During the 18th century, the formation of the Classical style (often associated with the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) arose in alignment with that era's cultural preoccupation with Classical antiquity, a period of history associated with Ancient Greece and Rome. In 1756, the classical archeologist Johann Winckelmann observed, “The general eminent characteristic of Greek masterpieces is ultimately a noble simplicity and a calm greatness.” Twenty years later, Gluck expressed a similar aim for his musical compositions, writing, “I thought that my chief endeavor should be to search for a grand simplicity.”
“Noble simplicity” and “calm greatness” are poignantly evident in Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice, an opera based on the famous Greek legend of Orpheus. The opera tells the poetically tragic story of Orpheus’ attempt to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the underworld after she dies on their wedding day. There is one condition, however: Orpheus must not to look back at Eurydice while guiding her from the underworld, or else he will lose her for eternity. As they are making their escape from the underworld, Orpheus cannot resist looking back at his beloved out of anxiety and yearning, and Eurydice slips away to die a second time.
In Gluck's 1774 opera, this ballet (otherwise known as the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits") was originally scored for the ethereal combination of flute solo and string accompaniment; it appears at the opening of Act II, which takes place in the Elysian Fields, the hauntingly beautiful resting place of souls in Greek mythology.
(c) Greg Anderson & Elizabeth Joy Roe