies Orpheus’s affectively persuasive singing.   The music of the inhabitants of the Underworld, may have been portrayed by a change of instrumental timbre.  Charpentier’s score lists two instrumentalists, “Anth” and “Pierrot”, to accompany the music of Pluto, the Chorus of Furies, and the Chorus of Happy Shades, Criminals, and Furies.   These names may well refer to the flute-playing brothers Antoine Pièche and Pierre (“le cadet”) Pièche, both of whom held court positions in the Musique de la Chambre.    Patricia Ranum also identified the name “Loulié” next to an instrumental dessus part for  Pluto’s air “Je cède, je me rends, aymable Proserpine” (and partly hidden by the binding).[10]  Ranum believes that this was undoubtedly the theorist Étienne Loulié, “interprétant un passage où les nombreuses notes diésées sonneraient mieux sur la flûte allemande que sur la flûte douce. »  If this is correct, then we might presume that the composer wished the music of the Underworld to have been represented by the timbre of woodwinds—most likely recorders and transverse flute.  As a side note, Charpentier scored the cantata Orphée descendant aux enfers (which takes place wholly in the Underworld) for an ensemble of flûte à bec (recorder), flûte allemande (transverse flute), strings and harpsichord—with Orpheus playing an instrumental récit on the violin.[11]


The limited resources of Mlle de Guise’s establishment required the vocal soloists to serve double-duty as choral singers in the various “choeurs” that appear in the opera.  In the first act there is a high-voiced “Choeur de Nymphes” and a mixed-voice “Choeur de Nymphes et de Bergers”.   In the second act, there is an infernal “Choeur de Furies” and a smaller “Choeur d’Ombres heureuses, de coupables, et de Furies”.  Moreover, the singers may also have participated as dancers for the brief ballet entrées in both acts. 


In a little musical treatise (Règles de composition) drawn up by Charpentier in the 1690s, the composer provided a very useful list of the “énergie des modes”, the affective associations of various keys.   In sum, they are C-major (“gai et guerrier”), C-minor (“obscure et triste”), D-major (“joyeux et très guerrier”), D-minor (“Grave et dévot”), E-major (“querelleux et criard”), E-minor (“efféminé, amoureux et plaintif”), Eb-major (“cruel et dur”), Eb-minor (“horrible, affreux”), F-major (“furieux et emporté”), F-minor (“obscure et plaintif”), G-major (“doucement joyeux”), G-minor (“sérieux et magnifique”), A-major (“joyeux et champêtre”), A-minor (“tendre et plaintif”), Bb-major (“magnifique et joyeux”), Bb-minor (“obscure et terrible”), B-major (“dur et plaintif”), B-minor (“solitaire et mélancolique”).  Since the tale of Orpheus has as its theme the power of music, it would be instructive to see to what extent Charpentier puts his own observations into practice.


The movements that he composed in the “joyeux et champêtre” key of A-major include the Overture and all of Act I, sc. 1.  When Euridice is bitten by a snake, the key suddenly shifts to the “tender et plaintif” key of A-minor  and the notation changes to croches blanches (void quarter-, eighth-, and sixteenth-notes).  Orpheus’s lamento and the chorus’s continuation proceeds this key and idiosyncratic notation, and leads to a choreographic depiction of grief (“Entrée de nimphes et de bergers désespérés”) and Orpheus’s resolution to follow her in death.    Apollo, Orpheus’s father, then appears to the “gai et guerrier” key of C-major, and he succeeds in arguing Orpheus out of suicide and into a determination to gain back Eurydice.  The act ends with a choral meditation “tender et plaintif” key of A-minor on the events that have just taken place, and a final performance of the “Entrée de nimphes et de bergers désespérés”.


            The second act opens in the Underworld (evidently after Orpheus had encountered the ferryman Charon and the 50-headed dog Cerberus), to the F-major (“furieux et emporté”) complaints of the shades Ixion, Tantalus, and Tityus.  Orpheus arrives in sc. 2 and sings of his pain—greater still than theirs—in the same key and mood, but his music is accompanied by the enchanting sonority of muted viols.  The trio of criminals become completely beguiled, and they momentarily forget their torments as their music shifts to the key of Bb-major (“magnifique et joyeux”).  Orpheus finds encouragement in this, and as his music moves to C-major (“gai et guerrier”)  he announces his plan to try to assuage the heart of Pluto.  The Furies too are brought to tears by the charms of his music as they return to the “furieux et emporté” key of F-major, and the scene concludes with an F-major Dance of Phantoms.


