The face that launched…

The British Museum is coming to the end of its current exhibition, Troy : Myth and Reality in a few weeks time. I visited it recently, and was delighted to find a poster in the exhibition, that had links with an earlier MusiCB3 post, mentioning the equine showman, Philip Astley.

The exhibition was full of examples, both from the ancient and modern worlds, of the part that these legends have played in inspiring art and music, most notably opera.

The story of Troy had been performed as street theatre during the medieval period. Whether music also featured during this time is unclear; I think it is more probable than not, that it was used. What evidence there is however, would seem to suggest that the music was an addition to the story, and did not necessarily add anything to the drama of the work. Remove the music, and the play would still have flowed seamlessly. However Lodovico Dolce’s production Le troiane, which opened in Venice, in 1566, was to be rather different. This time the play’s musical intermedi, composed by Claudio Merulo, were an integral part of the drama.

In the seventeenth century, composers became interested in events following the Trojan wars. Both Cavalli and Purcell’s operas on the subject focused on Aeneas’ journey to Italy, following the fall of Troy, and his meeting with ill-fated Queen Dido of Carthage.

By the eighteenth century, part of the back story to earlier events was capturing musical imaginations, as the tale of Iphigenia in Aulis became wildly popular, following a new version of the play by Racine in 1674. There were over 20 operatic settings throughout the course of the century, using a variety of libretti.

There was even a choice of endings. Which would you choose?

According to the legend, Iphigenia, the daughter of King Agamemnon is lured to her death, when the Greek navy is becalmed en route to Troy, and a virgin sacrifice is demanded.

What happens next?

A. She is rescued by a goddess, who leaves a deer in her place.

B. It’s all a bit of a mix-up with another Iphigenia causing confusion. Our heroine avoids becoming the sacrificial lamb, and marries top Greek hero, Achilles.

C. A combination of the above – divine rescue and marriage to Achilles.

Eighteenth century audiences evidently loved their happy endings, as all three endings proved popular and were used for operas. Both Iphigenia in Aulis, and its sequel (which followed on from option A) Iphigenia in Tauris became staples of the operatic diet of the age.

One of the earliest operas to be performed at the newly opened La Scala, Milan, in 1778, was Michele Mortellari’s Troia distrutta. It seems an unlikely choice for a new beginning as Paris and Helen throw themselves into the flames, and Cassandra is captured by the Greeks. The composer struggled with the work too, a challenging libretto by Mattia Verazi was too much for his conservative harmonies. Not surprisingly, the opera has been rarely performed. It’s also a world away from the positivity of the Iphigenia operas earlier in the century.

A model set design for La belle Helene. Part of the Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition.

Two very different operas would battle it out for Best Trojan of the Century in the nineteenth century. Both happened to be French – Berlioz’ Les Troyens (1863-1890) and Offenbach’s La belle Helene (1864). La belle Helene is a glorious confection of sunshine, witty lyrics, and clever satire. Offenbach’s opera covers the events that would lead to the Trojan War – Paris arrives to claim Helen as his bride (unfortunately she’s already married to Menelaus) after winning the most beautiful woman in the world after presenting a golden apple to Venus. Helen is shocked and thrilled to discover that the new visitor to the court is “L’homme à la pomme“. The opera closes with Paris and Helen heading off happily to Troy.

Berlioz’ Les Troyens approaches the story from the opposite end. The original opera staged in 1863 followed in the footsteps of Purcell and Cavalli, following Aeneas’ journey and his encounter with Dido. Two extra acts inserted at the beginning of the work resulted in a monumental work, first staged in 1890, which moves from the end of the siege of Troy to Aeneas’ travels.

The story has continued to fascinate composers in the twentieth century with a number of different approaches. Richard Strauss looked at an alternative take on the Helen story, which dated back to ancient times, in The Egyptian Helen (1928), while Michael Tippett’s King Priam (1961) is unusual in that it focuses, probably more than any other setting, on the central drama of the war, and its tragedy.

The story has been around for over 3,000 years, and continues to inspire composers and artists. If you get a chance to visit the British Museum exhibition, please do, and don’t forget to come and browse the music collections at the UL and the Pendlebury Library afterwards, for more music about Troy. The UL also holds a copy of the very first book to be printed in English, which happens to be a history of the Trojan Wars – the Recuyell of the historyes of Troy, published by William Caxton in Bruges, 1473-74. It can be ordered from the Rare Books Reading Room, Inc.3.F.3.2[3307].


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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