Each composer's version of the Myth of Orpheus is as different as his art is original, and is meant to reveal his aesthetics and the possibilities, methods, and meaning of his art - or as much or as little of these things as he cares to reveal. The story also changes according to the eras of history, since the expressive possibilities of music diminish the further back you go, though the inventiveness of the best composers often suggests how they might think in circumstances beyond the realization of their time. Also, the social and economic situations in which composers find themselves cause their art to vary.
One ancient part of the Myth of Orpheus that did not belong to be re-included in the story until the modern era was the part, told only occasionally in ancient days, in which Orpheus's public actually kills him for singing so affectingly. In this version of the story, Orpheus never makes it alive into Hades, to rescue Euridice: he and Euridice are both dead and in Hades. This changes the positive possibilities of the story beyond recognition.
Since the market Music Culture has rendered the modern composer a living ghost of his possibilities, he is as one dead in the midst of others. Among First World countries, this is worst in America, a land of the culturally dead. Many people in the public, at least among Americans, who are generally morons about such things, actually believe that a composer does not have any chance of recognition until after he is dead. Furthermore, they believe this is true for all the composers of yore. It is the one belief you can rely on individual Americans having about Classical composers. Where they get this idea, necrophiliac at best, culturally suicidal certainly, is beyond the scope of this short essay. But in the face of such a mindless public, it may be that a new myth is needed, perhaps something like one of the many movies that shows a person dead, or caught in some parallel dimension, in which they can see what's going on, but the people in their world cannot see them. That's about what it's like to be a classical composer in America. America is Composer Hell, and to be here at all is to be out of sync with a culture deserving of high musical art.
The modern era also gives a very different meaning to the old conventions. Through the use of computers, the modern composer becomes his own Deus ex Machina. The meaning of this sort of story resolution is very different from what it once was. This former unsatisfactoriness of the convention of the Deus Ex Machina is replaced by the phenomenon of the composer as his own hero, his own patron, and his own performer - even to the performance of entire orchestral works. And, with the increasing availability of vocal synthesis, even of entire operas. Again, the situation has morphed beyond recognition.
Possibly the myth that comes closest to resembling the situation of the modern composer (without the myth being changed beyond recognition) is the Song of Roland. The modern composer who is faithful to his art, who still even makes the attempt is unsuccessfully "holding a pass," in which he meets his fate, and is ignored by those whose interests he protects. His song is reduced to a warning from the lookout post (the military term for this position is "avant garde"), that will reveal his position and cause his doom. The support he receives is "too little and too late."
There is no hope for the modern composer who maintains his position, only a question as to whether his people will learn from his sacrifice. To the extent that his people allow that sacrifice, they are unworthy of it. To the extent they demand it, they are punished by the desertion of the arriere garde. For when they see the onslaught coming that the composer warns about, the more conservative members of the profession, the ones who hold back from involvement in the farsighted ones, will acquiesce to the forces of the market, and the vision of the avant garde will be lost to the public. The sacrifice they demanded of the visionary will result in their blindness, and true excellence will be unavailable to them. It is a cultural situation already in an advanced state of development.
Posted November 18, 2009. Last updated 1/26/2010.