            Scene 3 takes place in Pluto’s palace, where the King of Hades greets Orpheus with a dour D-minor warning (“Grave et dévot”).  Orpheus (accompanied by viols) assures Pluto that he intends no harm—that he comes only to find his beloved Euridice—and his music changes to croches blanches with his first appeal.   Persephone is touched, and her music in croches blanches (and that of the Happy Shades, Furies, and Criminals, all accompanied by flutes) moves through F-major (“furieux et emporté”)  before settling back into D-minor  Pluto responds to her in D-minor (in croches blanches and accompanied by flutes) that fate decrees that the shades remain in the Underworld, but Persephone and the chorus implore him (in “joyeux et champêtre” A-major) to allow Euridice to finish out her days on earth before fate cuts the thread of her life. 


Orpheus continues his appeal to Pluto in G-minor (“sérieux et magnifique”)  by saying that, after all, both Eurydice and Orpheus must eventually return to Hades and thus, surely, Pluto can afford to make a temporary loan of Eurydice.  His music (accompanied by viols and notated in croches blanches) then returns to D-minor (“Grave et dévot”) for what now becomes a haunting refrain :  “Ah ! ah! Laisse-toi toucher à ma douleur extrème, Rends-moi, Dieu des Enfers, cette rare beauté ; Le jour m’est odieux sans la nymphe que j’aime : Redonne-lui la vie ou m’ôte la clarté”. 


            Pluto (in his uncharacteristically “magnifique et joyeux” key of Bb-major) remarks that he is enchanted by Orpheus’s singing, and reproaches himself for weakness in being touched by Orpheus’s pleas.  Persephone continues to appeal on behalf of Orpheus (in F-major, “furieux et emporté”), and is seconded by the Happy Shades, Furies, and Criminals with music that moves through G-minor (“sérieux et magnifique”), A-minor (“tendre et plaintif”), and optimistically ends in D-major (“joyeux et très guerrier”).  Orpheus then continues his appeal in G-major (“doucement joyeux”) by reminding Pluto how he once stole Persephone from Ceres when he too was wounded by Cupid’s dart; does Pluto still not feel, he asks in “tendre et plaintif” A-minor, the love he once had for Persephone?  And, if so, will Pluto not by moved by his extreme anguish, Orpheus asks—concluding with his persuasively voluptuous refrain in D-minor (“Grave et dévot”).

            Pluto capitulates in D-major (“joyeux et très guerrier”), saying that he no longer feels any harshness, owing to the effect of her divine beauty (momentary shift to E-minor, “efféminé, amoureux et plaintif”) on his heart.  The possible addition of transverse flute at this point (as performed by “Loulié—see above) accompanies Pluto’s command to return Orpheus and Eurydice to the brightness of day (B-major “dur et plaintif”, A-major “joyeux et champêtre”, and G-major “doucement joyeux”).  But, he warns (with an abrupt shift of key to C-major), do not turn to look at her until he has departed from Hades, or else Pluto will reclaim her for a second death.  Pluto’s “joyeux et très guerrier” key of D-major suggests that he does not expect to see Eurydice soon—which lends support to the argument that Charpentier indeed intended for his opera to end at this point.


            Orpheus’s final couplet praise the power of love in the “joyeux et champêtre” key of A-major, and conclude with the prophetic remark that “Ah! Que le tendre Orphée à lui-même est à craindre”.   With the departure of Orpheus and Eurydice, the trio of « coupables » and the « Chœur d’ombres heureuses et de Furies » are left behind to lament the loss of his captivating voice in croches blanches.  But the sweet memory of this enchanting experience is depicted by the bright keys of D-major (“joyeux et très guerrier”)  and A-major (“joyeux et champêtre”), and by the final “Sarabande légère” for Phantoms in the joyful key of D-major.


