A prologue setting the scene for the action of the work opens with a scene in a beautiful Arcadian landscape where the singer Orpheus and his spouse Eurydice are extolling the joys of love surrounded by merry shepherds and nymphs. These perfect moments are however short-lived: soon afterwards, a messenger rushes onto the scene, encountering Orpheus who is now strolling through the forest, and carefully prepares him for the bad tidings of Eurydice’s unexpected death. Orpheus is overwhelmed by pain, but summons up all his courage and sets off on the way to the realm of the dead: he is determined to request the return of his dearly beloved wife. On the strength of his heart-rending lamentation, he actually succeeds in softening the heart of the emotionally cold watchman who sets Eurydice free – but on one condition: Orpheus must not set eyes on his wife until they have both departed from the realms of the underworld. All appears to be going well until, shortly before surviving this ordeal, Orpheus turns round in a brief moment of doubt – and loses Eurydice for ever.
Orff‘s chief problem in his first reconstruction of a Monteverdi opera was the creation of the Renaissance sound, as the original score contained no information whatsoever regarding orchestration. Although all vocal parts were notated, in the seventeenth century it was the musical director and instrumentalists themselves who were responsible for the allocation of the orchestral parts to appropriate instruments. A further problem was the procurement of ancient instruments which could in any case not be played by most musicians who were largely inexperienced in the interpretation of figured bass. An additional headache was the positioning of the orchestra which in Monteverdi’s time was placed behind the action on stage. He also had to delete all elements of the text relating to the period of composition (for example the obligatory deferential speeches aimed towards the ruler). This ultimately meant that Orff compiled a fundamentally different version of the text based on a new dramaturgic concept of the work.
After the substantial popularity of Orff’s arrangement of Orpheus during the 1920s and 1930s, the composer returned to work on this project, attempting to improve the performability of the work and concentrating on the comprehensibility of the text, the provision of appropriate period instruments or alternatives of new instrumentation and dramaturgic aspects.
The final version of this work was completed in 1939. Orff had replaced the prologue of La Musica with one of the very oldest versions of the Orpheus myth still in existence. This text had been compiled by the monk Notker Teutonicus (also known as Notker III Labeo) around the year 1000 in the monastery of St Gallen, Switzerland in his translation of De consolatione philosophiae, the key philosophical work by Boetius, into Old High German. In his book, Boetius had passed on the story of Orpheus in the form of a song at the end of Chapter 12 of Volume 3. Orff in turn transcribed Notker’s translation into modern High German. In his overriding concern for the clarity and comprehensibility of the words, the composer had even re-allotted texts which in his first version had been sung by the choir to a single vocal soloist in his final arrangement. He also produced more concise versions of other passages such as those sung by the Messenger. The role of Orpheus was also now scored for tenor. Orff additionally undertook substantial alterations to the orchestral scoring of his first version: harpsichord, organ and viols were for example omitted and the instrumental texture reworked to produce a more modern quality of sound.