[1] L'Arimène ou Berger desespère, pastorale.  Par Ollenix du Mont-Sacré Gentil-homme du Maine (Paris: Abraham Saugrain & Guillaume des Rues, 1597).  In addition to this edition, another was published in Nantes by Pierre Doriou which provides a slightly different description of the staging.  First produced with lavish staging at the château of the duc de Mercoeur, near Nantes, L'Arimène was clearly inspired by Italian pastorales with intermedii. 

[2] La Descente d'Orphee aux Enfers. Par C. de L., Parisien (Louvain: Philippe Dormalis, 1614).

[3] Le Mariage d'Orphée, sa descente aux Enfers, sa Mort par les Bacchantes. Tragedie et autres oeuvres Poëtiques du sieur de L'Espine, Parisien (Paris: Henry Sara, 1622; Turin: U. Meruli, 1627).


[4] François Nicolas Baudot, seigneur du Buisson et Aubenay, Journal des Guerres Civiles 1648-1652, ed. Gustave Saige, 2 vols. (Paris, 1883), I:6.

[5] François-Joseph de Lagrange, seigneur de Chancel, preface to Orphée, in Œuvres 5 vols. (Paris: Libraires associés, 1758), IV:63; quoted in Couvreur, Jean-Baptiste Lully, 218.

[6] Tantalus was the son of Zeus and was the king of Sipylos. He was uniquely favored among mortals since he was invited to share the food of the gods. However, he abused the guest-host relationship and was punished by being "tantalized" with hunger and thirst in Tartarus: he was immersed up to his neck in water, but when he bent to drink, it all drained away; luscious fruit hung on trees above him, but when he reached for it the winds blew the branches beyond his reach.

[7] Though little information survives about him, Ixion is a fundamental character in Greek mythology. The most complete account of Ixion's tale comes from Pindar in his Pythian Odes. Ixion was the son the Phlegyas, descendent of Ares, and king of the Lapiths in Thessaly. He is significant in many respects, but is chiefly known as the first human to shed kindred blood. This occurred when Ixion invited his father-in-law, Deioneus, to come and collect the price that Ixion owed him for his bride. Upon his arrival, Deioneus fell into a pit filled with burning coals Ixion had camouflaged.

     Because this was a crime new to the human race, nobody could purify Ixion and he wandered an exile. Zeus took pity on him and decided not only to purify Ixion, but to invite him to Olympus as a guest. Once in Olympus though, Ixion became so enamored of Hera, and he desired to sleep with her. Zeus did not believe that Ixion would be so disrespectful as to have designs upon the wife of his host. To see if the rumors were true, Zeus made an image of Hera out of a cloud, and impregnated it. The cloud bore Ixion the monster Centaurus, who was unloved by the Graces and had no honor among men or the gods. Centaurus then mated with the mares of Mt. Pelion in Magnesia, and so from Ixion the race of centaurs was born.

     To punish him, Zeus bound Ixion to a winged (sometimes flaming) wheel, which revolved in the air in all directions. Also, by order of the gods, Ixion was forced to call out continuously call out: "You should show gratitude to your benefactor." Ixion became one of the more famous sinners on display on Tartarus, and most writers mention him when describing the place. For example, Ovid wrote of him, and Vergil, with his moralistic interpretation of how sin should be punished, awards Ixion a special mention in the Aenead.

[8] A giant, Tityus was the son of Zeus and Elara (or of Gaia and Uranus). Zeus kept his affair secret from Hera by hiding his consort in a cave, where Tityus was born. In honor of Elara, a cave in Euboea was named the Elarium. Once Tityus grew up, Hera incited him to attack Leto while she was performing some private rite on the way to Delphi. Upon hearing her shouts, Apollo and Artemis immediately came to their mother's aid, killing Tityus with their arrows. For his crime of assaulting an immortal, Tityus was punished in Tartarus by being stretched out over nine acres, as vultures pecked continuously at his heart.

[9] See Table 1 of  "A sweet servitude: A musician's life at the Court of Mlle de Guise," Early Music, August 1987, 351.  See also Ranum’s later “musings” on the subject of the Guise musicians in her website (

[10]Étienne Loulié (1654-1702): Musicien de Mademoiselle de Guise, Pédagogue et Théoricien » Recherches sur la musique française classique XXV, 38.

[11] See my edition of this cantata in Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Vocal Chamber Works (Madison: A-R Editions, Inc., 1986)